by Becca Kidwell
In these harsh economic times, it is difficult to imagine having the same job at the same company for twenty-six years. It is even more difficult to imagine having a theatre job for longer than the run of one show. Brian McEleney of Trinity Rep has done both. This year, he continues his joyful romp through life as director of Trinity Rep’s productions of Absurd Person Singular and The Crucible and actor in The Completely Fictional—Utterly True—Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe.
Although he did a few plays in high school, it was not until college when he started to think about a theatrical career. As a senior at Trinity College (where one of his classmates was Anne Scurria—now a fellow company member), McEleney was accepted to Yale and “that convinced me that this could be a serious career, and I’ve done almost nothing else ever since.” He first taught at Princeton University and The Bread Loaf School of English. Since 1981, he has taught at Trinity Rep and is currently the head of acting for the Brown/Trinity M.F.A. Program.
With successful productions both in acting and directing, I ask him which he prefers:
“Hard to say which I like more; it’s kind of like asking which of your children is your favorite… However, preproduction work as a director is tremendous fun — thinking about the play, imagining what the production should look and feel like, finding big ideas that will tie the whole thing together. And also, when you’re directing, the dreaded labor of learning lines isn’t an issue. However, after the play opens you’re pretty much done. As an actor, I love the performing aspect — the fact that you get to do it eight times a week that you get a new chance every day to make it better and deeper. I love the athletic aspect of acting that you always have to be doing your absolute best and giving the play to a new audience every night.”
As an actor, some of his favorite roles include: Dr. Larch in THE CIDER HOUSE RULES; Richard II; Prior Walter in ANGELS IN AMERICA, Jamie Tyrone in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT; Malvolio in TWELFTH NIGHT (twice!); Mr. Ford in THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR; and Mozart in AMADEUS. Few people will forget his hilarious performance as the prim Malvolio in bright yellow garters or will deny the keen direction of the show.
Last season, with Twelfth Night, McEleney took up roles as both director and actor. Although taking on both tasks could be daunting, he said, “It wasn’t hard to direct and act while we were in the rehearsal hall. It was a little surreal — jumping up from the table when it was my ‘turn’ to act, but otherwise it was quite fun and challenging… However, when we got onto the stage, into costume and started doing dress rehearsals and previews, I wasn’t really prepared for how difficult it would be to actually watch the show, since when I wasn’t in a scene I was usually offstage changing my costume. I had to trust that the work we had done in rehearsal was good, and let the production take its own course.”
Brian describes what it is like to be part of the strong, enduring acting company such as Trinity Rep: “I have often said that being a member of this company is like being part of a family — with all the attendant pros and cons of family relationships. Though sometimes there are fights, disagreements, rivalries, resentments — our long-term relationship is a constant that supports and defines us.” In addition, he said these relationships helped him when he worked on Twelfth Night in getting feedback from his fellow actors without losing his control as director.
When McEleney approaches a directing project, he asks himself “What do I love about this play? Why is it important to tell this story now, and how can I make the audience understand why it’s important to them?” and “How can the Trinity Rep acting company take ownership of this play, and present it in a way that is unique to us and to our audience?” With a play from the 1970’s and an iconic Arthur Miller play to direct this season, the latter thought can’t have been far from his mind.
Absurd Person Singular, a holiday farce by Alan Ayckbourn, has opened to many positive reviews and runs through November 21st. It will be interesting to see how he has Trinity Rep “take ownership” of this British play from the 1970’s for a millennial production in America. Brian states that one of the biggest challenges he faced with the production was the scenery in the Rep’s intimate Dowling Theatre. However, he “was thrilled with the set Michael McGarty came up with, a basically black wall with interchangeable doors and windows and modular furniture which allowed us to make the necessary architectural adjustments to each particular kitchen while making the actors the most important element in the play.” He is delighted with “the work of the actors in this play; each of them brings his or herself fully to each role, and acts with specificity, bravery, precision, depth, clarity and athleticism.”
His other directing challenge this year is The Crucible. I have to personally admit that while I like reading the play, I cringe when I hear it is being staged. The play revolves around large themes, a large cast, and two large events in history (the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Hearings). Brian tells me that he intends to “make the production as absolutely immediate as possible. The play is based on real-life characters and events, and was written in response to a charged contemporary political climate. I hope that I can tell Arthur Miller’s story with passion and specificity, and make it feel contemporary, rather than a Sturbridge Village historical pageant.” With this description, some of my fears are allayed and I am curious to see the outcome of his work.
When he is not acting, directing, or teaching, he finds time to run fervently. When asked how he maintains his energy with all the demands his career and life place upon him, he says it’s because “I love my work.” After twenty-six years and the opportunity to see several plays that he has been involved in, I have no doubt that this statement is true. TNETG.
Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn, October 15-November 21, 2010
The Crucible by Arthur Miller, February 4-March 13, 2011
The Completely Fictional-Utterly True-Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe by Stephen Thorne, May 6-Jun 5, 2011