Monroe County Civic Theater is entering into its 35th season as Bloomington’s only all-volunteer community theater company. First up, director Becky Stapf brings us The Importance of Being Earnest In a Pandemic, an adaptation of the Oscar Wilde classic that’s set in the age of social distancing. For more details and to get tickets, please visit – http://www.mcct.org/get-tickets-for-the-importance-of-being-earnest-in-a-pandemic/
Tony Brewer plays the clergyman, Dr. Canon Frederick Chasuble, the source of Victorian moral judgments. Like Chasuble, there’s more to Tony under the surface. Besides being a talented actor, Tony is a writer, director, producer, and award-winning foley artist. Be sure to check out the links we provided to his work!
Here’s our interview with Tony…
How did you get into theater?
Tony: I was in an improv group in college that eventually started making live radio theatre-style comedy and then studio productions. Our first big thing was a horror series, “Hayward Sanitarium,” which I directed and produced and that got on NPR Playhouse in the 90s. I gravitated toward sound design and foley during that time, but I have always been a poetry/spoken word performer too. When the group eventually dissolved, I started doing live radio theatre again, mostly writing, directing, and live sound effects. Since about 2000, I have oscillated between poetry/spoken word and live audio theatre, with occasional studio work and traditional theatre in there somewhere.
- Listen to Hayward Sanitarium HERE!
When did you first want to be an actor or involved in theater? Was there a first acting experience that really made you love it and can you tell us about that? How long have you been acting/involved in theater?
Tony: I wrote my first play in 3rd grade. It was a ripoff of “The Empire Strikes Back,” which had just come out, and we performed it in class for extra credit. I think there were a couple of other things like that in grade school, but I wrote short stories all through high school. I was a class clown but did not do any stage work then. That improv group in college really did it. I was in a local production of “Cannibal: The Musical” in 2000 and I think that really solidified my anything-goes attitude toward performing and stage work.
How did you get involved with MCCT?
Tony: I did live sound effects for an MCCT performance of “Grandma Magic” that was broadcast live from the studio at WFHB back in 2010, but I feel like this is my first real production with MCCT. I’ve done just a handful of stage acting in Bloomington. In fact, I think I’ve been in exactly one BPP and one Cardinal production.
Why did you want to be involved in this production?
Tony: Becky asked me. We’ve worked together for years in the WFHB Firehouse Follies live variety show and the National Audio Theatre Festival. I have been eager to get back to – not normal but doing at least some of the performance things I was doing in the before times. The fact that it’s a comedy sealed the deal.
- For more information about the National Audio Theatre Festival CLICK HERE!
Tell us a little about your character. How would you describe them?
Tony: Rev. Chasuble, like everyone in the play, is concerned with appearances and how things look more than how things actually are. He wants everyone to know he is devoted to his faith, but he’s also a bit of a gossip and a philanderer. A decent sort but he has an angle and I think he relishes his station “over” people.
How have you been preparing for your role?
Tony: It’s weird because of Zoom but I have been working on my British accent and emoting to the camera. That’s tricky because I don’t want to distract from what others are doing but I also try be present and to keep the frame lively. There is not a lot of space to work with! So I’ve been testing the literal boundaries of my camera and working on expressions. I always try to be aware of the performance space I’m in and the audience so I can work off them if something unexpected happens, and the Zoom interface definitely has its unexpected moments.
Do you see yourself in your character at all? How do you go about understanding their point of view?
Tony: I think concern for one’s station in life is a common modern trait, and I am like Chasuble in that I have found my niche so I’m protective of it. Victorian England and contemporary America are similar in that people of both times are class conscious and rather ladder-climby (when there is a ladder). The British Empire around that time was contracting after centuries of expansion, while America was just beginning its reign as a world power, but now we’re dealing with somewhat reduced status too while still keeping up appearances by being smart and witty and cultured and all that, or at least making sure everyone knows we believe we are.
In the age of covid and social distancing, what has been the hardest part of this production and doing theater, in general?
Tony: The limitations of Zoom make any sort of timing almost impossible because of the lag. Technology as a creative gatekeeper sucks: if your camera isn’t good enough or your computer is too slow or you’re not tech-savvy and don’t pick up on how to use it, you are at a disadvantage. But things can still just go haywire because Zoom is not really designed for anything creative or collaborative. It works best with one person at a time speaking. I also do a lot of Zoom meetings for work as well as for other creative things (poetry and live sound effects) that I’ve tried to keep going during the pandemic. Normally they are all very different experiences, which is one of the things I like about them, but Zoom has kind of flattened everything a bit. Some days I spend upwards of 6 hours zooming, about wildly different things, but it’s all going through the same filter.
What new things have you learned as a result?
Tony: I have gotten pretty good at Zoom! Which is good because I most likely will continue working from home for some time, and I probably will continue doing some virtual creative things too. I’ve been able to work regularly with people out of state and even in other countries because of it.
What has been the most rewarding?
Tony: As always with productions, it’s been fantastic meeting and working with new and different people as well as reconnecting with folks I’ve worked with before (Cassia, Becky, Dan, Zilia). It’s different because no cast party or going out for drinks after rehearsal, but in some ways, it’s even more personal because we’re seeing the inside of each other’s living spaces and seeing and hearing their pets/partners/roommates.
Why do you think this story is relevant for today’s audiences? What do you hope the audience takes away from the show?
Tony: Well, the original subtitle is “a trivial comedy for serious people,” so I think privilege and first-world problems obviously come to mind, although Oscar Wilde doesn’t get too overly critical of all that. It’s a farce and everyone is ridiculous and laughing at them is the point. People are born into these stations without ever having achieved anything so of course, they’re going to be obsessed with trivial things. In this new COVID era, in the US especially, we have seen just how trivial things we used to value really are and I think also now value things we used to take for granted.
Why should audiences come to this show?
Tony: It’s a great play, a classic, and I think the Zoom format is an interesting twist. It’s very tightly written, with jokes and cultural swipes in just about every exchange.
What are your top three dream roles?
Tony: I achieved one of them! In 2008, I played Mr. Foley (who pantomimes but never speaks) on stage while also performing foley for a live audio theatre adaptation of the TV show “Remember WENN,” about a radio station in the early 40s that wrote all its own shows. The TV show was first run around the time my improv group started doing live radio theatre and it was a huge inspiration. I think I’d like to play a villain because I tend to play nice guys, and I’d like to do a real serious role sometime because I tend toward comedy.
What do you do when you’re not rehearsing and memorizing plays?
Tony: I work as a book compositor and designer at IU Press and I am also involved with the Writers Guild at Bloomington and the National Audio Theatre Festivals, organizing events and doing readings and performances. I write a lot. April is national poetry month and I have always been busy in April. I also “play” foley as music with an improv experimental collective Urban Deer. We have played out in Bloomington and had been getting together weekly since 2014. We took one week off due to COVID last March and then decided to keep it up via Zoom. We’re composing a remembrance of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the HEAR Now audio fiction and arts festival in June.
- For more information about the Writers Guild at Bloomington, CLICK HERE!
- For more information about the HEAR Now Festival CLICK HERE!
What advice would you like to give for anyone looking to get involved in community theater, or for someone who wants to study acting professionally? Any words of wisdom?
Tony: Well, I try to always say yes, so I advise people to take opportunities and offers when they come along, even if you don’t think you’re ready or it’s outside your comfort zone. You might not think you’re capable, but the person asking does, so rise to the occasion. For instance, it’s been at least a decade since I’ve had a speaking role in a traditional play that didn’t also involve primarily doing live sound effects (although Becky did manage to squeeze a bit of foley out of me for this too). And simply saying yes and worrying about my capability later has gotten me work all over the country, from New York to Washington State and from Minneapolis to Florida. I find that everything I attempt – a show, a poem, a reading – ultimately leads to a higher level of accomplishment or deeper understanding of how to do those things or both. So do consider if it’s “worth your time” but I try to always be willing to say yes. I’ll also paraphrase some great advice I got from actor and Firesign Theatre guy Phil Proctor: The world is full of brilliant, beautiful, extremely talented people, but being fun and easy to work with is what gets you called back.