James J. "Jim" Tommaney, a writer and critic for the Houston Press since 2011, died last night after a long illness, his niece informed us this morning.
Tommaney, who began writing for the Press as a theater critic and later transitioned to visual arts critic, had a wide range of knowledge of and enthusiasm for the arts. One of the founding members of the Houston Theater Awards panel, Tommaney had a special interest in theater at the college level. He attended and wrote about many of those performances in addition to the professional productions he reviewed.
He was also an active playwright, actor, producer and director with his Edge Theatre -- in fact, it was his never failing interest in performance that caused him to step away from most theater criticism (he still wrote previews of upcoming productions for the Press) and transition to the visual arts so he could concentrate on his own work. He performed most recently in Catastrophic Theatre's production of Detroit.
Actor/director Troy Schulze, who directed Tommaney in Detroit, had this to say today:
"He was a joy to work with; he was incredibly enthusiastic. He brought so much insight in working on Detroit because of his experiences and the stories he would tell from living during the time that he talks about in the play. During the play he would send me emails with all these great insights into his character. He dove right into it and fleshed it out incredibly. He designed his own costume; he knew what he wanted to wear. He drove himself to the theater every night. I was just amazed at his energy. He made me cry at every performance. And not just me."
Schulze said Tommaney had been working on a followup. "He wanted to work with me on another show. He kept in contact with me after the play."
"He was an incredible champion for the Houston theater scene and not just the companies you hear about all of the time, and he put everybody on a equal footing. We lost an incredible supporter. I thought he would just keep going. He worked right up to the very end."
Tommaney applied the same effort to his coverage of the visual arts. It didn't matter if it was statues in a park or paintings in a back hallway at city hall, if it was something worth looking at, he wanted to bring it to the attention of the public. A conscientious writer with a wicked sense of fun, Tommaney got his assignments in on time and as a critic was able to roll with the criticism he sometimes received in turn. He was unreserved in his praise -- an often made coda to his reviews was "This is a must-see show! (which sometimes didn't make it into print) -- but he was equally willing to express disappointment and bewilderment when he just didn't get something.
Tommaney spent some of his time split between Houston and South Beach, Florida, mounting his own productions in both locations. Originally from New York City, he studied English Lit at Yale University. Among the 25 plays he wrote were Viv! (The Story Behind the Legend), Marilyn Monroe (The Final Hours of Norma Jeane) and Antonio.
Last week, Tommaney contacted his Press editors to tell them his health had worsened after Thanksgiving and that he was going to need to take a break, but would be back in contact if he got better.
His niece Susie Tommaney asked that we include this message about her Uncle Jim.
Jim Tommaney believed in the energy that came from our interconnectedness. The family asks that he be remembered through creativity. If you can write, perform, draw, paint, dance, act, sculpt or create, do it with a passion, and do it every day. Support the arts through your words of encouragement and your patronage. Creativity is one of the best ways to leave a lasting mark on this planet.
The family is reading the emails and Facebook posts, and all sentiments are helpful and appreciated. Jim's niece is compiling an art project from all of the tributes, so that the energy from your good wishes will be transformed into a lasting tribute of Jim Tommaney.
Tommaney was preceded in death by his twin brother and is survived by his niece and nephews. His family will be returning his ashes to upstate New York, to a plot next to his parents and partner. No Houston service is planned.