Meet the Teacher: Brian Granger
By: Amber James
According to his bio, Dr. Brian Granger is a musical theater bookwriter, playwright, theatre scholar, songwriter, and actor/director. His academic research interests include North American ethnic playwrights and Africana musicals on Broadway. He holds degrees from Kenyon College (B.A.), The Ohio State University (M.F.A.), NYU/Tisch School of the Arts (M.F.A), and the University of California – Santa Barbara (PhD).
We are excited to now add Mary Baldwin University to Brian’s extensive list of credentials, where he joined the faculty this fall. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Brian to ask him some questions so that the student body can get to know him a little better.
Q: What is your theatre origin story?
BRIAN: Initially, I would have to say that growing up in the church was really central. My dad is an Episcopal priest, so going to church and participating in the backstage work of church, like setting things up, folding programs, moving chairs around, that was often something my brothers and I had to do on a Saturday. And it wasn’t that it was always awful, but I just didn’t really know that it was different until I got to a certain age. When I was seven, eight, nine I realized that, oh wait, my friends have literally just been watching cartoons all day and I haven’t. What I loved about helping my dad in his work is not so much the tedium of folding programs, but the fun stuff like putting robes on and the incense and all that. It’s all very theatrical – hearing my dad chant Latin and walk around swinging a censer and stuff. For example, around Christmas services I loved having to practice lighting candles. So that was just an initial call that I felt. I equated everything back then with dress-up. Halloween was my favorite holiday and remained so for most of my life. Even though everyone has different religious and nonreligious arguments surrounding the celebration of Halloween, for me it was all part of the same thing. Like, here’s what I wear to go to school, here’s what I wear when I’m getting ready for bed, and here’s this other area of dress-up.
My first specific theatrical impulse was when I was younger and I wanted to be a professional puppeteer. So, for birthdays and holidays, the gifts that I would ask for were puppets. I collected marionettes, I would build them and fix their strings, and I was always showing my friends how to fix their strings. I was the nerd puppet guy. When I was younger, Sesame Street and the Muppets were a big thing, and for a short time the great Jim Henson was a pen pal of mine. It was weird how it happened. There was a short-lived puppetry fan magazine called Muppet Magazine, it was maybe just a couple years that this magazine was in existence, riding the success of the Muppet movies and that kind of stuff. This magazine had letters to the editor and I found the address in the back and decided to write a letter to Jim Henson, not to the editors and not as a fan of the work that the company was doing, but I wanted to talk to him specifically as the creator. I was surprised that he wrote me back because, from the way he described it, I was one of the first kids who was speaking to him as a puppeteer and not like wanting to talk to Kermit or something. He was great and beautifully supportive and excited to nurture me as a young puppeteer. There’s a puppetry culture that is bigger in the UK and long-standing puppet traditions in Asia and other places that I didn’t know anything about and he actually would send me links and tell me to contact different groups so they could send me information. So over the course of a few letter exchanges, it wasn’t like I went out to dinner with him and his family or anything like that, but it was super meaningful to me that he took me seriously. My family also had a neighbor who built a public stage for me so I could do puppet shows for the neighborhood. I had all kinds of puppet marionettes, I had the Charlie McCarthy brand of ventriloquist doll, I had the hand puppets that everyone gets so often, I had GI Joes, I had Barbies, I had Star Wars figures, I had anything that could be animated and played with. For years that was where a lot of my energy was.
Then I got into middle school and my self-esteem was crushed, as middle school is designed to do. I had gone from being this little Montessori kid who was appreciated by his small circle of friends and family for playing with puppets, to being a super weirdo freak. We had moved to a different city, so I retreated. I end up still reading a lot of literature and plays and things, but I just retreated into myself and I didn’t outwardly focus on any theatrical performance again until I got into college. In high school I became focused on visual arts. I didn’t see the connection — that I hadn’t really left puppetry, I hadn’t left theatre – I was just experiencing it in a more quiet, private way. By senior year I actually had taken all my required classes so, even though I still hated my high school, I had three art classes back-to-back in the morning and the art room was my homeroom. It became a kind of retreat for a couple hours each day before I had to deal with the bullies in the hallway and that kind of stuff.
In my first year of college I was paired with an upperclassman who talked to me about the course catalog and club opportunities, that sort of thing, and I’m going through that and setting up my calendar for my first year and I realized that I could take theatre as an elective. So, I just started taking a bunch of theatre and dance classes, because I never lost my love of it but I finally thought, oh, I can do this now. Everyone at my college seemed to like theatre people, they were not outcasts. From that point, it was just forward momentum. I quickly became a performing arts major, I ended up double-majoring in English and Dance, of all things. In dance, my focus was choreography. So, I was still sort of dancing around theatre, but I was directing bodies on stage and it was very visual. I was still connecting these things that I had been practicing all my life.
From there I did a number of years where I taught theatre and English at a couple different private boarding schools. But I finally got to the point where I decided I need to push my own skills; I need to go to grad school. And that’s been the story of the past 10 years of my life. I did a couple grad programs back-to-back and then after getting my PhD in Theatre, I adjunct taught at a couple colleges in Nashville while applying for jobs nationwide. Then I found Mary Baldwin, which I’m super happy about!
Q: That leads to my next question: what drew you to Mary Baldwin specifically?
BRIAN: I mentioned Jim Henson earlier, so not all, but almost all of my teachers and mentors and artistic influences have been female. Jim Henson, my dad, and my grandpa are those rare exceptions. My dance advisor in college was female, most of my artistic icons are female, and I was mostly raised by my mother because my parents were divorced. She was a single working mother, just Superwoman doing all of that. So, I’ve always been very interested in supporting the education of women. Most single-sex institutions that I had encountered previous to this point, not that I have anything against them, but a lot of them had some challenging agendas. But at Mary Baldwin, I loved that there was this history here and the history is connected to religion and moral, ethical principles, but they also seemed to have a very progressive presence. It’s a part of their history, but they are very aware of 2019. That was really, really important to me. As I was doing my national job search during the era of the #MeToo movement, I loved the idea that Mary Baldwin would be a place that has already been invested in these conversations.
As a minority it gets exhausting being in a place where you are always educating everyone around you, and I’ve been there multiple times over. I’ve been the only black one on the staff, or the only gay one, or whatever and it gets tiring after a while. So I loved that about Mary Baldwin. I knew I wouldn’t be alone, not just in principle but in the actual work of making our society better and our nation better. The fact that there’s the training academy training women to be such fierce leaders is amazing, every school should have that.
Also, I had never heard of a small town like Staunton with big vision and arts and lots of things going on, a kind of resort town where people really enjoy the food and the culture. When I came to visit last spring for my interview, I saw all that and more. I fell in love immediately. I was walking around in between interview sessions thinking, God, I hope they hire me. I could really see myself living and retiring here. It’s a place that definitely needs some diverse energy, but also has a lot of wonderful stuff going on that I could connect to. Walking around, students were quick to say hello and good morning and just were super friendly. They didn’t know I was there for an interview, they’re just happy and welcoming. That’s definitely not something you get at every place you go.
Q: Now that you’ve found your dream job, what would you say is the worst and/or weirdest job you’ve ever had?
BRIAN: Oh, it’s hard to pick just one. When I was 16, I had a job – short-lived, because I couldn’t stand it – but I had a job working at a plastics factory, in my hometown in Ohio. It was a factory that made plastic garbage bags. It was in a big warehouse and it was noisy, to the point that you had to wear earplugs because you could damage your ears. The machines would spit out big industrial black garbage bags, like the kind that you use for picking up leaves or whatever. They would come off these big rollers in long sheets – it kind of looked like a treadmill but much faster – and there was a long metal blade that would come down and make two chops to create both of those serrated edges for the top and bottom of the bag. But because it was hot plastic that would cool when it touched the air, it would sort of solidify as it went down the conveyor. And because it started out hot, sometimes the plastic would stick to the metal parts of the machine. So, our job was to reach over to where the blade was and clear the bunching plastic to keep the machine rolling. The machine is just spitting out like a tongue, just spitting out this continuous stream of black plastic, and you’ve got to reach in while timing your reach with the cutting of the blade. They did have a red stop button that you could use if it got really bunchy, but if you used the stop button then the machine would wind down and come to a stop and it would take a long time to launch back up again. So, all that wasted time, according to the managers, is time you’re slowing down and you could have gotten however many bags boxed by then. And, you know, I’m 16 working alongside these drifters who are in their thirties and forties who can’t hold down jobs and, you know, no one’s doing background checks is all I’m saying. So that was my job. But I had to leave it because it was dangerous and crazy, and you know I’m big into the environment so I was like, what am I doing?
Q: What is your favorite place to eat in Staunton?
BRIAN: I’m bad because even though I have been here a couple of months, I have done very little going out. I still have not ever gone to the farmer’s market. I plan to, but I’m a big gardener and I live downtown so I don’t have an apartment that has land around it, so I feel like I’ve been avoiding the farmer’s market just out of my own quiet, private mourning. But I hear great things about it and of course I love the culture of the farmer’s market.
In terms of places that I’ve gone, it’s difficult because every place is great. I’ve been to Zynodoa and I thought that meal was lovely. I also recently was treated to The Shack, it’s pretty fancy. I’ve been told by residents that those are their two favorites and they are, they’re wonderful. So, not to disparage them, but I’m very basic in every sense of that word, slang and the literal meaning, so even just like Shenandoah Pizza and Cranberry’s…I just like food.
Q: Mary Baldwin’s S&P program prides itself on training jack-of-all-trade Shakespeareans. You are definitely a jack-of-all-trades: an actor, director, playwright, book/songwriter, scholar, and educator – what is a piece of advice you would give to a young theatre artist who is also drawn to many different areas of the arts?
BRIAN: That is a great question. I’m old enough now where I have a pretty good self-care mechanism internally that can brush off other voices, but there are a lot of conflicting voices that we get in society, especially for younger artists coming up now, and it can be really challenging. You know, people will tell you you’ve got to go to New York, or you’ve got to do this, or you’ve got to do blank – and that’s not true. But it can be hard to hear that, especially when you’re hearing it from people who seem like they are a little bit more anchored than you are in whatever their thing is.
I kind of see it all in different pieces. One piece of it is that artists need to continually trust their artistic impulse and follow it. For example, if you have all your life wanted to be a dancer and you’ve been taking and studying dance and you find yourself at Mary Baldwin really interested in Shakespeare, for example, trust that and do something about it. Move toward it. It doesn’t mean you have to give up the dance classes or give up dance as an outlet. I do feel like as artists we are conduits or channels for energy that is communal and also spiritual. And we’re talked to or instructed in lots of different ways, right? Not just verbal. So experience is a kind of teacher, of course, but so is that impulse. If you feel that impulse, that’s teaching you something about yourself and about your own art that’s really important to listen to. You know, a lot of times with younger artists they don’t necessarily want to move towards something because it hasn’t been confirmed for them. There’s a kind of fear about moving towards something when you don’t know for sure if you’re going to be awesome at it. And that goes back to that self-care thing that you don’t have to be awesome at it – and you might be but you don’t know unless you actually start moving towards it. I have students all the time here who will say things like, “Well, I’m very interested in directing, but I’ve never done it.” Well, great! That’s almost better because you’re not approaching it with biases and baggage. You’re actually approaching it with the – not to sound too zen – but you’re approaching it with the kind of child-mind that we should all use to approach the new things that we encounter, with questions and with risk. So that’s one thing, just sort of following your artistic impulse.
Another piece is the older 20th century models of plugging yourself into an artistic organization – it’s not that those models don’t exist anymore, but they never were, thinking of Shakespeare, they never were the original models. That 20th century kind of comfortable mode of “there’s a place for everyone as a cog in this big artistic wheel” – that isn’t going to return. But the advantage of having an economy that’s unsure and being an artist in a situation like living here in Staunton where you have to do a lot of stuff on your own – it’s like, that’s how it’s always been done. That’s how you learn and that’s how you develop a lot of that self-care, artistic armor that you need. As an artist when you figure out how to do something for yourself that works artistically, that’s gold, that kind of armor. Like, I’m going to direct, I’ve never done it before and you finally put the show up and you do it even if it’s just in front of a pharmacy and there’s no formal stage, but you just cleared some racks and shelves away and you’ve got a couple of folding chairs and you make the stuff happen – that’s gold because that’s your education and that’s how you learn skills and how you learn things about yourself and about your artistic voice. You’re learning things about audience, which is hugely important.
In theatre, we have to get things on their feet. So that’s, I guess, the third piece – I would say make the work. For example, you can go to college and be in a situation – let’s say you go to, I don’t know, I’m from Ohio, so Ohio State University has a big lovely theatre department with big resources, various theatre spaces, right? And you can go there as a student and have the blessing of that theatre space and those built-in audiences that will come because it’s a big state school, they’ve got lots of people on their season subscriber list. And that’s all great and you can learn things from that. But then what I noticed is that a lot of times friends of mine or kids of friends of mine, they’ll graduate and then they’ll hit reality and life. (And I don’t mean to suggest that college isn’t reality, but you know what I mean.) They’ll graduate and those particular factors won’t be at play anymore. And then they’re like, well now I don’t know how to be an artist and I don’t know how to make my art that I trained and got a degree in. Well, why don’t you? You don’t have this beautiful theatre space anymore – is that what’s required to make theatre? What is amazing and rare, weirdly, about programs like ours is that we take it back to the basics.
Thank you so much to Brian Granger for taking the time to talk to me about his fascinating life and background. We are very lucky to have him here with us in Staunton to share his knowledge and expertise with our student body.