Updated: Jan 5, 2019
by Hilary Thomas:
When I think back on defining moments in my life, spring of 1992 often pops into my head. It was a time that marked a true identity shift for a number of reasons. I was a sophomore in high school, where I was totally shy, perpetually self-conscious, and yet I was somehow conventionally popular. I was a dedicated ballet dancer, armed with a very strict understanding of what dance should be. And often that definition, inspired by a completely unrealistic expectation of perfection, chipped away at my self-confidence.
That year, my high school put on a production of Pippin. It’s the story of a young prince named Pippin who longs to find passion and meaning in his life. Guided by the Leading Player—a charismatic and somewhat sinister narrator figure in the show—Pippin explores various pastimes and tries on a few different identities. Ultimately the Leading Player tries to convince Pippin to commit suicide by jumping into a giant flame: “one last glorious act.”
So I was lucky enough to play Pippin’s spirit, a part that didn’t really exist in the show. The director had given me a chance to create a solo to Pippin’s opening ballad, “Corner of the Sky.” I choreographed a dance that was part ballet, part modern I suppose (although I hadn’t been introduced to that vernacular quite yet), but really it was the first time I had ever experienced tapping into my own little soul and articulating it through art. It felt glorious! Needless to say, it opened something up in me and absolutely set me on a path of self expression and art that has without a doubt led me to where I am today.
The role of the Leading Player was given to a junior named Brandon Toh. I had never spoken to him before, but the moment I first heard him sing, I was totally mesmerized by his intensity and passion, not to mention the beauty of his voice. Within a few weeks of rehearsals, Brandon and I had become good friends. He was a totally wonderful weirdo—an Asian brainiac set on becoming a doctor mixed with a long-haired Axl Rose-loving, Sondheim-quoting, hilariously fun, yet super-intense dude.
When I was with him, I opened up and felt like a real person. Genuinely existing in every moment without a little voice in my head trying to dictate what I should say next.
It was a truly happy time—not really something I can say about most other parts of my adolescence. I had been given a little sneak peek into my “corner of the sky” and didn’t even realize it at the time.
From Pippin on, Brandon became one of my very best friends. For years we were inseparable. He was so darn talented, composed songs all day, every day. He inspired me to foster my artistic voice . . . to use it more and more until that was really my only voice. He was fiercely protective of me and my greatest champion, and yet he struggled with what at the time was labeled manic depression. It is very hard to be tied at the hip to someone who is bipolar. He talked a lot of suicide and even had a few unsuccessful attempts. This was pretty intense for high-school me to deal with. It got even more intense in college. But the good times, the good stuff Brandon gave me, usually outweighed the scary, negative intensity.
Until it didn’t.
Eventually he cut off contact with me and for ten straight years I thought about him, choreographed dances to songs he had composed specifically for me, fantasized about reaching out to him and rekindling our friendship. I started working on a duet about him. I gave a composer friend of mine some of his songs so that he could compose a Brandon-inspired piece for me. At that point in my life, choreography had become my life-blood, my therapy, my voice. I conjured up image after image of Brandon as I worked on this piece. He had returned to my life—but in a really safe capacity.
A few months after I created that dance, I found out that Brandon had killed himself. I was six months pregnant with my daughter. Brandon had so recently re-entered my world with a vengeance, and now his death was the most horrifying, unimaginable and yet most not-surprising tragedy that was guiding everything. Every feeling. Every artistic choice.
I wrote a show for him—completely by accident. A few months after his death, after the birth of my daughter, I found myself haunted by Brandon—but not in a bad, scary way. I woke up early each morning, compelled to write about him. About us. About me. Writing was not something I did, so this was all very cathartic. I’d found a new corner of the sky. What I had written was private, revealing, and not meant for anyone to read. Yet somehow it found its way out into the world and became a script. And then it became a show featuring his music, our story, his secrets, my secrets. Brandon was always very open about himself and his emotional struggles, so I don’t think he would have felt that this was too revealing. However, I was terrified. This shy, self-conscious girl had suddenly launched herself way out of all kinds of closets. I cannot emphasize enough how crazy it was for me, the most private person I knew, to be sharing such intimate details of my life.
Well, this show—CEILING IN THE FLOOR—which was ultimately about friendship, art, mental illness, and suicide—became a show that I would perform more than any other show in my life. It resonated with audiences because it came out at a time when suicide was a pretty taboo topic. I suppose it still is to a certain extent. The first time we did the show, people in the audience (my mother, my sister, my closest friends) heard things about me that I’d never once told them.
I don’t know what kind of heavy dose of denial allowed me to suddenly open up so publicly. Perhaps we can blame it on early mommy hormones? Or just the opening of one’s heart that accompanies becoming a mother. Or lack of sleep? Regardless, something shifted completely in me. I was no longer afraid of anything. Each night when my secrets were revealed to new audiences, I felt myself launching faster and more furiously towards my corner of the sky. My role as an artist, as a friend, as a parent, as a teacher, as a human all completely revealed itself to me. Now, almost seven years after Brandon’s death, I feel him in every artistic choice I make.
STRUNG from CEILING IN THE FLOOR
Directed by Elizabeth Gracen
Choreographed by Hilary Thomas
Dancers: Hilary Thomas, Teya Wolvington
Original Music by Brandon Toh
I suppose it’s no surprise that I am currently working on a production of Pippin. My very own, totally dancified interpretation of the show that is closest to my heart for so many reasons is currently obsessing my every thought. Once again, with each line that the Leading Player sings, I envision Brandon, and his undying creative influence fills me all over again. As Pippin manages to escape the Leading Player's attempts to lure him towards suicidal glory, I can’t help but appreciate the real-life parallel. I appreciate the gift of life that Brandon gave me. I will never quite heal from the sadness and the void that his death has left in me. But he lives in me without a doubt. And in my daughter, for sure. He passed that passionate, wacky, music-loving, Broadway-quoting baton. Upon entering this world, she grabbed his good stuff, his soul. He took his darkness with him.
In high school, I had given Brandon a tiny, plastic Jesus doll on roller skates. We were pretty heavily into Jesus Christ Superstar at the time, and I saw it in the toy section of a Rite Aid and knew it was just the present for him. I have vivid memories of that Jesus doll watching us from the shelf in his room while Brandon sang with his guitar and I danced. That was how we spent our time together. With all the other questionable activities that teenagers engage in, I can only hope that when my daughter is in high school, she spends all her time art-ing around with her friends.
About a year after Brandon died, his parents invited me over to go to his room and take anything of his that I might want. At that point, I honestly didn’t see much in his room that I could recognize from our friendship that had taken place so many years ago. I had my daughter with me, and she had just started walking. I put her down and she walked straight to a shelf, grabbed something, and brought it over to me. Wouldn’t you know, it was that crazy roller-skating Jesus!
Jesus is now one of my daughter’s toys. He can often be found engaged in a scene with his good friends, Cinderella, Ariel, or Moana. My daughter narrates, guides the characters, creates little shows. She’s finding her corner of the sky. And Brandon, my own personal Jesus, is right there beside her, inspiring her every artistic whim.