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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hard Work and Training Pave the Way to Broadway: Interview with Adam Brown



Adam Brown greetings fans after a performance of Once. Photo – Lana Lindsey.

By Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

I first saw Adam Brown, when he was about 16, at Walden Theatre in Sonny's House of Spies. He played a middle-aged, closeted gay man who, in a pivotal scene, reveals some hard truths to the title character. I remember thinking that the production would not have necessarily been better served by an age-appropriate casting choice, so true and honest was the performance. Later his abilities were further recognized and nurtured when in 2007 he placed first overall in the English Speaking Union's National Shakespeare Competition and studied for a summer in London.

Six years, a degree from DePaul University, and a season working in Chicago later, the Youth Performing Arts School alumnus seems to be making good on the promise of that early work, having recently taken over the role of Eamon in the Broadway production of Once, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2011. Recently we talked with Adam about the experience.

Arts-Louisville:  Just over a year ago, you were finishing your undergrad degree, and now you are in one of the hottest shows on Broadway. How does THAT feel?
Adam Brown:  It's a whirlwind. To have trained as long as I have, and to have worked as hard as I have for as long as I have, it's a humbling and jaw-dropping payoff. The show itself has a very special place in my heart. Having been a longtime fan of the movie, and a pretty avid Glen Hansard fan, I knew many of the songs from the show already and would play them with my friend busking on the streets of Chicago. Now, to not only make my Broadway debut, but to be able to play these songs in particular every night and tell this beautiful story, I consider myself very, very blessed.

A-L:  How did you get the job?
Adam:  I originally auditioned for the national tour in November of last year in Chicago. Although the audition went really well and I got very positive feedback in the room from the casting director, I didn't hear heads or tails from them for months after, so naturally I figured nothing would come of it. Then, in May of this year, the casting director, Jim Carnahan, invited me back in to read the same sides and play another song of my choice. Then he had me come back the next day to read for him and three of his associates. I felt great about the callback and left. About a week later they invited me to a final callback in New York for four swing parts in the touring company. Two days later they called again and said that they were also going to consider me for the Broadway company. They sent me four different sides for each of the characters, plus six songs on five different instruments to learn for the callback. In New York, I had three different callbacks: music, dance/movement and finally acting. I went into a studio space in midtown and met with the associate director and associate music director and played two songs on the guitar, one on piano, one on bass, one on drums and another on the ukulele. Next, I went to a dance studio and met with the associate choreographer and did a group callback. The next day I came in and read for the entire creative team, played two songs on the guitar, read only two of the four sides I prepared, worked with the original director on the Eamon character scene, and then went to the airport to wait for my flight back to Chicago. While I was sitting in the terminal, my agent called and said, "Go home, pack up your things, you move to New York on Monday:  you're in the Broadway production of Once." I couldn't actually believe what he had said, so I made him repeat it a few times before it sunk in.

A-L:  You had been working steadily in Chicago and to some acclaim, having been nominated for a Joseph Jefferson award. What had been your plan to reach the Big Time before the Once audition?
Adam:  Chicago is a really special place. The work that goes on there, from huge houses like Steppenwolf and Lookingglass all the way down to the non-equity storefront shows, have such passion and heart. It's truly about the art of theatre and storytelling and less about egos or who was in what last season. As such, a lot of work that happens in Chicago makes its way to New York and Los Angeles. I knew that New York was a goal on the horizon for me, and my plan was to simply remain true to myself and dedicate myself to shows I felt passionate about, and that one day the stars would align and the show would be picked up, or a producer or director would see something I was in and I would move up from there. It happens a lot in Chicago.

A-L:  How would you characterize Broadway audiences from what you have experienced in the past?
Adam:  They are no different from audiences at Actors Theatre. Audiences come to the theatre to be transported, and Broadway houses are no exception. They are enthusiastic and ready for anything. Our audiences come from all over the world. But one of the most beautiful aspects of the theatre is that once the houselights go down and the show starts, race, status, prejudices, everything flies out the window and for two and a half hours, everyone becomes equal. It's magical.

A-L:  Most famous people cite luck as a vital ingredient, but you have been training for this career since you were 9 years old. How important has that training, specifically Walden Theatre and YPAS, been in making you the best casting choice for Eamon?
Adam:  There is no easy answer to that. Bob Dylan said, "An artist should always be trying to reach a place; they should never arrive. When you arrive, you die." My grandfather said, "Learn something new every day." Training is so important. Generally, I agree with Dylan. An artist should always be looking to better themselves and their art. As a lover of the arts as well as an artist, I'm not interested in someone standing onstage or at a gallery somewhere or in a concert and saying, "Here is my perfection." That's not interesting. What's interesting, and I think what separates artists like Dylan from everyone else, is that constant look-around-the-corner-for-what-comes-next gleam you can see in their eyes. Yes, tonight the show went well, but tomorrow, how can we do it better?

Specifically related to Walden, that answer is a book. I don't think I can ever properly repay them for everything I learned there – not just about being a better actor. But how to be a better person. Teachers there not only taught me how to find my light, or make a cue, but how to be selfless onstage and off; how you are never the most important person in the room and there is always someone who you owe for helping you get onstage every night. They taught me to love what I do, and do what I love. To never sacrifice my integrity or my dignity just to be in the spot light. To always, and above all, tell the story. That's what theatre and acting is. It's not about awards or fame or money. It's about the magic of storytelling. As one teacher told me, "That's our job. How cool is that?" I couldn't put the spirit of Walden any better. 

Adam and Alaina Mills, another YPAS grad,
working in NYC. Photo – Lana Lindsey.
  
YPAS was an incredible experience as well. I'm constantly amazed at how many arts outlets our city provides young people. While Walden rented out theaters around the city, most were smaller houses. YPAS gave me the opportunity to do big budget, big audience shows in their spaces. I did Music Man there, which was a major step out of my comfort zone. I had never really dipped too far into musicals, and that experience definitely allowed me to go into places like Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Once, already having been on big stages and knowing what it took to play to houses that large. My favorite experience there was doing Hamlet my senior year. I honestly don't have the proper words to articulate my gratitude to YPAS for trusting me in that role, or convey the amount of unadulterated fun I had doing the show. Hamlet was one of a handful of theatrical experiences I've had where I've been onstage one night, looked around and thought to myself, "This is what I'm supposed to do with my life." It's the best feeling in the world.

A-L:  What is your advice for young actors looking at a professional career?
Adam:  To be honest with yourself and with those around you. Always be respectful and never be a diva. When in doubt, the right choice in a crowded room of artists is not to speak louder or be showier; usually the right choice is to close your mouth and open your eyes. You will be surprised how much you can learn. Be passionate about your work and take care of the people onstage with you every night – they will do the same in return. Watch movies, read books, see plays. Do something outside of the theatre as well. How can you be a truly well-rounded actor if you're not a well-rounded person as well? I took up music completely out of the mindset of theatre and it turned out to be one of my best assets as an actor. It's funny how many other things like that you find in the theatre. Don't take a job just for the money or for the chance to be in a show. Don't compromise yourself just to say you're an actor. Do plays and musicals that move you personally, that you can get behind and not be ashamed of. Go to Walden.

A-L:  How long do you expect to be in the show? What comes next? What are your long-term ambitions?
Adam:  I've signed on for a year with Once. At the end of that year I could sign another year contract, or move on to something else. As to what comes next, who really knows? The actual getting on Broadway part happened so fast that I haven't really had time to plan too far in the future. My agent back in Chicago has offices in Manhattan, so I will work with them and see what doors can be opened in the city, and see if I can stay in New York for a while. Or there are still a lot of wonderful people and theatre companies I have yet to work with back in Chicago. I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be at this point in my life and have more than one option in my future. Time will tell.

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