After directing his first play at Trustus Theatre, Chad Henderson, then 22 and recently graduated, remembers his mentor handing him a bourbon and Diet Coke.
“You did good, kid,” Jim Thigpen told Henderson, with a cheers.
“That was a validation that just kept my feet on the ground running,” Henderson said. “I think he’s done that for a lot of people.”
A lifelong teacher, jovial encourager and one of Columbia’s theater pioneers, Thigpen died Tuesday. He was 75.
“He was really there for the greater good of the group and had no ego wrapped up in it at all,” said Henderson, Trustus’ artistic director.
Thigpen and his wife, Kay, founded Trustus Theatre in 1985, renting a former club on Assembly Street in a less-than-desirable part of downtown. They later moved to the Vista – before the Vista was in any way the place to be – and converted a warehouse into a theater complete with recliners and a small bar.
“Why I do it, I think, is I am so lucky that every month, basically, my life changes. Every month, I get to see the world through somebody else’s eyes,” Thigpen told The State newspaper in the late 1990s. “You can never get locked in. You’re challenged emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.”
Trustus brought bold, cutting-edge plays that Columbia wasn’t always ready for.
But Thigpen was an artist who sought realness in theater, and his shows did not shy away from tough subjects.
“I think of the bravery involved in saying, ‘You know what? This story needs to be told, and people need to be talking about these issues,’ ” said Dewey Scott-Wiley, who succeeded Thigpen as the theater’s artistic director after the founders retired in 2012. She continues to act in and direct Trustus shows regularly.
“Now more than ever, we need Trustus’ voice in the community,” Scott-Wiley said. “We need that kind of bravery. And thank God (the Thigpens) built it.”
Before Trustus, Thigpen taught high school theater. And he remained a teacher all his years in the theater, offering education and apprenticeship programs at the theater.
“He was a guiding force for me and so many people,” said Harrison Saunders, president of the Trustus board of directors. Thigpen cast an inexperienced Saunders in Saunders’ first play at Trustus, “Balm in Gilead.”
“He was just ever-enthusiastic and encouraging,” Saunders said. “I don’t recall ever hearing a negative word from him to me or any other actor.”
A celebration of Thigpen’s life will be hosted at Trustus on Thursday from 5-6:30 p.m.
It’s a celebration planned just the way Thigpen would have wanted it, Henderson said – open bar, casual dress, with Carlos Santana playing over the speakers.
In lieu of flowers, Thigpen’s family asks that donations be made to Trustus Theatre, Henderson said.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.