Theater for Rocket Scientists – Arroyo Monthly, October 2010

Photo by John Weiner, Caltech

For this latest issue of the Arroyo Mag. I enjoyed meeting Brian Brophy, theater director at Caltech. Aw, theater people! Energy, wit and experience….gotta love ’em!

Here’s the entire story:

Theater among atomic researchers

Heading up Caltech’s Theater Arts program, Brian Brophy sees theater as a vehicle for social, economic and political change – not to mention, being a good time for all.

By Brenda Rees

In a land where formulaic equations, quantum physics and molecular biology are rather common place and expected, Brian Brophy is kindly 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, a class of undergraduates and graduates who probably feel more comfortable around complex chemical reactions, engineering and the far reaches of outer space than how to effectively deliver a soliloquy under bright stage lights to a full house.

“We have arguably some of the smartest – and stressed out – students in the world here,” says Brophy who’s been at the helm at Caltech officially for two years after a previous part-time year.  As with Caltech’s other creative offerings of music and art, theater, says Brophy, provides students with opportunities so they can “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 alumnae, faculty and staff at nearby JPL to participate in the theatrical process from cold reading a script, set building, costume creation to opening night jitters. Brophy has shepherded various productions from the well-known (Brecht’s Life of Galileo) to the brand-spanking new (George Moran’s play of the first female rocket scientist, Rocket Girl).

“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-man show. Now, armed with degrees in Environmental Science and Business and working in the Boston area, Yu credits the program and Brophy for helping her to “be more confident with public speaking and relating to people more. At the end of the day, theater helps us humans understand each other better.”

It’s not the first time Brophy has heard about the power of theater to enhance and change lives – not to mention, his own.

For example, before coming to Caltech, Brophy, on a Fulbright Scholarship, was living, lecturing and leading workshops in India on how theater can affect social change, an idea he previously studied under Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal, author of the book and movement, “Theater of the Oppressed.”

“A lot of the time, our internal oppression are housed in the outside world, but we’ve internalized them, sometimes so much we don’t even know they’re there,” he explains. “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 in Varanasi at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Brophy’s students examined political and cultural oppressions like the poor treatment of women (especially female university students) and economic disparity. Given the spotlight, these topics challenged students to re-think their own attitudes and behaviors.

“Certain people get preferential treatment and you can call it caste-based or class-based, but it’s comes down to money and power,” says Brophy. “We’d look at different scenarios and ask, ‘How would you dismantle this? What other options do you have?’ Let’s re-think or re-play different responses to possible intractable social oppressions.”

Of course, Brophy’s experience in India wasn’t his first time he introduced young students to the concept of transfomative theater. His first experience was back in the 1990s after he established himself as an actor of note, having spent 25 years with the acclaimed Actor’s Gang and also enjoying roles on television (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Max Headroom) and in major feature films (The Shawshank Redemption and The Player).

But the bright lights of Hollywood glitz wasn’t enough for Brophy, who grew up on the outskirts of Chicago and in Montana. “In the late 90s, I was getting bored of doing television, it wasn’t exciting for me,” he admits. With grants from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the California Art Council, he started working with at-risk teen groups teaching them about the ins and outs of the trade – and learning from them as well.

Brophy’s earliest endeavor was 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 about the eight years he spent watching these students grow as human beings. “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.

Brophy and the teens worked on a variety of plays that dealt with gang violence, domestic abuse, the untold and unglamorous history of California and more.  “They really taught me how to listen,” he says.  “Really listen to someone’s dreams. I’m still in touch with many of them today.”

Eventually, Brophy’s talented crew were invited to perform at the International Youth Theater Festival in Mostar, Bosnia where the group received an award for their multicultural and social-consciousness production that involved a series of 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 working with youth groups and students of all ages facilitating workshops, directing and teaching at Southland colleges and universities.

With the City of Riverside and UC Riverside, Brophy directed and co-created Eastside Story, an original play that picked up on the real-life violence that was taking place at local high schools between African Americans and Hispanics – a play that was performed by students from those very same schools. Once again, Brophy saw how theater broke down walls of distrust among 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 hard-edged inner-city youth as well as reserved braniacs, Brophy is now determined to make theater relevant at Caltech. For all the lofty “do-good” goals of theater, he maintains that whether it’s done by street kids or professionals, plays have to be, first and foremost, entertaining. “I don’t want to be lectured, I don’t want to be told what to think. I want to be entertained. To laugh and be moved to tears,” he says. “There’s nothing better than a good cry, is there?”

Brophy adds that theater, while on the surface can be just a safe place for students to blow off steam, it 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, a remake of one of the oldest plays in Western literature, “The Suppliant Maidens” (463 B.C.).  For more information and tickets, call (626) XXX-XXXX.

Posted in Arroyo Monthly.

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