It's not just because she's sitting across a battered wooden table in a dark bar full of surly, loud men—Amy Thone always looks like a pirate. If you meet her on the sidewalk, in the middle of the day, you can't help but think: "pirate."
Some of it's how she dresses—leather shoes, jeans, slightly billowing button-up cotton shirts, the kind of clothes you could raid a ship in. Some of it's her person—thin and muscular with dark, curly hair and a strong, unflinching posture. Some of it's how she talks—direct and untactful and with many swear words.
Amy Thone on being a mother: "It's contact improv with a psychopath."
Amy Thone on pretentious theater: "If you're going to take a risk, it has to be supported by discipline. Some people just pull out their dicks and jump off a diving board, and that's just boring, jackass behavior."
Amy Thone discussing a line from Two Gentlemen of Verona with one of her students: "Fuck that 'farthingale' shit. What the fuck is going on with that? Cut, cut, cut!"
Her directness, her lack of artifice, is what makes her a great actor. When Thone walks onto a stage, she sucks all the frivolity out of the room, makes you lean forward to listen. Her presence is regal, never clownish. She is the opposite of coy.
Watching Amy Thone act for the first time is startling, even a little unpleasant. You realize all the puffed-up, empty acting you've been putting up with—you didn't know it could be so tight, dense, and good. And, forever after, seeing Thone walk onstage is cause for quiet celebration and relief. She saves inferior productions from themselves, not least at Seattle Shakespeare Company, where she works as a casting director. (The fact that she and her husband, Hans Altweis, do much of their acting on that stage would seem suspicious if they weren't usually the best things about any production that happens there.)
She doesn't depend on an audience's good-natured credulity and gives no quarter—she quickly disarms you and turns your will into her own. Thone specializes in the noble and the brooding, but she's never cold, whether she's playing a stern abbess (Bridge of San Luis Rey, Strawberry Theatre Workshop) or Emily Dickinson (The Belle of Amherst, Seattle Public Theatre). Her worried and pitifully poisoned King John (King John, upstart crow productions) stole the play from Faulconbridge the Bastard, who should own it. And though Kurt Beattie was a competent Lear in Seattle Shakespeare Company's 2004 production, I'm still waiting to see Thone—cast in that production as Goneril, Lear's eldest daughter—tear her hair and howl about betrayal while a storm rages around her.
To describe an actor as "believable" seems like faint praise—the least we ask of actors is that they convince us that they mean what they say. But it is also the actor's only job, a job so simple but so elusive that people spend thousands of dollars, at Freehold and Cornish and the other places where Thone teaches, to fail to learn how.
How does Thone do it? She orders another round and gives me a crash course: There's textual analysis ("I think of plays like cars—every play has its own engine; you have to learn to pull it apart") and learning how to listen to whatever is happening onstage ("even if your scene partner sucks, if you're not present to the fact that they suck, you're not present") and learning how to be ("every actor gets at the best of himself by combining his truth with the text's truth"). But when the lesson is over, I'm still not an actor.
Her secret is directness, a rigorous refusal of affectation. Earlier in the evening, during one of her Freehold classes in the musty Oddfellows Hall, she admonishes a young woman playing Juliet: "Don't be all airy-fairy. Just talk to the audience. Juliet is fucking suffocating in that Capulet house!" Later, during the same class, Thone is playing Gertrude opposite an imperious, actorly young man's Hamlet. He delivers a line too cavalierly. Thone slaps him. The smack is loud; the class is silent. She says something like, "Remember, you're talking to your mother." Then they continue. He is humbled, less showy, better.
Amy Thone has been a tough, no-fooling-around person all of her life. She was born in Nebraska, where her father, Charles Thone, was a politician and the family ate a lot of beef. When her father was elected senator, the family moved to Washington, D.C. When he was elected governor of Nebraska, Thone refused to move back. For six months, at 16 years old, she lived alone in her family's D.C. house because that's what she wanted to do.
She marks her biography as a series of love affairs. She went to college in Nebraska, followed a "gorgeous French biker" to Ashland, Oregon (where she worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), followed an actor and Shakespeare scholar around the country on his gigs ("he'd argue for hours about punctuation—a semicolon in Coriolanus became a bar fight"), worked a little as an actor and standup comedian, went to grad school in Denver ("it was run by alcoholic British actors; I was as happy as a pig in shit"), followed some guy to Europe and, in 1992, followed another guy to Seattle. At that time the city seemed crackling, a nascent theater town. And now? "At this point we're just staying because we have kids," she says. Too many paying theaters—the Empty Space, the Group, Alice B., the Public—have closed. There's too little work. Plus she's a woman of a certain age.
Thone says she stopped getting cast readily three or four years ago. "My joke is that the directors look at me and I'm not their mother yet, but they don't want to fuck me anymore. I'm at that invisible age. But it's also because I had fucked around and had kids and sometimes showed up to auditions ill prepared. So I say 'politics, politics,' but I was also being lazy."
Her husband, Altweis, is also an excellent actor who specializes in Shakespeare. They met in 1996, during a production of Romeo and Juliet at Seattle Children's Theatre. "The good news is, I was playing a guy, Tybalt, and Hans was playing Lady Capulet," Thone said. "Otherwise, it would be a nauseating story. As soon as I saw him, I told my friend Ellen, 'I'm going to have kids with that guy—he's gene-pool material.' The art of courtship is quite lovely and totally lost on me." Thone and Altweis have two daughters, Charlotte (7) and Stella (2), both born at home.
"I'm a hippie," she smiles. It's the first thing I've heard her say, onstage or off, that's not entirely convincing.