Salisha Thomas, Bullard High School grad and proud Good Company Players alumna, did what a lot of young actors do to chase a dream:
She moved to New York after college to find a job in the theater.
It took her six days.
She landed a plum role in the ensemble of the first national tour of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which is playing at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.
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“I hadn’t even unpacked yet,” says Thomas, 24.
To which you just have to say: Wow.
As I talk to her by phone from San Francisco, I can begin to understand why Thomas’ big break came so early in her career. She is a gale of enthusiasm. Just call her Hurricane Salisha. There’s a lot of self-confidence blowing through our conversation, too. But tempering it all is a healthy dose of humility, as if she can’t quite believe things have happened so fast.
“Moving to New York is the craziest thing I have ever done,” Thomas says. “But I am so glad I followed my heart exactly when I did. Timing really does play a major role in success. It wasn’t something I could possibly know ahead of time.”
When Thomas appeared as Deena in the 2010 GCP production of “Dreamgirls,” I called her a standout, playing a “feisty but good-hearted” Deena.
Here are excerpts from our interviews, both phone and email:
Q: What is your first memory of wanting to be on stage?
A: For our eighth-grade field trip, we went to New York City, and I remember falling in love immediately with the energy there. And while we were there we went to see “Wicked” on Broadway. This might sound dramatic, but that show actually changed my life. I had an overwhelming sense of, “Holy Cow. This is it. I want to do what they’re doing.”
Q: It sounds like you were a real go-getter at Bullard, including cheer team and student body president. How did you fit in theater?
A: My top three most time-consuming activities were also marching band, mock trial and theater. And by my junior year, everything started to conflict with one another. It wasn’t until my drama teacher, Calvin Hoff, asked me, “Do you really want to be a lawyer or do you want to act like a lawyer?” And my mind was blown. Ever since then, theater became my number one priority.
Q: Talk about your time at GCP.
A: In “Hairspray” I was a Dynamite. That’s the first time I ever got paid for doing theater. I couldn’t believe that someone would actually give me money for doing something that was so much fun. In fact, it still blows my mind even today. And in “Dreamgirls,” that was my first opportunity being a lead in a show. I remember showing up for the first day of rehearsal having memorized every line and every song. I figured that would make me less nervous in front of my peers during the rehearsal process.
Q: You got into Cal State Fullerton’s BFA program in musical theater, which is hard to do. But you changed your degree to a BA in theater. Why?
A: Cal State Fullerton was and still is a great school, especially for pursuing a career in the arts. But the BFA program is not for everybody. It’s something that I wanted for so long. I was pleasantly surprised to be accepted. But, ultimately, I wanted to start working professionally outside of school, which is difficult to juggle with such a rigorous program. Switching my major to a bachelor of arts gave me a lot more wiggle room to work outside of school and also gave me enough flexibility so that I could graduate early.
Q: Your sister, Michaelyn, gravitated toward the sciences for her career. Were your parents, Les and Gail, worried about you going into theater, a notoriously tough occupation?
A: The plan was always for me to be a lawyer. My parents sent me across the country a few times for the LeadAmerica conferences that focused on law and trial advocacy. I learned so much at the conferences that I was able to come back to Bullard and be an active member of our Mock Trial Team starting as an underclassman. But when I had a change of heart and decided to go to college for theater, I think my parents were devastated. But, thankfully, they were still supportive.
Q: Tell us about your role/track in the national tour of “Beautiful.”
A: I play Shirley of the Shirelles and sing lead vocals on the song “Will You Still Love Me.” I’m also Lucille, the secretary to Donnie Kirschner.
Q: In Boston, a very special guest came to one of the performances. Describe that night.
A: Oh my goodness! The real Carole King came and surprised us! She didn’t tell anyone she was coming. But at the end of the show, our stage managers told us all to get dressed and come back on stage. We thought we were getting fired! And then Carole King comes walking out from the wings and everybody lost it. It was pandemonium. It was really special because it was a moment that I had waited for for such a long time. And then it was happening. There was this woman; that because of her existence, we all have a job! It was really cool.
Q: Audra McDonald holds a special place for you in terms of a role model. What would you like to ask her?
A: OK … so I have gotten to meet her three times. And every single time, I get so flustered and so tongue-tied. I forget everything I planned on saying. It’s horrible! My IQ drops significantly! And I’m just star struck! The last time, I saw her in “Shuffle Along” on Broadway, and a miracle happened and I was invited to her dressing room. And then I get in the dressing room. I forgot my own name. She was so nice and helped me out saying, “So you’re from Fresno?” No one else has quite the effect on me. I really just wish I could sit down for tea with her. I might be a little more eloquent.
Q: Your parents have traveled the country a bit, catching your performances in various cities. What is that like?
A: When my parents are in the audience I am so nervous. The most nervous. Like going over everything in my head three times over. I just love them so much and they have invested quite a bit in me. It’s like I want to make them proud, and so I don’t want to mess up. But if you’re in the business you know that the less you care, the better you are. One day I will figure out the balance.
Q: How long have you been on tour? What is the favorite city you’ve visited? How do you fill your down time?
A: I’ve been on tour for a little over a year now. I loved Washington, D.C., the best! I could live there one day. I have always been a “busy” person, so being on tour with an entire day to kill in a foreign city until showtime was a huge adjustment. But I’m figuring it out. I learned I love to run. I’m running a half marathon on Sept. 11 before the show at 2 p.m. I also love to read, and go to the local zoo, and be a tourist and check out the city. I also decided to use my vacation to run in a pageant. And now I’m Miss California World!
Q: Looking ahead, what is your dream role?
A: I’d love to be in “Hamilton.” I’d also like to be Olivia Pope in “Scandal the Musical.” But that doesn’t exist yet.