The Storyteller

R. Eric Thomas is a quirky, funny, self-deprecating guy who tells truths through storytelling

By Laura Reeve

R. Eric Thomas likes to talk about himself. Well, the version of himself who fails at relationships, never meets anyone, and eats too many cupcakes when he’s sad.

“The only story I ever tell is my own. I’m not a good journalist and I’m not a good actor because I can’t disappear into others things. Which maybe is because I’m a narcissist, or maybe it’s just how I’m built,” said Thomas, a Philadelphia storyteller and playwright, as he gestured with his hands, a move he makes when he tells his stories as if his hands will physically bring his audience closer to him.

Thomas, 30, originally from Baltimore, came to an interview directly from his job at a law firm in Center City. Despite his work attire, his black tie had a bit of shimmer in it and peeking out from under his slacks were a pair of black Converse sneakers.

The law firm is just his day job. His real passion is telling stories, whether that be through writing a play or telling a personal story to a live audience. Though Thomas says he was never taught “storytelling” as a child, he remembers his mother had a talent for telling stories about their family. Thomas’ father comes from a Baptist preaching tradition where religious texts came alive through storytelling. Telling and listening to stories were always a part of Thomas’ life even thought it was never talked about formally.

Thomas writes fiction, but finds that through telling personal stories, he can comment more genuinely on the world around him. Now, Thomas is a frequent storyteller at First Person Arts StorySlams, bimonthly storytelling competitions at World Cafe Live and L’etage.

“I write a lot of fiction and I do find a lot of solace in that. I consider myself a playwright, so other people’s voices are interesting to me,” Thomas explained. “But when it comes to vocalization, when it comes to representing something concrete about humanity, I really am only able to draw from my own experience.”

Once Thomas began to tell personal stories, he realized how much truth he could share with his audience through storytelling — truths he found difficult to express in his fiction “It’s frustrating to me because when I started telling stories, telling true stories with an emotional heart, they were so much better than my plays,” Thomas said. “It’s like ripping opening a wound and either healing it up or sticking my finger in it.”

In the story that ultimately became Will Accept This Friend Request? Thomas’ one-man show about connecting with others, Thomas opens up about his first gay friend, a man he met his freshman year at Columbia University. In the story, Thomas describes how this friend created a space in which Thomas, as a gay man, could be honest about his sexuality for the first time in his life. Despite the emotional and touching subject matter about coming out and expressing one’s individuality, Thomas weaves in his signature self-deprecating humor that allows the audience to connect with the person Thomas used to be: complete in black parachute pants and tucked in orange tank-top.

Thomas’ ability to talk about emotional, sometimes sad subjects while keeping his audience laughing is because of the on-stage personality Thomas has created. “What I try and do is play up the base thought that goes on in my mind, which is usually neurotic because it’s the funniest thought. So, the person that I’m playing is a version of me, but is much less self-actualized and more prone to rash decisions,” Thomas said. “I ultimately try to be the sitcom Friend version of myself.”

Like the romantic comedy movies he dreams his life will one day mirror, Thomas’ stories are reflections on the relationships that dictate our lives: friends, lovers, and family. Even if Thomas is “Always the Bridesmaid” (the title of his next show), he continues to entertain audiences with his journey, albeit sometimes a clumsy one, towards a happy ending.