BWW Interview: Brenda Barrie of UNITED FLIGHT 232 at the Adrienne Arsht Center
The Adrienne Arsht Center of the Performing Arts of and The House Theatre of Chicago are proud to present UNITED FLIGHT 232. Playing May 4-May 19, 2019 in the intimate Carnival Studio Theater (Ziff Ballet Opera House), UNITED FLIGHT 232 closes Center's 2018-2019 Theater Up Close Series.
Based on the true story of fatal United Flight 232 and adapted from the critically acclaimed book, Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales, this award-winning play depicts the power of the human spirit to defy unimaginable obstacles and transcend tragedy.On July 19, 1989, a DC-10 jet airliner headed for Chicago O'Hare International Airport with 296 passengers and crew aboard, was paralyzed mid-air after its tail engine failed. For 44 minutes, the aircraft descended without flight controls and its heroic flight crew made an emergency crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. The plane split into several parts, but to the astonishment of all who witnessed the event, 184 of 296 on board survived.
UNITED FLIGHT 232 tells the survivors' story and celebrates human integrity in the face of overwhelming challenges. Adapted and Directed by Vanessa Stalling from the book Flight 232 by Laurence Gonzales based on the true story of the fatal United Flight 232.
I had the opportunity to interview Brenda Barrie, Actor 1, about her experience as an actress in United Flight 232.
In your own words, how would you describe United Flight 232?
It's based on Laurence Gonzales' book, "Flight 232". He has done extensive research of the actual plane crash that happened over Sioux City, Iowa in 1989. Of 296 people on board, 184 people survived. What is so unique about this plane crash is that there where some 44 minutes in the air from the time that the engine 2 exploded to the time they made a landing on the runway at Sioux City airport. It was a lot of different people coordinating emergency efforts. The flight crew remained calm, compassionate and professional in their jobs. People aboard that plane turned to the people next to them and had conversation in a way that you don't always talk to the people in front of you or behind you in a plane. But now in this moment, everyone was wondering what's next? Will we survive? If I survive what will I do differently with my life? How am I going to help the person next to me? This inherent responsibility that people have for strangers is what drew Vanessa into turning this story into a theatre setting. It's been a profound experience all the way around.
You are quoted saying that we are a divided country and how audience member's response after the show has been very visceral. They are going in for hugs after the show. How has that experience been for you?
It's been so powerful. The House Theatre already has the relationship with the audience where we go out before the show and we come out after the show just to say thank you for being here. With this one in particular, I stayed in costume and come out to the audience or lobby for another hour, two or three even, just talking to people about how the play resonated with them...people can relate. So many people have been on planes felt turbulence and wondered what is that? You forget for instance your flight crew who is serving you coffee is trained to get out of an aircraft in 60 to 90 seconds in the dark. They are there to save your life. I think people forget that. Also, when we are going about our day sitting in traffic on a bus and something was to go wrong the person sitting next to you is more likely to help you than hurt you. There is an inherent sense of responsibility that stood out to Vanessa when we read Laurence's book and became curious about this event. But also what you feel in the play is that people are going to take care of one another.
How has the process been for you to play a real person, Jan Brown, who is going to see your shows. How has that effected your process?
I was trying to recall when I first met Jan Brown. I have been a part of this process for 3 maybe even 4 years. The very first audience that we had as a part of the University of Chicago Labs... I knew Jan Brown was going to come and see what we had put together. [At that time] we were sharing a brief piece of it and at that point we hadn't even fully built it out even. It's just an inherent responsibility to tell someone's story accurately with the full weight of stepping into her shoes and to be as respectful as possible. What was amazing is that, not only did Jan want privacy in case this was something that was going to be maybe bringing up a lot of emotion or announce in the audience that she was actually the Chief Flight attendant ... not only did she stay after I got to meet her and I just didn't have the words to stay what it has meant for me to portray her and have her words in my mouth and learn what she did that day and what she continues to do. I want to speak about that as well. I just asked if I could hug her and from there on we forged a really good friendship and it was cool to me that night after night... the two productions we have done even... so many people in the flight industry know Jan Brown. They know her work ethic, know her continuing safety for every air traveler and the organization she created to charge the FAA with ending the practice of lap child in commercial aviation... that is something she sought to do after that crash on and continues to fight for that and create awareness. It's been an honor... It's just been an honor. She is trying to be incognito at times and has come to the performance and has brought friends and family but I always she her. This is the type of performance where you look out to the audience and look at people eye to eye. I always catch her.
The Theatre Up Close series at the Adrienne Arsht Center held at the Carnival Studio is a very intimate space. Is this play staged as theatre in the round? How will this intimate space effect this production?
I do get the sense that Vanessa is very excited about this space because previously this was performed in the galley with theatre on either side of us and you felt like you were on the plane with us in a very intimate space. This is the first time that we are taking it to proscenium- still in an intimate space but how do we retell the story that way. I think she is very excited about some of the visuals but also some of the ways that the full audience gets every moment more fully. I think we are going to learn a lot once we get into the space. I am so excited.
How has this play changed you as a storyteller?
That's a big question because it has no doubt impacted me. It has really resonated with me. Part of it is because it is documentary style theatre and stepping into a real person's story- their real words from their heart. Many of us are saying what someone thought their final words were or remembering people who did not survive that day. We have met many survivors and many people who were impacted and that's a lot of what they will share with us. But also a great relief they feel when they get to speak about the event and see the event through someone else's heart. I am reminded that actors are vehicles- we are vessels and a conduit to a better thing that is just humanity. It's just so human.
How has this play changed you as a human being?
I have flown several times since and I have definitely have been more respectful to my flight crew and taken note of emergency exits. I pay more attention. But also, it's given me more hope. I feel more connected to our ever-changing world that is so technology focused. Reminding myself that we really are going to be helping each other. We are in the same experience together of life.
Do you feel that will be something the audience will take away from the production?
A hundred percent! A hundred percent! I do think audiences walk away feeling more connected, inspired and hopeful. Theatre is a place to brings people together in small dark room where your hearts just get to be open and speak. Theatre is written in the wind. It is written in the hearts and minds of others and how people carry it on thereafter. This is a play that stays with people for years to come maybe because it's so honest. Vanessa didn't take any artistic license with that people said. If someone wasn't a survivor, we don't act as that person. They are just referred to as an empty chair and the empty chair has a lot of weight there on stage. There is only one flight attendant that didn't survive of the eight flight attendants on board that day. She was a beautiful 19 to 20-year-old women from just outside of Chicago engaged to be married as so many people were struck by her bravery and just doing the best job that she could. Out respect to the family, Vanessa doesn't put her name in the play. There are just very subtle moments where we just see her walking down the aisle and all the actors follow her with eye sight. There is no one physically standing there...no one portraying her. But we give space to her and every night it fills my heart to know we are still holding space for those that didn't survive.
There was a community forged on that plane. I do think the community forged on that plane is also forged in the audience. And I think they come out of the play feeling united and connected as I said previously. It feels corny to say but it's true. We are strangers in a theatre just as they were strangers on a plane. We are more alike than different.
The Arsht Center's 2018-2019 Theater Up Close Series is supported by Adrianne and Jerry L. Cohen, Alan and Diane Lieberman and the Hotel Croydon Miami Beach.
Photos by Michael Brosilow
*All programs, artists, ticket prices, availability, dates and times are subject to change without notice. Visit arshtcenter.org for up-to-date information.
The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County is made possible by the public support of the Miami-Dade County Mayor and the Board of County Commissioners, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, the Miami-Dade County Tourist Development Council and the City of Miami Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, as well as the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture. The Adrienne Arsht Center also receives generous support from individuals, corporations and local, state and national foundations.
About the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County
Set in the heart of downtown Miami and designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County is one of the world's leading performing arts organizations and venues. Since opening in 2006, the Arsht Center, a 501C3 non-profit organization, has emerged as a leader in presenting innovative programming that mirrors South Florida's diversity as well as a catalyst for billions of dollars in new development in the downtown area. Spotlighting legends and serving as a launch pad for local artists to make their mark on the international stage, the Center presents nearly 400 events each year across its flexible, state-of-the-art performance spaces. The Center programs several Signature Series, including the largest jazz series in South Florida, a major annual Flamenco Festival, and a robust program of new theatrical works as well as free programming for the community and an arts education program that serves nearly 60,000 children each year. As Miami's new Town Square, the Arsht Center also houses BRAVA by Brad Kilgore, a fine dining restaurant; the Café at Books & Books in the historic Carnival Tower and a weekly Farmers Market. Visit arshtcenter.org for more information.
About The House Theatre of Chicago
The House Theatre of Chicago is the city's premier home for intimate, original works of epic story and stagecraft. Founded and led by Artistic Director Nathan Allen and driven by an interdisciplinary ensemble of Chicago's next generation of great storytellers, The House aims to become a laboratory and platform for the evolution of the American theatre as an inclusive and popular artform.
The House was founded in 2001 by a group of friends to explore connections between Community and Storytelling through a unique theatrical experience. Since becoming eligible in 2004, The House is the winner of 24 Joseph Jefferson Awards and became the first recipient of Broadway in Chicago's Emerging Theater Award in 2007, and was awarded a 2014 National Theatre Company Grant by the American Theater Wing, founder of the Tony Awards. This is the eighth season The House has brought their work to The Arsht Center's Theatre Up Close series.
Now in its 17th year of original work, The House continues its mission to unite audiences in the spirit of Community through amazing feats of Storytelling. www.TheHouseTheatre.com