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Stage Directing: William Brown goes for the contact of conversation

William BrownAt heart, director William Brown is a minimalist, or perhaps more accurately, chamber musician. The Chicago theater veteran, who early in life saw his future as an opera singer, loves those intimate scenes for two or three actors getting deeply into the characters' lives -- what he calls parsing a text.

"I've been an actor all my life, and nothing thrills me more than a two-person scene," says Brown. "those moments when people sit down and talk to each other, and the theater grows hushed, are special for me. No tricks, you simply honor the nature of real conversation between two people who need something from each other and are trying to understand each other."

Brown, a native West Virginian who arrived in Chicago during the city's theatrical flowering of the 1980s, won notice as an actor before finagling his first directing assignment in 1998 at the young Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

"Actually, I resorted to extortion and blackmail," he says with a laugh, recalling his negotiation with Writers' artistic director Michael Halberstam. "Michael wanted me to play Elyot in (Noel Coward's) 'Private Lives.' That was back before Writers' reputation had really taken off. I told him I'd play Elyot if I could direct (Tennessee Williams') 'Glass Menagerie.' And that's how I got my first directing job in Chicago.

"I really wanted to do 'Glass Menagerie.' I come from a big Southern family. I respond to Tennessee. I once directed 'Night of the Iguana at American Players Theatre — outside, on a hot summer night. That was perfect."

Brown's history as director at the al fresco American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis., is long and diverse. It is notably dotted with Shakespeare, half a dozen plays ranging from "All's Well That Ends Well" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to last summer's "Troilus and Cressida."

"All credit to William Shakespeare," the director says. "The emotional depth, poetry and truth in Shakespeare's work is unparalleled. I don't know any other way to say it. His plays are still about us. There's something excruciatingly modern about 'Troilus,' even though it's set during the Trojan War. When it gets down to it, those characters are just folks — venal, dishonest, loving.

"They're not gods or even heroes. The gods are left completely out of it. Here's Shakespeare insisting that we're responsible for our own lives and actions."

Both Brown's zeal for Shakespeare — he's associate director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks' summer program -- and for acting were sparked during his student days as a voice major at West Virginia University, where he played Edgar in "King Lear."

"Musicians have a leg up on Shakespeare," he says. "You have to understand that it's essentially music, and then you ride the music. Even in college I was recognized as a singing actor, and I landed a lot of non-musical roles that meant a lot to me. I love the act of telling a story, and I guess that's what led me eventually into directing.

"I was also lucky enough to work with some great directors. I realized at some point that I had my own opinions about things like lighting, viewpoint, even hemlines. I guess that's when I decided I wanted to be a director."

Still, upon graduation from West Virginia, Brown migrated to New York with his dream of an opera career. There, a wise vocal coach would advise the aspiring singer that a starry life on the opera stage was unlikely.

"I had to change direction, but it was hardly a one-eighty turn to acting, just an adjustment," Brown says. "I stayed on in New York for three years before deciding to try my luck in San Francisco. New York is tough, and I felt I might get lost in the crowd. I knew too many people waiting tables in their seventh year."

After a stretch with San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, Brown announced to astonished friends that he was taking a flier to the burgeoning theater scene in Chicago. The rest is a personally rewarding history as director at TimeLine Theatre, Goodman Theatre and Northlight Theatre in addition to numerous plays at Writers'.

"I'm not rich or famous," he says, "but I get to tell stories with wonderful actors and some of the finest designers of lighting, sets and costumes in the country. And every story is different, no matter how many times you tell it."

Lawrence B. Johnson
Contributing Writer

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