People Respect and Appreciate Authenticity: A Q&A with Storyteller Anne B. Thomas

Thomas discusses the humanizing impact of storytelling before her appearance at Politics & Art: District Vox on June 14, 2018

While hitchhiking across Europe by herself at 18, Anne B. Thomas fell asleep in the back of a car, and when she woke she was lying by the side of the road. She tried to stand up but found she couldn’t move and couldn’t feel her legs or torso. The only sensation was a searing pain across her back and chest.

Anne B. Thomas at SpeakeasyDC. Photo by www.PhotographyByAlexander.com
Anne B. Thomas at SpeakeasyDC. Photo by www.PhotographyByAlexander.com

Doctors back in the States grimly informed Anne that her spinal cord was broken, she was paralyzed, and she would never walk again. Despite these formidable obstacles, Anne went to college, got a law degree, and began a career as a lawyer. She negotiated oil and gas leases with Wyoming ranchers; investigated allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination across the U.S.; and implemented conflict resolution and leadership development programs at the World Bank, all while navigating a world that was less than accepting of people with disabilities.

In 2008, Anne was diagnosed with a rare blood disease and given one to two years to live. She quit working to focus on her health and decided to throw herself into a new adventure: storytelling. Ten years later, Anne is beating the odds, traveling the country sharing her stories and teaching others to do the same. She performs in theaters, festivals, corporate auditoriums, trainings, and national conferences.

Anne B. Thomas lends her voice to the lineup of Politics & Art: District Vox (presented by Washington Performing Arts and Councilman David Grosso) on June 14, 2018, at the John A. Wilson Building.

Did switching to storytelling as a full-time career seem intimidating at all to you, or did it feel like a natural next step after all the challenges and victories you’d already faced?

Taking up storytelling was initially intimidating because I was new to it, but it was also a really exciting challenge. What I love about getting older is that I have faced many challenges and come through them, so I had confidence I could do the same with storytelling.

Why do you think storytelling is an important skill for people to learn?

People love stories! Our lives are filled with them. Once you start telling a story at work or at a party, you have captured people’s attention. The more detail and specificity you include in your story, the more the listener’s brain lights up as they recreate what you are describing.  So it’s a very powerful tool to convey information and have it stick as well as a way to bring fun into any conversation.

Is this your first time performing at Politics & Art? What made you want to apply? Do you see any interaction between politics and art in your storytelling, and has that changed over the years?

This is my first time performing at Politics & Art.  I’m always looking to share my stories with new audiences. I do hope my stories have a political impact by humanizing people with disabilities and bringing their challenges into people’s consciousness. I hope they break down the sense of “other” that accompanies any form of difference. Many of my stories describe how I am treated as a person with a disability in society or the unique challenges I face, and the impact all this has had on my self-esteem, and how I have grown beyond those insecurities.

So they’re not overtly political, but my experience is that by sharing my stories, people shift emotionally to be more compassionate towards the disabled community, which can lead to policy changes. This requires me to be very vulnerable in sharing my truth. When I started storytelling, I went for the laughs because it was an immediate affirmation that the story was going well. But as I matured as a storyteller, I learned being vulnerable is even more impactful. People respect and appreciate authenticity.

Anne B. Thomas. Photo by Alexander Morozov.
Anne B. Thomas. Photo by Alexander Morozov.

The event theme this year is District Vox. What does that mean to you?

It’s a celebration of all the different voices across the District. We may live in the same city, but we are having different experiences. It’s good to hear each other and realize the symphony of words, lives, and experiences this city has to share.

Please let us know what you have coming up in your career!

I’ve written a memoir that I’m editing one last time! I am interested in writing in the genre of personal medical narratives as I have a long, rich experience with health care and how it has changed over the years that I want to share. It may even include doing a comic strip!  We’ll see! More specifically, I’m performing in Frederick, MD on June 21 at Area 31 and August 26 at Union Stage at the Wharf.

See Anne B. Thomas at Politics & Art: District Vox on Thursday, June 14, 2018, from 5:30 PM to 8:00 PM, at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC. This event is free. Click here for more information.