A New Brain 

Behind the secenes of an oddball autobiography

When William Finn's autobiographical oddity A New Brain --a carnival ride through one man's battle with a brain tumor--blew through town in March, it was enjoyed mostly by friends and families of the UC students who put it on through BareStage Productions. Six months in the making, the UC show was something of which the cast was proud, especially considering that pretty much the whole story is sung--and danced. Like actors everywhere, they were sad to see it end and talked about how they might get to do it again. Fate--or more accurately, another company's creative difficulties--intervened, and now Brain is back, this time for its official West Coast premiere under the auspices of the Shotgun Players. (Brain runs through June 10 at Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley--see theater listings in Billboard for showtimes.)

A couple of months ago while the students were breaking down their bulky set, the Shotgunners were sweating. The second show of their 2001 season was falling apart, so they had a space, an audience, and no play. It was around this time that confirmed musical-hater Phil Stockton, who had worked on Shotgun's Three Sisters, sent out e-mails touting A New Brain, a choice seconded by UC student and Shotgun player Reid Davis. Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley took the unusual step of approaching his BareStage counterpart Yuval Sharon--Brain director and occasional participant in the Shotgun reindeer games--to see if he wanted to stage the show again, this time with full Shotgun support. Sharon, whose actors speak fondly of his ability to pull a cast together into a team, leapt at the chance, and so did his actors. "Yuval came to me in his exuberant way," recounts Jeff Meanza, who played protagonist Gordon Schwinn and works with Sharon at Cal Performances, "and he said, 'What are you doing this summer?' A couple of other people from the cast work with me, and we were all jumping around and screaming. It was very exciting."

Sharon was able to get his entire original cast, meaning that in some ways, this is the same show he presented at UC. The most appreciable change responds to the difference between the two spaces. Whereas UC's Choral Rehearsal Hall boasts a very small thrust stage, the Julia Morgan stage is a wider, deeper proscenium. For the new run, the orchestra was moved from audience-right to behind the stage, the choreography and blocking were adjusted, and the set was totally rebuilt to take advantage of the extra space. "We were all excited because now we're all professional, and there we were, all still building the set," Meanza laughs, recounting the construction frenzy in Dooley's backyard.

Reactions to the new production have been mixed. While the Chron's Steve Winn and I experienced the show very differently--he feels it lacks coherence, while I am impressed with the sheer quirkiness of the concept --Dooley says that surprised audience and board members have approached him, commenting, "That was corny, but I liked it!" and "You should do more musicals." As Dooley points out, he tends to give audiences the most intense pieces he can find-- "I figure they get enough Neil Simon at Center Rep"--and dedicated fans of the Shotgunners may not have bought their season subscription expecting a musical, even one featuring an evil frog man and songs about brain tumors. It's also surprising to see a Shotgun performance without a single regular in evidence (or, for that matter, any nudity, bloodshed, or even one measly severed head). What everyone does agree on is how much energy, enthusiasm, and commitment the young cast brings to A New Brain, and how refreshing they make the theatrical experience.

The collaboration seems to benefit everyone involved. The company, which had to scramble when One Size Fits All tanked, pushed its envelope and discovered a fun new thing. "Now we're thinking about doing more musicals," Dooley says, "maybe one a year. [Director] Katie Bales really got into it and is out looking" for more. Dooley, who would like to develop a relationship with UC, hopes to see more student involvement with the Shotgunners.

Professionally inclined cast members such as Meanza, who heads to UNC Chapel Hill in the fall to pursue his MFA, and director Sharon, who is off to New York, will hit the ground running with credits from a respected small theater. Adventurous audiences get to see a clever and thought-provoking musical performed by a lively, talented cast. And finally, for the non-acting-major students involved, the opportunity to work together again on a much-loved project with a good director--and get paid for it--has obviously meant a lot. As Sharon sums it up: "[The cast learned] that good work is noticed, and good work is rewarded."

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