Stars Behind The Stars: A.A. Brenner '21

BY Robbie Armstrong, April 3, 2020

Stars Behind The Stars is a bi-weekly series featuring theatre makers behind the scenes.

 

This week we sat down with second-year Playwriting student A.A. Brenner ’21 and discussed their work on past and upcoming plays.

 

Brenner is an Aries who has written Transgressions (Columbia University School of the Arts, 2020), Emily Driver’s Great Race Through Time And Space (La Jolla Playhouse and National Disability Theatre, 2020), and God Is Dead & April’s Getting Married (Capital Fringe Festival, 2018). Brenner formerly served as a Roundtable and Casting apprentice at The Lark, as well as an Artistic Fellow at Shakespeare Company in Washington D.C.


 

Tell me about your first time being involved in Theatre.

 

A.A. Brenner: I’ve sort of been involved with theatre for as long as I can remember, but it was always as a hobby. As a child, I went to theatre summer camp. It was like a Broadway kids day camp through the New Dance Group. It was pretty intense, although it wasn’t French Woods, where I eventually did go in high school, but only for one three-week session for one summer, which was heretical [laughs]. When I was there, I was in the ensemble of Beauty and the Beast. It was the camp director’s show, which folks thought was a pretty big deal at the time, especially since I was new. But it wasn’t until I found playwriting later on in high school that I started really getting involved in theatre in earnest, as a career. 


 

What is your sign and how does it appear in your work?

 

AB: I’m an Aries, which means I’m headstrong and a leader. I’m also a Pisces moon, which says a lot about my internal sensitivity. 


 

Wow, you seem to know a lot about your sign.

 

AB: I only know what Co Star tells me. Lately, I’ve been enjoying exploring characters and their motivations, and I have a lot of empathy for people, which shows that Pisces moon. I’ve been focusing heavily on writing plays that investigate why people are the way they are. I’m interested in the duality of people, and about how “good” people can sometimes do “bad” things, and how “bad” people can sometimes do “good” things. And how even the concept of duality itself is kind of a lie, because it’s a binary, and things are usually much more complex than that. I believe that two seemingly-opposing  things can be true.


 

What’s most unique about your recent play Transgressions?

 

AB: The play came about 3 years ago. I was working at The Lark, where I was constantly reading and hearing a lot of fantastic new plays. The concept of a play about a non-binary person who gets diagnosed with breast cancer just sort of came to me. I had been thinking about my identity as a queer person, and how that might affect me in the future, especially considering my family history of breast cancer; the interplay of those two forces intrigued and terrified me. I was also exploring the concept of toxic, codependent relationships, and thought it would be interesting to present a character who is attempting to wrestle with both internal and external forces of toxicity at the same time. 

 

Flash forward to this year: I was tasked to present a play for my second-year Playwriting Presentation and thought I was going to write a very different piece, when all of a sudden, days before my first draft was due, I went through a terrible breakup. I realized I could no longer write the play I intended to write, but I was actually in the perfect headspace to write the play that ultimately became Transgressions. I made a few panicked phone calls and emails—one to my incredible director, Colm Summers ’21, bless his soul, and one to Lynn Nottage, the advisor for the project—and they both were totally on board with the switch. I then proceeded to miss all of my draft deadlines, but somehow, miraculously, I finally cracked the play wide open. 


 

What were you working on in San Diego?

 

AB: I was in residence at La Jolla Playhouse working on my play Emily Driver’s Great Race Through Time And Space, which I co-wrote with Gregg Mozgala. We were commissioned by National Disability Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse to write their 2020 POP Tour, which is a touring production for young audiences that plays throughout schools in San Diego County. The play follows Emily, a young girl who has to travel back through time and space to fight the forces of ableism and save disability history. It featured an entirely-disabled production team and cast, which was amazing, and literally hadn’t been done before in professional theatre. It was so rewarding to be working on that show with other awesome disabled artists while teaching children (and adults alike) about disability. 


 

What projects are you currently working on?

 

AB: Well, until a couple of weeks ago, I was working on Transgressions. The play came together so rapidly, we had finally found our groove, and we were cooking with fire—and then coronavirus happened. The night before opening, I had a talk with Summers and we discussed if we should morally be doing this production during a public health crisis. After talking with the department, we decided to postpone our opening night hours before we were set to perform. It was a difficult decision, but ultimately the correct one, as we realized we had a moral obligation to keep the community safe. Fortunately, it seems we’ll be able to remount the show in the Fall. And, of course, I was very lucky to have gotten to see an invited dress rehearsal, where I was able to watch audience responses to different moments in the play. Now that we have more time—finally! We have a lot of time to actually react to those responses and re-work the play accordingly. It is nice to have sort of had an accidental “out of town tryout,” so to speak. Although obviously, we’d have much preferred for everything to have gone as planned.

 

I’m also working on an adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire called Blanche and Stella. I’m trying to get the gears turning however I can, because I think people will be craving live entertainment when this pandemic ends. And I can feel that I’m almost ready to start writing. Almost. 


 

What lessons have you learned at Columbia that have informed your craft?

 

AB: One of the first things Lynn [Nottage] said to our class when we were preparing to respond to each other’s work was “Replace judgement with curiosity.” That’s been hugely impactful in how I view art and life in general. She also told me to pay attention to my scene transitions in Transgressions. After putting the show up on its feet, I can now say she was totally right. I’m excited to take a look at those again.


 

If you could be any famous child, which one would you be?

 

AB: Any of Beyonce’s kids. Any of them. They have it all set. 


 

What’s your favorite play/musical? 

 

AB: My favorite play of all time is Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. My favorite play that I saw recently is Jackie Sibles Drury’s Fairview at Theatre for a New Audience.


 

What is your next project? 

 

AB: Transgressions and Blanche & Stella, but I’m also open to whatever comes along. I really believe we do our best work when we stay open to opportunity and let the stories come to us.

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