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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Lise Bruneau

Lise Bruneau

Today's subject Lise Bruneau is currently living her theatre life onstage at Arena Stage as Sara Müller in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine. The production runs through March 5th. This is not Lise's first Arena Stage appearance. She previously was seen there in Mother Courage and Her Children and Karen Zacarías' Legacy of Light. A few of her many DC appearances include Othello and The Winter's Tale at Shakespeare Theatre Company; Mikveh at Theater J (Helen Hayes nomination); This at Round House Theatre; and The Tale of the Allergists Wife also at Theater J. Regionally, she has appeared at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, American Conservatory Theater (ACT), Seattle Repertory, The Wilma, Berkeley Repertory, and many Shakespeare festivals. At Denver Theatre Center, she was Hesione in Heartbreak House which won her a Henry Award. She recently returned to DC after performing in Roundabout Theatre Company's The Cherry Orchard on Broadway. As a director, she's helmed Savage in Limbo at MetroStage and the Riot Grrrls's Tempest, Oxygen, Bloody Poetry, and The Devil in His Own Words, as well as seven Bootlegs for Taffety Punk Theatre Company. Lise received her trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

As you can see, Lise has a distinguished and varied list of credits. No matter what you see her perform in, your guaranteed an excellent performance. She can play comedy, Shakespeare and other classics, and then she can turn around and go in the complete other direction with a show at the wonderfully offbeat Taffety Punk Theatre Company, of which she is a founding member. As a director, her work always engages you to the fullest.

Check out Watch on the Rhine at Arena Stage as part of the Lillian Hellman Festival and see why Lise Bruneau is so much in demand in this area and around the country.

How did you get interested in performing and where did you receive your training?

Strangely enough, I was working on a farm in Illinois at 15, and befriended a girl who was very into theatre. I visited her to see her high school production of My Fair Lady, and was instantly captivated by the openness and curiosity and connection of the theatre folk. They were so welcoming and interesting! When I got back to my own school, I jumped in wholeheartedly. My drama teacher, Sr. Blanche, was not your standard high school musical person - we did Spoon River Anthology, and The Bald Soprano (I remember my father bemoaning the fact that my uncle would likely never attend another performance at my school), but to me the stories and the magic of imagining unfamiliar worlds was so thrilling. My parents were incredibly supportive of my dream - I remember my mother telling me that she turned to my father during my first scene as Miss Jean Brodie (at the tender age of 17), and said "Oh no. I don't think there's anything we can do!" Then my father moved me farther along by taking me to London to check out schools. When we went to RADA, the registrar told me to garner as much life experience as I could, as that would be what would feed me in the years to come. That was just what I needed to hear. I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I took a few years to earn money and dance and sing and NOT get acting training so I would be a blank canvas for a great program. I was accepted into RADA, and received the most amazing training anybody could ask for.

Andrew Long and Lise Bruneau in Arena Stage's production of Watch on the Rhine. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

For those not familiar with Watch on the Rhine, can you please tell us a little something about the play and who your character is?

I play Sara Müller who is a rich girl who got out. She had an overbearing (though delightful) mother, fell in love with a not-so-high-fallutin' German, and went away. (God, I hate spoilers!) 20 years later, she comes home with her three children and her husband who has been working underground as an anti-Fascist. A guest at her Mama's house drives things to a point, and things get dark. It starts out as a family comedy and then goes EVERYWHERE else! Sara is a strong mother and a revolutionary who is involved with the political upheaval at the time, but her raison d'etre is to support her heroic husband, who is walking into the face of danger all the time. I think she works very hard to ensure that his family is near him, wherever he is. As a strident feminist myself, it can sometimes be hard to relegate my character to a sidelined position; but as a mother, I totally get it when a couple metes out jobs according to those best suited to them. Kurt, Sara's husband, is sacrificing his own joys and comforts in favor of a higher good. And she must be an Amazon in supporting him in that.

Last time you were at Arena Stage you worked with Kathleen Turner on Mother Courage and her Children. In Watch on the Rhine you have Marsha Mason in your cast. Do you find when a performer works in film his/her process for preparing to be onstage is different from a performer that works exclusively in the theatre?

Honestly, I expected that there would be some difference, but given that these two particular POWERHOUSE actors have such a wealth of stage experience, it renders the screen aspect of their careers as just more ammo in their bags. Both of them came to rehearsal prepared, open, and relentless in their pursuit of their characters and their place in the story. I will add that in the Fichandler in-the-round space, they are both pretty amazing at very organically and gracefully opening their faces to the audience - maybe that's a camera thing? Whatever it is, it is a talent that I am greedily trying to adapt. Each of them are queens of the theatre - gifted, generous, and ferocious as all get out.

How did you get into directing? Were you doing it before you started performing?

I am always sorry that more people didn't attend The Senior Review - my brilliant (?) directing debut at Bishop O' Dowd High School. Many years later, my partner, Marcus Kyd, was in the early stages of creating what is now Taffety Punk Theatre Company, and asked me to direct a reading of Gwydion Suilebhan's Let x at Art-O-Matic, with an amazing cast. I put a few fancy bits into the staging, and had a blast. But I remember, after years of acting work where I often wished a fellow actor saw this angle, or made this choice, or found this resonance... being so amazed that as a director, if I told an actor to do something they would do it! The blessed thing about directing is that as the overlord of the story, I get to collaborate with actors to deepen their understanding of characters that I would never get to play. Because of that, I have the privilege of trying to see the world from even more different perspectives than I can as an actor in a given body/age. It must also be said that roles for women between 40 and 60 are few and far between, so I may as well work on Titus and Lavinia and Saturninus and Chiron at the same time!

What do you enjoy the most about working on a piece written by Lillian Hellman?

I am finding Hellman to be one of the best kept secrets in American theatre. We tend to see her as melodramatic and dated, but her work is so interesting and challenging, and weird! I recently directed Taffety Punk's reading of Toys in the Attic for Arena Stage's Lillian Hellman Festival, and it was a dangerous and complex piece that I had no previous knowledge of. Hellman was a revolutionary writer that had a deep curiosity about, and a keen instinct of, the human psyche, as well as a solid understanding of what makes a play intriguing. Watch on the Rhine begins as a family comedy, but then goes so many other places. It's surprising, and complicated, and so very fulfilling on so many levels. The cast spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what was happening moment to moment in the first week of rehearsal, and I think at this stage as we approach previews, we still have a few questions to answer.

Lise Bruneau at right. Upside down L to R James Flanagan, Ian Armstrong, and Dan Crane in Taffety Punk Theatre Company's production of Charm. Photo by Marcus Kyd.

Can you please talk about the origins of the company you started with your artistic and life partner Marcus Kyd called Taffety Punk? Where does the name come from etc?

When I first met Marcus Kyd, now the unstoppable machine behind Taffety Punk, he spoke of his dreams of a performer-driven company that would create and present work, which was the meat that the highly-trained members of the company wanted, needed, and were rarely given the opportunity to do. Coming from a DC punk background, the punk template was something he wanted to apply to his second love, theatre - the grit and grass roots DIY approach, matched with total accessibility and a low ticket price. He was delighted to learn that "Taffety Punk" is a phrase (almost always cut, incidentally) from All's Well: meaning "a well-dressed whore." I love that he found a Shakespearean punk reference that sounds so catchy, but have always had my issues with it. We are not dressed-up whores, rather cheaply dressed duchesses! I see our work as being of the highest theatrical quality, but we have yet to be able to afford a turntable or $1000/yd fabric. (Ooooh will I have fun when we do.) In the meantime, we will continue to blend dance, music, theatre, and awesomeness - for the ridiculously low price of $15.

Lise Bruneau as The Angel and Garret Dillahunt as Prior in American Conservatory Theater's production of Angels in America. Photo by Ken Friedman.

Can you please pick a few of your favorite performances from over the years? Please explain why you chose what you did.

When choosing projects, there are several considerations: fascination, money, notoriety, and home time (which has only recently become important as Marcus has always been good at taking care of himself, but my darling Percy is 9!). This is a very complex and delicate balance, and I have spent weeks analyzing the best call. I have found that if I'm at a stalemate, the play often makes my decision. I'll read the contestants again, and will often go to the one that calls the loudest. My favorite role was playing The Angel in Angels in America at ACT in San Francisco - what could be better than doing that play there? Also, Leonide in Triumph of Love, Lady Chiltern in Ideal Husband and Yasmin in Pentecost at Berkeley Repertory. More recently Emilia in Michael Kahn's Othello was an absolute dream, and working with Irene Lewis at Center Stage as Vivie Warren and Elizabeth I was heaven. And I had loads of fun with Desdemona, Madame de Merteuil, and Josie in Moon for the Misbegotten, Margaret of Anjou in Wars of the Roses, the delicious Hesione in Heartbreak House, and now Sara Muller - my new hero under Jackie Maxwell's excellent guidance in Watch on the Rhine. And I just returned from my Broadway debut in New York in The Cherry Orchard, which was just a marvelous experience.

What does 2017 hold in store for you after Watch on the Rhine closes?

I will be appearing in Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broken Glass at Theater J this spring and summer, and will be directing a gorgeous play by Georgette Kelly called In the Belly of the Whale that will run at Taffety Punk's home theatre, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, in Eastern Market, in February 2018.

Special thanks to Arena Stage publicist Lauren Alexander for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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