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A conversation with playwright Kenneth Brown

By Alicia Dietrich

Kenneth Brown
Kenneth Brown
Playwright Kenneth Brown, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, introduces a screening of the documentary film Another Glorious Day tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. The film explores the history, context, and performances of the Living Theatre’s European tour of his play, The Brig (1963). A question and answer session follows.

The film is centered around a 2008 revival of The Brig, the inflammatory play that exposed the harsh realities inside a U.S. Marine prison. This documentary by Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies puts former Marine Kenneth H. Brown’s drama into historical perspective—and makes a case for its ongoing relevance—through powerful scenes from the recent production in Berlin and illuminating interviews with directors of the play past and present, revival cast members, and the playwright himself.

The Cultural Compass had a conversation with Brown in which he discussed The Brig, its ongoing relevance, and his archive at the Ransom Center.

Brown discusses how The Brig changed the Living Theatre’s approach to productions.

The Living Theatre’s been in existence over 40 years, and it was in existence about 15 years before The Brig was done. And before The Brig was done, they were doing Brecht and various standard radical theatrical events. They did Paul Goodman and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Brecht.

But once The Brig was done, the play, which the movie demonstrates, created the acting style and the approach to material by the company that has existed from 1963 to the present day. The whole direction of the company was re-directed by their doing The Brig. The reason being, that in order for the play to work onstage, you have 17 Marines—those are all the characters in the play—you have to make them Marines. So we had to conduct a boot camp, which went on for six weeks. By the time it was over, these guys were running ten miles and doing 60 push-ups and sit-ups, and they knew how to march, and they knew how to double-time, they knew how to half-step. They were Marines!

And that made the play absolutely riveting because it was like looking at the real thing, rather than looking at something being enacted. Because the one thing the actors said to me was, “There’s no audience in the brig. And there’s no acting in the brig because if you have to make a bed, you really have to make a bed.” There’s no making belief you’re making the bed. If some guy punches you in the stomach, he’s not really punching you, but your reaction has to be so real that it’s almost as bad as if he really punched you.

So by the time they did the play, it created this whole style and approach to material in the theater that was responsible for everything the Living Theatre did afterward. They did everything in that style and still do to this day.

Brown discusses how it feels to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.

I’m 74 years old. A few years ago—and I’m in relatively good health—I said to myself, “Well, I’m over 70, got a nice little apartment in Brooklyn overlooking the bridge, a beautiful neighborhood with the store where I did my shopping.” I had really kind of retired from life. And it was fine. I hadn’t stopped writing. I never stopped writing. I’d been writing since I was 6 years old. But I had settled on “this is it.”

And then, in 2007, Judith Molina [co-founder of The Living Theatre], who’s now 83 years old, called me and said, “We’re reviving The Brig.” I went, “I don’t believe it.”

And then it opened in 2007, and it was a bigger hit than it was the first time. And in The New York Times, we had a two-page review with pictures. Two pages! Not a column. Two pages with pictures! And then in 2008 it went on the European tour, and then Tom Staley bought the archive, and all of a sudden, I turned around, and I had been thrown back in the pool again. And that’s kind of what my feeling of my archive, of the whole process, is.

It has enlivened interest in a lot of other stuff of mine.

Brown discusses why The Brig is still relevant to today’s audiences.

The Brig has always been relevant, which is kind of amazing to me. But I guess as long as there’s war and as long as there’s a military and especially as long as one questions the ethical right to wage war and in this ridiculous nonsense in Afghanistan and Iraq—when you do a play that studies the psychology of what it is to be a Marine, how more relevant can you get? It’s going to stay relevant forever. Until there’s peace throughout the world. Then the play’s not relevant anymore because then there’s no military threat. If there’s no military threat, then the play ceases to be relevant.

Writer Angella Nazarian discusses her memoir

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of Angella Nazarian by John Collazos.
Photo of Angella Nazarian by John Collazos.
Tonight, writer Angella Nazarian reads from Life as a Visitor, her account of fleeing Iran with her family and life as an immigrant caught between two cultures. This event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, will be webcast live. She shares the story of her memoir.

In writing my book, Life as a Visitor, I wanted to talk about the psychological and personal issues that take over the life of an 11-year-old Iranian girl when she finds herself in a new country without her parents. This book was a deeply personal tale of my journey. But an interviewer raised an interesting question last week: “Your book is a personal tale, but isn’t the personal also always political?” Anything that is related to Iran and one’s experience in the country seems to have political overtones. Many Iranian Jews did as my family did at the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979—they fled the country, leaving their belongings and loved ones behind in a matter of days or at the most a couple of months. So tales of displacement, loss, and revolution, as personal as they may be, are embedded in the larger arena of world politics. Now once again, I see images of uprisings, protests, and violence coming out of Iran, and I am reminded of what I witnessed as a child. But this time instead of fear, I am feeling a renewed sense of hope.

Living Peter Matthiessen

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close
Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close
The Ransom Center screens Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries, the award-winning PBS documentary about the National Book Award–winning writer and environmental activist, on Monday evening at the Ransom Center. Matthiessen’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

The film will be introduced by Jeffrey Sewald, producer, writer, and director of the documentary. He writes about what it was like to work with Matthiessen on this project.

I studied his craggy face as he gazed at the screen, reviewing a rough-cut video of his story, adapted and condensed of course for television viewers and the film festival crowd. More than three years of my own life had been invested in Peter Matthiessen’s, and the thought of my bio film soon being finished left me at once elated and a little bereft. How often does one get to pick the brain and probe the heart and soul of a legend like Peter, a hero to every young man (myself included) who ever believed he had what it took to write for a living? I couldn’t help but think how lucky I had been to get to know him, and how reluctant I was to pronounce the project “completed.” After all, Peter Matthiessen, then almost 82, was still very much alive and showing no signs of wanting to pack it in.

Making films about people, especially living ones, presents both joys and challenges, and this film was no exception. It was captivating to hear Peter speak about his books and journeys, from The Snow Leopard, to Shadow Country, and from New Guinea to Nepal. Few if any people have crammed more into eight decades of life than he has. In fact, the totality of Peter Matthiessen’s written work and personal experience is something most may only dream about. Here is a man who writes both fiction and non-fiction, who married three times, fathered and adopted children, became a Zen monk, and fought the powers that be over human and civil rights. I always found it funny that all Peter asked of my personal take on his life story was “clarity.” Therein was the challenge.

When the final version of Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn last year, Peter seemed to like the film— even though he more than once chided me for taking his life far too seriously. In truth, he can be very funny and wonderful company, which I think we demonstrate on screen. But in a film that was required to clock-in at 56 minutes and 46 seconds (a PBS hour), I chose to focus on what I believe are Peter’s most important works and on how the events and circumstances of his life informed his choices and set the trajectories for his literary and spiritual quests. I still maintain that this approach was the best one. After all, Peter Matthiessen is an important body in the literary firmament. To do anything less would have been unthinkable to me.

I have been gratified by the fact that my film has been in demand on the screening circuit since it first aired nationally on PBS in April of last year. It is always interesting to note audience reactions and to meet people who have seen and appreciated my work and the work of my collaborators. Like writing, making independent films can be a rather solitary process, especially after shooting has ceased and scripting begins. I am now working on my next film, about the author and feminist Isabel Allende. But we’re still in the shooting stage, which means I’m still sociable. So come out and see me on April 12. It will be fun.

What's coming up at the Ransom Center this spring?

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center’s spring calendar is now available on the Ransom Center’s website.

Highlights include programs with visiting writers John Banville, Iain Sinclair, Peter Carey, and Kenneth Brown.

The calendar also features programming related to the spring exhibition Making Movies, including a Music from the Collections program about film music, talks by film scholars, and a summer film series showcasing films highlighted in the exhibition.

Learn more about these programs (and download a PDF of the calendar) on the Ransom Center’s public programs page. Information about live webcasts of many programs will be noted closer to the date of the events.

Isaiah Sheffer: Poe is "one of America's greatest writers"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Cultural Compass recently spoke with Isaiah Sheffer, creator of NPR’s Selected Shorts, who hosts tonight’s program “Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Storyteller,” which will be webcast live. He shares his thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe:

“If Edgar Allan Poe had never written a poem, he would still have been one of America’s greatest writers, thanks to his wonderful short stories, and the invention of the murder mystery genre in particular. If he had never written any of his colorful and often scary short stories, he would still have been one of America’s very greatest poets. In our program at the Harry Ransom Center we’re going to try to demonstrate both sides of this unique literary artist.”

Tonight’s program also features actors René Auberjonois and Fionnula Flanagan. They will read works by Poe, including “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Black Cat,” “Alone,” “To Helen,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Sphinx,” and “The Bells.”