Education and Punk and Motorcycles, Oh My! Welcome to Tania Thompson’s Amazing Life!
Late at night, just as she was looking forward to starting her Master’s program at the University of Idaho, a phone call awakened Tania Thompson. Stumbling groggily to pick up the phone, she was told a university student had been gunned down and the shooter, a professor, was holed up in a local hotel, and the response team was to meet promptly in the Administration Building.
Thompson quickly threw on some clothes, got in her car, and drove to the college. she couldn’t have known at that point the personal toll this tragedy would have on her.
“Being on-call during this crisis was an ongoing, incessant part of that job that was so exhausting and soul draining,” remembers Thompson.
After five difficult months of dealing with the aftermath of the murder-suicide, including intensive press coverage, the stress caused her to have health problems and forced her to take a few months off. As friends grew concerned, one sent her a recent job opening notice from a southern California regional theater company.
She jumped at the chance, applied and was hired. Thompson left Idaho and now happily works as a Public Relations director at South Coast Repertory, where she continues to learn more about the theater side of the entertainment industry.
Education always played an important role throughout Thompson’s life. In second grade, she lived in Germany with her family while her dad researched there on a Fulbright Fellowship; he eventually published nearly two-dozen textbooks. Thompson was exposed to the wonderful German culture and learned the language as well. As a child, Thompson remembers playing soccer and skiing with her dad, and cooking and sewing with her mom.
Her father grew up in the Soviet Union, fought in World War II with Ukrainian freedom fighters and escaped imprisonment twice. He sailed from a post-war displaced persons camp aboard the SS Ernie Pyle to New York, learned how to speak English from watching Abbot and Costello films and went on to finish his education, and he achieved his goal becoming a teacher. After receiving his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkley, he became a professor of Soviet and Russian studies in Portland, Oregon where Thompson and her sister were born.
She inherited her compassionate spirit of the world from her father. He took her with him to the Port of Portland docks when Soviet merchant marine ships arrived and where he handed out cigarettes to the sailors; she loved listening to her father speak in different languages (including Czech, German and Hungarian) when he served as a translator for immigrants coming to the U.S. or defecting from Eastern bloc nations.
At the family’s home outside of Portland, frequent visitors included foreign refugees with tattooed numbers on their forearms and Soviet academics; Thompson and her father incessantly wondered which ones were KGB spies in an odd family guessing game. It piqued her interest in learning more about the many different kinds of people in this world.
Growing up, her dad often took her to see plays at the university where he worked. But the overall entertainment world is what held her attention. She says,
“When I was a kid, and still to this day, I loved films, I loved the dorkiest movies, and fell in love with silent films, but overall I just fell in love with the idea of Hollywood.”
Attending the University of Oregon and completing her BA in broadcast journalism in only three years, Thompson landed her first job at a public radio station in Portland, where she enjoyed working for the next 20 years. By day, she worked in public radio and by night she went to punk rock concerts, shaved her head and hung out at the local music bars in town.
“People would hear the ‘Tania’ that sounded more calm and conservative and knowledgeable, but no one knew that I was out all hours at these punk and rock concerts,” she remembers with a giggle.
In radio, she diligently reported the hard news on the AM radio side, and then worked on the FM classical and fine arts side, where she got to live out her love for the entertainment industry by doing more features and specializing in cultural arts.
She interviewed actors, playwrights, directors, conductors and musicians. She also produced a Saturday morning classical musical show for kids, using kids as hosts and dipping into classical music used in cartoons and films.
Thompson met her husband at the radio station, he worked the AM side and she worked the FM. They often spent their weekends riding motorcycles. She still loves her punk and rock music, she says with a smile,
“My husband was and still is into heavy metal music. I like heavy metal, too, but he really likes heavy metal.”
Thompson left radio and went to work at the Portland State University for the School of the Fine and Performing Arts. She happily worked there with many performers and artists she knew from her time in broadcasting. A few years later, she and her husband moved to San Diego, where Thompson took a job as a communications writer for California State University, San Maros University. Her manager mentored her for the type of responsibilities she would have when she took a position like his. She soaked everything up.
When Thompson and her husband moved back to Portland in the early 2000s, she got a job Lewis & Clark College, a small, private liberal arts college, as the senior communications officer for media relations. She had her first taste of crisis communications when a financial scandal rocked the college and she dove back into learning all she could about handling issues management.
“Education is really the doorway that’s going to let you do a lot of things,” her father had told her years before. “You can do things by experience, but you will go to a university and you will learn, and you will keep on learning. So true,” she thought.
She went from the college to the public relations director job at Idaho, where she had the opportunity to learn through numerous incidents (including a data breach, accidental deaths and injuries and an H1N1 flu outbreak) culminating with the murder-suicide.
Thompson also treated herself to two meaningful tattoos, both as a nod to her father’s heritage (Ukrainian) and her mother’s (a mix including Irish). She has a blue, gold, and black Ukrainian trident on her back, anchored by a Celtic braid design. She got this one on her 50th birthday. Her other tattoo rests near her heart of a Celtic braid surrounding the Ukrainian word “serene.” Thompson got this one done when she came off her leave of absence after the murder-suicide case. She says it reminds her to stay centered.
When Thompson first arrived at South Coast Repertory in 2012, her manager began introducing her as someone who came to theater “to fill a hole in her soul.” She laughs about that description, but says it’s true. Now she puts her PR skills to good use learning all she can about acting, play writing, directing, set and costume and design, overseeing press, photos, video and other means to tell the creative story of contemporary theater-making.
“I sit in the back of the house on any given opening night, grinning from ear to ear, enjoying the hell out of what I see unfolding onstage,” she says. “I love being the storyteller about storytelling through plays.”
She felt a final healing moment come during the production of a play called Office Hour, about the potential for gun violence and set on a college campus. For weeks before rehearsals started, she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to do her job and talk about the play. Thompson reflects back saying,
“But seeing it, with blanks and recorded gunshots used as part of the action, gave me a chance to deal with the deep wounds that had emerged through at Idaho. I saw Office Hour three more times during its run.”