George Brant Light Meets Dark: His Increasingly Popular Works Run the Gamut from Hilarious to Heartfelt, with a Touch of the Macabre
Napoleon, Davi, American Theatre
IN 1991, ASPIRING ACTOR GEORGE BRANT HAD just finished a BFA at Northwestern University, in the suburbs of Chicago. He moved into the city to audition. And audition. Then he thought, "Why don't I just write a part for myself?"
The result was Lovely Letters, a satire of A.R. Gurney's popular concoction Love Letters. The play called for just two podiums and three actors--Brant added a mailman--so it was immanently producible. Rents were low, and, by 1993, Brant was writing, directing and acting at his own theatre, Zeppo.
The son of a lawyer and a pianist, Brant, now 43, grew up in Park Ridge, Ill., seeing Sondheim musicals with his parents and casting family members in home performances of The Wizard of Oz. "He always had a bigger perspective--he saw the whale show, so it made sense he would be a director/writer/producer," says actor J.P. Manoux, who co-authored two early plays with Brant, including Tights on a Wire, about rival circus families.
Brant's plays for Zeppo were often satires of well-known stories, histories or other plays. In Night of the Mime, he parodied Old Yeller and other coming-of-age and death-of-a-pet stories. His BORGLUM! The Mount Rushmore Musical was a pseudo-biography of the South Dakota landmark's sculptor.
Soon, Brant was exclusively performing offstage roles, replacing himself with actors he thought were better. Others began directing his plays, too. Derek Goldman, now artistic director of Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center in D.C., staged some of Brant's early plays at his own 1990s Chicago theatre, StreetSigns. "Everyone around him found him to be the funniest person they knew, as a human being, a performer and a writer of brilliant and irreverent parodies," Goldman declares.
No one could have guessed how dark a turn Brant's stories would later take. "Mostly, I poked fun at theatre, and theatre has a hard enough time of it," Brant decided. He challenged himself to make a statement of his own, without making fun of other people's points of view. With The Royal Historian of Oz, for instance, he tried his hand at a sincere play about author L. Frank Baum, a play that "wore its heart on its sleeve."
In the meantime, another artist was tackling Brant's early work--Laura Kepley, a directing student two years behind him at Northwestern. Kepley met the "hilarious" play Tights on a Wire before she met its co-author Brant.
"She was a better director than I am," acknowledges Brant. Over the course of the '90s, Brant "moved from actor/director/writer to just being a writer," he says. In 2001, he and Kepley married.
Success struck both of them, and juggling careers became a challenge. In 2002, Kepley was accepted to the Brown/Trinity MFA program in directing in Providence, R.I., while Brant got the green light to pursue an MFA in playwriting at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas--Austin. Brant decided to put his own training on hold and moved to Rhode Island with his wife.
FAST FORWARD TO FALL 2013: GROUNDED, BRANT'S new one-woman play about the war in Afghanistan, is being produced all over the country and beyond. In the United Kingdom, the Gate Theatre opened the work this past August at the Edinburgh Festival, then moved it to the Gate's space in London. Almost simultaneously, the National New Play Network--which gave the play its 2012 Smith Prize, a $5,000 commission--began rolling out the show, with productions at San Francisco Playhouse (through Sept. 7), Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Ariz. (Sept. 26-Oct. 13), and Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. (coming up in January and February 2014). In 2014, productions of Grounded are also slated at Page 73 in New York City, City Theatre of Pittsburgh and American Blues Theater of Chicago. Oberon Books published the script in August.
In Grounded, an F-16 fighter pilot is reassigned to the Air Force's drone program, shooting a remote-controlled Reaper in Afghanistan from a trailer near Las Vegas. …