Artwork by Richard Thompson

Remembering Richard Thompson, Creator of Cul de Sac

Richard Thompson passed away on Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Theater is about telling stories, and I am happy to tell one about Richard Thompson and his family; the community of Arlington, Virginia; a wonderful children’s theater called Encore Stage & Studio; and in some lesser measure, my own family’s personal relationship with Amy and Charlotte Thompson, Richard’s wife and daughter.

This story begins, perhaps, in the 1950’s, when Richard’s grandparents lived in Charlotte, Michigan. My grandparents lived there as well, at that same time, my father having grown up on a farm a few miles away, in Potterville, Michigan. Many of my relatives still live there. I myself lived in Charlotte for a short period of time. In later years, after I met Richard, we discovered this common history of geographic origin, but found no evidence that our families knew each other in Charlotte. Still, it was an interesting connection to have. Not that many people are from Charlotte. Fewer know how to pronounce it.

This story begins, perhaps, in 1978, when, freshly graduated from Charlotte High School, skinny and naive, I enrolled at Michigan State University. It was there that I discovered the wonderful, subversive humor of the comic strip Doonesbury in the MSU newspaper, The Daily News. The Vietnam War was not long over and Doonesbury was still in a fever of anti-war sarcasm. My love for the strip led in time, to excessive admiration for Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and later, after moving to Arlington, Virginia, the whimsical, offbeat, understated humor of Richard’s Poor Almanac, penned by one Richard Thompson. I was ecstatic, enchanted, and delighted when Cul de Sac debuted in February 2004, as a Sunday strip. Calvin and Hobbes had ended a decade before and Bloom county six years before that. In that relative comic strip desert, Cul de Sac was an oasis of clear, cold water, and I drank every drop I could. It quickly became my favorite comic strip, hands down.

The insights in Cul de Sac were so keen, the wit so sophisticated and finely honed, and the characters so compelling, that there was just nothing else like it. I have heard jazz music described as playing all around the melody, but never really hitting it. Cul de Sac was the same way; minimalistic somehow, and all the more clever and powerful for what was not included, as for what was. I had no idea, at that time, that the creative genius behind it all lived on my street, 10 houses down.

This story begins, perhaps, in 2004. My daughter Reiss was in the first grade at Nottingham Elementary School, as was Richard’s youngest, Charlotte. The two of them were on an Odyssey of the Mind team – a competition that involved creative thought, and a play. Amy Thompson and I both volunteered to be co-coaches of the team. I had no idea at that point, how much of a role theater would play in my life for the next decade.

When we started talking to the kids on the team about the play, Amy quickly took charge. “She’s kind of pushy,” I thought to myself, not knowing the first thing about theater, and not knowing that Amy did. Teams involve practice, of course, and Odyssey of the mind was no different. It must have been the spring of 2005 when we had a practice at Amy’s house. I had never been before. I knew Amy was married to some guy named Richard, but I had never met the man, nor made the connection between my co-coach and my favorite strip.

As I was walking into the Thompson’s house, I noticed a familiar style of artwork on the wall. Dominoes started falling in my head. I stammered something unintelligible about the art. “Yes,” Amy said matter-of-factly, as if she had said it a thousand times before, “he’s that Richard Thompson.”

I was floored. Gobsmacked. Blown away.

I took my offbeat comic strips very seriously. I revered the man who created the world of Petey and Alice Otterloop, and I was standing in his living room. At some point I actually met Richard. There was not much to meeting Richard, because there was not much to Richard. He was such a slight man, and so quiet, that it was almost as if he wasn’t there. “Unassuming” is a word I have often heard used to describe Richard, but I think that’s wrong. Richard described the word, not the other way around. But as many before me have mentioned, the mild demeanor was merely a mask for a comic and cartoonist and social observer of epic, superhero, stature.

We interacted with the Thompsons as elementary school families will do. Our daughter’s played together for a time. We discovered that both Amy Thompson, and my own wife Amy, both had Beth for a middle name, and were both born on the same day. Amy directed Reiss in the 5th grade Shakespeare program at Nottingham. Then the world moved on, our daughters went to different middle schools, and I did not see Amy or Richard as much for a while.

This story begins, perhaps, in 2008, when Reiss was cast in her first show at Encore Stage and Studio. As a parent volunteer, I watched, and looked, and learned, and decided that Encore was a fantastic organization. There were great people, it produced a wonderful product, and it was a safe place for people like my daughter to learn leadership, poise, and teamwork, not to mention an incredible amount about theater. In 2009, I was invited to join the Board of Directors. It was there that I ran across Amy Thompson again. Unbeknownst to me, she had been a long time theater instructor for Encore.

At that time, Encore was somewhat static. It needed a boost to push it to the next level. That boost came when we hired Sara Duke as our first Executive Director. That same year, I become the President of the Board of Directors. Together, Sara and I led an effort to transform Encore into a larger, more vibrant organization. Over the next several years, our budget tripled, we added more staff, more programs, and more benefits for our employees. We matured as an organization, and set our sights on the next step: commissioning plays and presenting world premiers. Our vision, after all, was for Encore to be a national leader in children’s theater.

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Amy’s role expanded as Encore did. She began to direct shows for Encore. She started a Master’s program in Theater Education. Charlotte performed in an Encore show. Richard’s fame grew as well. He was given the Rueben award by the National Cartoonists Society. Look at their web page sometime. Rueben award winners are a who’s who of comic strip fame: Schulz, Keane, Larson, Watterson, Kelly, Capp, Trudeau, Johnston. They are all there. And in 2010, Thompson. Sadly, in 2012, Richard, by then suffering from Parkinson’s disease, had ended Cul de Sac. Sad for comic strip fans. Doubly sad for Arlingtonians, as we saw one of our suffering.

As is often the case, the suffering was the fertile ground from which grew the next great thing. The paths of Richard, Amy, and Encore were about to cross in a phenomenal way.

This story begins, perhaps, around 2014. Encore was ready to stage a world premiere. Richard’s strip had ended as a daily event, but lived on in books, a documentary, and the work of Team Cul de Sac to raise money for the Parkinson’s Foundation. Amy was turning Cul de Sac into a play for her theater degree. It became clear that a collaboration was in order.

In June of 2016, Encore staged the world premiere of Cul de Sac to rave reviews. It was a remarkable milestone for a local children’s theater. Not just a world premiere, but of a play based on a nationally syndicated comic strip, created by one of our own Arlington residents. It was a triumphant debut as a playwright for Amy Thompson. And Richard, before he passed away, was able to see the world he created come to life at the hands of his talented wife. Sara Duke and I were proud to have had a small role in developing Encore into an organization that had the vision and capability to present the play.

Encore Stage & Studio's Cul de Sac opens through June 12 at Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre.

Petey's toad zombies come to life.

This story ends, perhaps, . . . never. Richard has left us. That much is true. But he left behind the special world of Cul de Sac, his comedic genius come to life in wobbly brush strokes. Amy’s rendition for the stage will hopefully live on, in children’s theaters across the country. And certainly the love Richard had for his family will burn brightly in their hearts forevermore.

Farewell Richard. You were, and remain, one of my heroes. Condolences from my family to yours.

From left to right: Mr. Otterloop (Henry Hubbard), Alice (Gabriella Flanagan), Petey (Xander Tilock), and Mrs. Otterloop (Caitlyn Knittig).

On behalf of the Board of Directors and the staff of Encore Stage and Studio, Rest in Peace. We are so happy that your family connected with ours. Because in a real way, your family is ours.

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This is a story about community, and family, and neighborhoods, and an unassuming cartoonist changing the world, and a precocious 4 year old named Alice. And that story never ends.

Alice Otterloop is played by Gabriella Flanagan.

The family has asked that contributions be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation in Richard’s memory.To donate to Team Cul de Sac, to help the fight against Parkinson’s Disease, click here.

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By Jerry Gidner, Encore Stage & Studio Board of Directors, Former Board President of Encore Stage & Studio 2012-2015. Photos by Larry McClemons.