“Life isn’t half as obnoxious as you think it’s going to be.” –Toby Al-Trabulsi
MsBoye: Hey Toby, first of all, congratulations on being chosen to be the Art Spark Texas Artist of the Month.
Toby: Oh, thanks!
MsBoye: How’d that feel? What did you think when I told you?
Toby: It was surprising.
Toby: Because I don’t know. I just I didn’t see it coming (laughs). I wasn’t working on anything spectacular, blow-me-outta-the-water amazing, that was like, “Let’s notice this person.”
MsBoye: You can be recognized as an artist without having to be spectacular, or traditionally successful, okay? We look for folks for whom art is an intrinsic part of their life and I know that qualifies you.
Here are highlights of the rest of our conversation that reveal some insights into the role of art in his life and his dreams for the future.
MsBoye (NBN): How would you define a successful artist?
Toby: What is successful? I don’t know. I guess having the energy and motivation that’s always something I’m struggling with, but just pushing forward is what I try to do. Even if I’m not successful at something, I try to just find new pathways to make it interesting and successful to me. Yeah. Or at least make it fun. Fail upward, you know?
NBN: If somebody was to ask you, “Hey, what do you do?” How would you answer?
Toby: Oh, in one minute or less, right? Just kidding.
That’s easy, I work in the arts.
Yeah, I work in the arts. I work as a board member for an arts nonprofit. I’m a company member of a theater group for people with disabilities. And I am a patron of the arts.
Yeah, I probably wouldn’t say that at parties, but that’s pretty much what I am. I support my friends when I go to their shows, I’m a patron. And I try to keep knowledgeable about things that I like, that are interesting by taking different classes, to master my craft.
NBN: Do you consider yourself an artist?
Toby: Sometimes. Sometimes I feel really artsy, especially when I’m doing something physical, like in a movement-based piece where I feel the emotion moving me and I’m getting really crafty and it feels like I’m connected with the people and things around me. Then I feel like I’m moving like I’m in the piece and space like I’m in tune with what I’m trying to do.
Then sometimes if I am playing a character, it just feels like I really have to take my time and break things down step-by-step and just, and work in that process of “Living in the moment.” At the same time, I’m thinking about what this person would actually do if I were them or if that were me. The same goes for doing text analysis or voiceover stuff.
NBN: So, for you being an artist is an experience rather than a job title or a description?
Toby: Yeah, like dancing at a club or something, which doesn’t sound very professional, but it’s a form of artistic expression you experience with a bunch of people and those people can become your friends. It’s fun to, to move like that. It’s fun to be in that space and to have that experience, to create that energy, and to share it with everybody. And then to be exhausted, to go home and rest (laughs).
NBN: You were recently in a production where you did something you’d never done before. Tell us about that experience?
Toby: I was in a play with TILT Performance Group, called “When She Had Wings”. I was the “Sound Guy” and I did the sound effects. I helped support the recorded sound effects like the foley in Radio Theatre. Which was really fun, ‘cuz it was a nice transition back into live-in-person work. It gave me a new perspective on what it means to share the space with others and to support my fellow company members. Help them out while also being alert and vigilant. It was like being an instrument to the energy around me, in a different way to being an actor.
I found that I really enjoyed it. Supporting my fellow actors like that, more than I thought I would. It was a great gift to me and I hope it was a great gift to everyone else. I hope I get to support my fellow artists like that in the future because it was really rewarding.
It requires a different level of concentration too; you have to be really present. It took a lot of pressure off in some aspects, but then it required a lot of attentiveness, I didn’t know I had in me, but I was able to channel the sound, and the feeling I was aiming for through the props. I could communicate that energy without speaking. I had all sorts of things, a bell, a slide whistle, a rattle made from seed pods and something called a Drum Thunder Tube, that was especially fun.
NBN: When you were a kid, were you one of those little boys who dreamed of being in musical theater?
Toby: This is so hard, coz, I think about this now and I’m just like, “What did I wanna be?” (laughs)
You see, I only have one really vivid memory of being a kid. I was playing outside, next to this cedar tree we had at the house. There was like a bunch of daffodils or dandelions, and I was picking flowers by myself, and I don’t know whether I was really thinking of anything to be or do, but I just remember thinking that it would’ve been nice to have someone there with me. Someone to share things with, I think.
To bring it back to your question though, I think I wasn’t concerned so much about what to be or so much as how to be, because I was always more concerned with the things and people around me.
So, no I wasn’t listening to show tunes, I listened to like Brittany Spears and NSYNC, which was controversial back in the early two thousand. But I didn’t know what any of it meant, it was the way the music made me feel. I just loved music.
NBN: Do you play any instruments?
Toby: I used to play the piano when I was in high school, I went to TSBVI, the school for the blind up here. Yeah, and high school is where a lot of things took off for me, because then I was allowed to try things, allowed to try out things, to express myself. Being at school was different, it wasn’t as fear-based, I felt safe there.
It was regimented but they had after-school clubs, you could go play music or go off campus for a movie night or you could start your own club. I took drum lessons. One of the residential instructors like the lead dorm manager, he did music, so he, and one of the other residential instructors went down to the old music room and we used to play drums and play with all the instruments.
I loved those sessions and that’s what I think got me interested in pursuing music more. I had a passion for drums, but then I realized I was a very weak person. I couldn’t hit the drums with enough force. Which was a bummer, but that’s fine. So, I took piano. You don’t have to hit the piano hard!
NBN: Do you remember the first live play you ever saw?
Toby: No, but I do remember the first play I was in. That was an accident. So, I was in sixth grade and I wanted to be in Spanish. Before the classes even started, they switched me out for drama and I was really upset because I wanted to learn Spanish. Living in Austin it seemed more useful to me. The thing was, I had recently gone blind and they thought, it was gonna be too hard to teach me both English braille and Spanish braille. They were wrong ‘cause I picked it up really quick, anyway, they put me in drama as my other elective.
So, I ended up in drama and the teacher didn’t quite know how to teach me. There I was in the improv and the monologues class with a bunch of seventh and eighth-graders. I didn’t understand how to do any of that stuff, I felt silly or like it was a joke like a sixth-grader would.
The final showcase was a play called “Hard Candy.” I remember it as series of vignettes and one of the eighth-graders who was the opening for the show got sick. I had to take over his part and it was just a couple lines, that I think I botched, but it was exciting, and I really liked it. So, I started pursuing it when I got into high school in 10th grade and then I, never looked back.
Yeah, that’s when I got the bug.
NBN: If you could have your dream life, which artistic path would you take?
Toby: Part of me would really love to write and then produce and direct that work, but that’s a lot and I don’t know if I have all of that energy. Yes, I would love to do that, but at the same time there is also a big part of me that is attracted to and feels a lot of resonance to music and singing. I’m at this interesting crossroads where I would like to choose thing and I’m not sure which path I would wanna take.
Then there’s voiceover that would be a supplemental thing that I would do.
NBN: I know you take voiceover classes. What was that experience like and how accessible are they?
Toby: So, my first experience was a bit rocky, the person I went to is an older professional in her field and she was a bit set in her ways. Her classes were in-person, way up at Bee Caves. She has some very strong, proven methods, which is good, I just don’t know if I was in the right place at the right time to hear what she had to teach.
I took another set of classes with my friend, Kristen. This teacher was at ACC and he was very good. It was about six weeks, three hours a week and that worked for me. He was slow and methodical and went step-by-step and it was helpful.
And he did a lot of resource sharing, which was nice.
The accessibility between the two was very different. The accessibility physically of the space, her venue was not easy to traverse, and I had to rely upon other artists there for assistance, which is not something I want to do. The first class was all in-person, she doesn’t do online. I did get the material electronically, which was nice. I think that’s something that I’m always gonna have to request at least three days in advance for prep work and markup. It adds to the time commitment of the class for me, but that’s what I have to do if I want to do the work. And it is something that I want to pursue.
Voiceover work is an interesting process to explore, cause it’s a different facet than just plain old singing and vocal resonance. It takes the distinct parts of the body, segments them and almost creates different sounds within those spaces. Each of those phonetic spaces, each of those bodily resonators, the top of the head, the eyes, the nose, the back of the like the throat, the front of the mouth, things like that. All of those can have different sounds in those spaces and all of those are fun to explore. It’s like dancing with sound inside your body rather than moving the outside of your body through space. It’s like any diving into the technical aspects of any art form, and I love that.
NBN: What’s the favorite character you’ve ever played and why?
Toby: I played a megalomaniac game show host in a TILT Performance Group production called “Pandora the Musical.” That was pretty fantastic. There were some pretty amazing costumes. I had a divine bright red sequined smoking jacket. I think that stands out to me right out of the box. That was pretty good, I had fun. I loved getting to perform with everybody, but it took a lot. It took a lot of energy, which can always be an issue for me. It was an amazing experience, but exhausting, so I think shows like “When She Had Wings” are important, because you get to transition to those supporting roles.
I think those are my two favorite roles thus far.
NBN: This month is Disability Pride Month, last month was Gay Pride, how do you think being a disabled gay/ queer man impacts your art or your expression as an artist, if it at all?
Toby: I think it does, I’ve done a few performances in drag. And that was fun.
Living truthfully, or just honestly, as it means to you. Being respectful to yourself and others. Enjoying yourself, without any fear, regrets. All of that makes me a better actor, a more honest artist. Authenticity is always good, right?
But it’s not always easy. I think part of that is hard because I’m still battling inside myself a little bit. Like with each new art form, it’s like a space that I’m wondering if I can share who I am with people. Wondering if I’ll be accepted.
Transitioning into film, feeling that I can obtain that perceived intimacy, but feeling like I’m intruding. Intruding on what I’m finding out is traditional masculinity and traditional heteronormative ideals or traditional beliefs that I don’t share. I’m having to be respectful. And it’s a stressful feeling like I have to toe the line a bit, in order to find my place in this new community, which can feel like hiding or losing a part of myself.
So, do I say what I wanna say about myself and risk being persecuted or pigeonholed, or do I just keep to myself? Secrets are hard. And I think building bridges is what I have to do. That’s how I have to work sometimes, even though I think I’m not very good at it. (laughs)
NBN: What defines Disability Pride for you?
Toby: It’s being around with all my friends who are disabled not in a ghetto type way, but living and laughing and joking about our experiences, about crutches, our canes, our guide dogs, or that time we got stuck in the elevator because we couldn’t reach the buttons or sharing our experiences in a world designed without consideration for us. Empathizing about our encounters with ableism, like the guy online, we were trying to hook up with on that app and you had to disclose and when you did, he blocked you, f**ck that guy. A safe place to share stories over drinks because we are proud of who we are and proud of our lives. I guess that’s what it means to me, because that’s what I think it would mean to me and a bunch of gays. It’s like I imagine a bunch of black folks or like people of color feel sharing their experiences with people of the same community.
NBN: If there was a Disability pride March here in Austin, would you take part?
Toby: Oh, hell yeah. Yeah, totally. Yeah, for sure. Yeah. Yeah. I just worry about, this is probably gonna get me in trouble, I worry about the allyship factor. I know this is probably bad, I know I shouldn’t worry about the allies, but I worry about the people who like have caretakers or have friends or lovers, or like people in their lives who they wanna bring to the Parade or the March or the festival that are traditionally able-bodied. Or like chronically-ill folks who are able-bodied or those who are invisibly disabled. I worry they would get discriminated against. That would be an emotional bloodbath, and that is stressful to me. I don’t want that to happen.
There’s a lot of infighting in the Disability community. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it happen in the queer community and I’ve seen it happen in the Disability Community, because they are communities made up of people from very different backgrounds. We forget it’s about unity, not uniformity. We need to come together in our differences. Y’all the shit’s real out there in the world right now. Yeah, we need to fight it together not fight each other.
MsBoye: What do you wish somebody had said to your teenage self being an actor with a Disability?
Toby: I wish there had been more of a focus on the process. There was a talk about it, but we didn’t have an in-depth discussion. As an actor on stage, ” How am I supposed to navigate the blocking?” the only answer I got was “Oh I dunno know, you’re gonna have to figure that out once you do more theater”. Not too helpful, but it is reality is nondisabled folks work in a nondisabled standard, which makes sense. But we were disabled students, and we were expected to work to the same standard. We were expected to fit into their box. Which ironically doesn’t prepare you for the outside theatre life.
Back then I would wanna know how other people like do it, what best works for them? I would want to know how to break that down a script, character development and text analysis and what blocking feel like in your body. Going through the different disciplines might have been nice. I feel like I missed out on the, on the kind of “Theater 1 0 1” that mainstream kids who went to a theater school or a mainstream high school theatre program got.
NBN: If your teenage self was able to see into your /his future, what would he be most surprised about your life now or what you get to do, who you are?
Toby: What surprises me most? Let’s see. I would say it’s like the amount of people that I’ve met. The different types of people that come up to me and say, they’ve seen me in something. It’s surprising that I can be recognized now. I was always well-known before in school but now it feels like strangers come up and talk to me.
Also, he’d be surprised to see I feel fulfilled a little bit. Not like all the way… still have a lot more I want to do, but I don’t feel as empty, as needy, as I used to.
NBN: You proud of what you’ve achieved?
Toby: I feel proud of where I’ve come to. I’m almost 30 and I have my own place and we’re pretty much stable financially. I get to hang out with my friends for a good majority of the time just (laughs) creating things. I get some pretty rewarding skills in exchange. I’m now learning how to schedule things for the first time in my life, (laughs) I didn’t have that skill ever. And I think, I feel like life does get a little bit better or at least a little bit tolerable.
MsBoye: Don’t get too radical there, “It gets a little bit better and a little bit tolerable!” Really?!
Toby: (laughs) Right! Yeah, life isn’t half as obnoxious as you think it’s going to be.
MsBoye: (laughs) There you go, that’s the quote for the title of the blog. All right!
Toby: Yeah, I think it’s okay. That sums it all up. All right. Thank you.