Theater for Rocket Scientists
Left brains meet right for fun (but not necessarily profit)in Brian Brophy’s Theater Arts at Caltech program.
By Brenda Rees 10/01/2010
In a world where issues of quantum physics and molecular biology are water cooler topics, Brian Brophy is gently shaking up the status quo with a little Bertolt Brecht, a touch of Greek drama and a slice of musical theater thrown in for good measure.
As director of Theater Arts at Caltech (TACIT), Brophy is charged with offering a keen balance of arts to the mighty academic institution’s student body, undergrads and graduates who probably feel more comfortable pondering complex chemical reactions, engineering and the far reaches of outer space than ways to effectively deliver a soliloquy under bright stage lights to a full house.
“We have arguably some of the smartest — and most stressed out — students in the world here,” says Brophy, 51, who has been at the helm of TACIT since 2008. Like Caltech’s other creative offerings of music and art, theater, says Brophy, provides students with opportunities to “get out of their own heads for a few hours, flex their artistic muscles and create a social network with people they might not normally meet on campus or in classrooms.”
Indeed, TACIT’s productions invite not only students, but faculty, alums and staff of the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory to participate in the theatrical process, from cold reading a script, set-building or costume creation to opening night jitters. Brophy has shepherded varied productions, from the classics (Brecht’s Life of Galileo) to the brand new (Rocket Girl, Ventura-based playwright George D. Morgan’s original work about the first female rocket scientist, and the Loh Down on Science, KPCC-FM host and Caltech grad Sandra Tsing Loh’s science radio minute now in development as an hourlong show).
One newly hatched environmental scientist discovered she was ready for her close-up in TACIT. “The theater program was a great outlet for my artistic abilities,” says Cecilia Yu, a recent Caltech grad who acted in six TACIT productions and even directed a one-person show. Now, working in the Boston area armed with degrees in environmental science and business, Yu credits the program and Brophy with helping her to be “more confident with public speaking and relating to people more. At the end of the day, theater helps us understand each other better.”
Brophy came to Caltech fresh from a Fulbright Scholarship in India, where he spent six months lecturing and leading workshops on what is known as transformative theater — theater that leads to social change. He’d previously traveled to San Francisco; Omaha, Neb.; and Calcutta to study it under Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal, author of the movement and book, Theater of the Oppressed. Brophy says that that form of theater can help exhume oppressive attitudes, like racial bigotry and religious intolerance, from one’s unconscious; these negative thoughts can be housed so deep that “we don’t even know they’re there,” he says, “but when you externalize them on the stage, put them up there for everyone to see, well, you begin to understand what’s going on much more clearly.”
At the Peace Research Center at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi on the banks of the River Ganges, Brophy’s students looked at the political and cultural oppression of women and at economic disparity in India’s caste-bound society.
Spotlighting these topics challenged students to reexamine their own attitudes and behavior, he says. “Certain people get preferential treatment, and you can call it caste-based or class-based, but it comes down to money and power,” he says. “We’d look at different scenarios and ask, ‘How would you dismantle this? What other options do you have?’”
Brophy’s experience in India wasn’t his first brush with introducing students to transformative theater. His interest in it had evolved after a fairly conventional career as a Los Angeles actor, albeit one of note; in his 25 years in the business, he appeared with Tim Robbins’ acclaimed Actors’ Gang theater company and appeared in feature films (The Shawshank Redemption and The Player) and television (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Max Headroom). But his Hollywood career left him unfulfilled. “In the late ’90s, I was getting bored with doing television,” says Brophy, who grew up in Chicago and Montana.
His wife, Cynthia Campoy Brophy, had been bringing some of L.A.’s highest-risk youth together with professional artists as part of The HeArt Project, an organization she founded on Skid Row in 1992. With grants from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the California Art Council, Brophy started working with at-risk teens himself, teaching them about the ins and outs of professional acting — and learning from them in turn.
Brophy made his teaching debut with the Shadow Klan, an inner-city group of teenagers who wanted to write, act and direct their own plays. “I got really close to those kids,” he says of his eight-year stint. “Here I was, this dorky white guy who wanted to hang out with them, who was interested in them and their lives,” he says with a laugh. His group worked on a variety of plays that addressed gang violence, domestic abuse, the untold and unglamorous history of California and more. “They really taught me how to listen, really listen, to someone’s dreams,” he says. “I’m still in touch with many of them today.”
In 1997, Brophy’s talented crew was invited to perform at the International Youth Theater Festival in Mostar, Bosnia, where the troupe received an award for a multicultural production that called for violent slaps between cast members. “It was physical and visceral, starting out as funny but ending up as something profound,” he says.
Energized, Brophy continued teaching and directing at Southland colleges and universities. With the City of Riverside and U.C. Riverside, Brophy co-created and directed Eastside Story, a play about violence between African Americans and Hispanics at local high schools — cast with students from those very schools. Once again, Brophy saw how theater broke down walls of distrust between groups. “When people of different backgrounds have the chance to mingle and work with one another, peace can happen,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen time and time again.”
Comfortable working with both inner-city youth and privileged brainiacs, Brophy is pursuing his mission of making theater relevant at Caltech. And beyond his lofty goal of transformative art, he believes productions must be, first and foremost, entertaining. “I don’t want to be lectured, I don’t want to be told what to think,” he says. “I want to be entertained, to laugh and be moved to tears. There’s nothing better than a good cry, is there?”
He adds that theater, which on the surface can be just a safe place for students to blow off steam, can also be a stepping stone to life in the spotlight, scientific or otherwise. “Hopefully, we are creating leaders who can go out into the world and be big picture people — people who can communicate, be aware of others and comfortable in social situations,” he says. “Theater, performance, social networking — what we are offering them is the opportunity to be fuller, more interesting and captivating people who can go out there and change the world — and yes, let’s face it, people who are also very good at dinner parties.”
On Nov. 5, 6 and 7, TACIT will present Big Love by Chuck Mee — inspired by what may be the oldest surviving drama in Western literature, Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens (463 B.C.) — at Caltech’s Dabney Lounge, 322 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena. Showtimes are 8:30 p.m. Friday, 10 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 and 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $18 for general admission, $9 for JPL employees and $5 for students. Call (626) 395-4652.