Fresh from a successful run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Soho Playhouse in New York, Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life tells the inspirational true story of Keith Alessi a well-known CEO in North America who two weeks after quitting his high-flying job to pursue his dream of becoming a banjo player was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and told he had just 50% chance of living a year. Damian Robinson caught up with Keith to find out more.
You’re about the start your UK tour of Tomatoes, could you explain the premises of the story?
At its heart, it is a show about the healing power of the arts and music and the importance of pursuing one’s passions. It’s never too late. The Tomatoes and Banjos are both literal and metaphorical. The show chronicles my journey from growing up in an abusive Italian immigrant household, to the heights of the business world, followed by a deadly cancer diagnosis and ultimately healing.
There’s a really important centre to the heart of the story – what type of impact do you want Tomatoes to have?
The show was intended to be a short run in Toronto in 2018. It resonated deeply with audiences and the next thing I knew, we were touring all across Canada, the UK, and the US. We were selected to perform Off-Broadway, where we sold out our run. We just had our 245th performance. I donate my gate to cancer and theatre charities. We have just surpassed over 373,000 GBP. I’ll continue touring as long as audiences are showing up!
The play is based on the true story of your life, how have you found bringing your story to life on stage and how is your banjo playing?
It’s been humbling. I never aspired to take to the stage. I had been on big stages in the business world and at Universities. The personal connections I’ve made with people through the theatre have been far more meaningful than those in my other worlds. I’m an intermediate player. That’s one of the strong messages of the show. You don’t have to be a virtuoso. Playing with a community of musicians is what it’s all about. Enjoy the process.
Tomatoes received great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival, how did that make you feel and are plaudits important to you?
I don’t perform for plaudits. It’s certainly validation but we were getting that from audiences. Acclaim helps draw audiences and for that reason I am grateful.
Aside from the UK tour, what future plans do you have for Tomatoes?
I have a fairly busy tour schedule in Canada this summer and I’m looking forward to returning to Edinburgh for a full month of shows in August. I continue to get opportunities from theatres and will tour as long as there is demand and we can raise money for worthy causes.
Tomatoes tried to kill me tours numerous North East venues from April 5th