R. Eric Thomas talks about working with Arden Theatre Company for his new play, Backing Track

-Brenda Hillegas
photo by Kap2ure Photography

Television writer, playwright, and national bestselling author (Here For It, or, How to Save Your Soul in America) R. Eric Thomas is getting ready to celebrate the world premiere of his new play, Backing Track. This humorous new show was commissioned by the Arden Theatre Company and will run from March 3 – April 10, 2022.  Thomas has written for AppleTV+’s Dickinson, FX’s Better Things and Elle.com). He currently lives in Baltimore- where he grew up- but has spent years in Philadelphia as well. In 2016, his play Time Is On Our Side, was the recipient of two Barrymore Awards. Below, Thomas talks to us about developing Backing Track and the character of Avery, and how The Foundry- a Philadelphia playwrights program- positively impacted his career. Of course, you should also check out his recommendation on where to grab dinner before the show and what to watch on television when you’re not at the theatre!

Q: Tell us a bit about your relationship with Arden Theatre Company and developing Backing Track specifically for their stage.
A: I’ve been a huge fan of the work the Arden does for years; I saw almost everything (recent fave: Gypsy!) and I’d hope to one day work with them. About three years ago, Terry Nolen and I had a meeting at which he floated the idea of commissioning me to write a play and gave me the incredible leverage to write about anything I wanted. I love comedy, I love recent nostalgia, and, as you’ll see from the play, I love the movie Titanic. So I wrote a play about those things- plus so much more. And the Arden was excited by it and has shepherded it through development workshops, multiple COVID delays, and all the usual challenges of making theater. It’s a show about community-making and how we so often miss each other, even with the best intentions, so it’s only felt more and more relevant as time has gone one.

Q: Is the character of Avery based on anyone you know? Where did the story come from?
A: Well, I think anyone who knows me will see a little…how does one say…flair for the dramatic that Avery and I share. But he’s not based on me in any concrete way. Avery does caba-roke, which is a thing that definitely does not exist but is a combination of cabaret and karaoke- so I took some inspiration from some of my favorite cabaret stars like Martha Graham Cracker, Glitter & Garbage, and Taylor Mac.

Q: What do you hope the Philadelphia audience will continue thinking about after they exit the theatre?
A: The neighborhood is so important in this play and each character has a different perspective on what should become of the neighborhood. But, importantly, they all want essentially the same thing just in different forms. So I think audiences will be thinking about the places we call home and the relationships that the proximity of our neighbors, both people and businesses, create. I think if folks saw my Theater Exile outdoor show The Ever Present this summer, they’ll find a continuing conversation. 

Q: You were a part of The Foundry- a program that supports emerging playwrights in Philadelphia. What was your major take away from your time there and how are you helping current writers in the program?
A: The Foundry changed everything about the way I write! I even changed the font I use, that’s how wowed I was by the other playwrights. I learned to lean into spectacle, I learned to let my love of comedy on stage flourish, I learned how to be more attuned to what Philly audiences are hungry for. And I’m trying to pass on those things to the current writers. I’m also learning so much from this cohort. That’s the beautiful thing about being with other writers, whether emerging or more experienced, we’re all facing the blank page and attempting to bring something to life out of it. 

Q: Since you lived in Philly for a while, where should everyone do dinner before heading to the Arden? What were your go-to spots?
A: Philly is the greatest food city in the entire world so it’s hard to go wrong. I’m super excited about the new pizza restaurant Hook & Master from Jose Garces and Steven Seibel. Steve is a friend who catered my wedding and folks are still talking about how good that food was. I’d walk across an ocean to eat anything he dreamed up.

Q: What are your current favorites in music, television and/or movies?
A: I have impeccable taste and I keep up with the latest trends, so recently I’ve been listening to the Phil Collins song “In the Air Tonight” on repeat! It’s THRILLING. I also really enjoyed the new film After Yang, which is about memory and loss, and the Philly-set television show Abbott Elementary.

Directed by Rebecca Wright and Associate Director Alexandra Espinosa, the play will run at the Arden’s Arcadia Stage. Tickets are available for purchase online at ardentheatre.org. For more about R. Eric Thomas, visit his website.

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