By Jenny Collins '05
When adjunct theatre professor Brian Grandison, MFA, walks into his Intro to Theatre class, he encounters eager eyes of students seated in tidy, static rows.
“That drives me crazy,” he says.“ My brain doesn’t work this way.” He calls out, “Fracture the room!” and turns his back for 10 seconds. Unsure of this first “assignment,” the students quickly push the chairs into a circle.“OK, that’s fine. But when I say fracture, I mean fracture.”
The fractured classroom isn’t just an exercise, it’s Grandison’s philosophy on life and theatre. "Sometimes life operates this way. You can only see so much,” he shared, referring to the disarray of desks.
Like most artists, Grandison learns—and teaches—theatre through life, not theory.
Having worked more than 20 years as an actor, director, writer and educator, he built his performing career primarily in Chicago, Los Angeles and the Twin Cities, where he’s worked with several theaters, including the Guthrie Theater, Mixed Blood Theatre, Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and the Children’s Theatre Company. As a playwright, he loves “fracturing stories and moving them around like a jigsaw puzzle.”
In a way, the jigsaw metaphor reflects Grandison’s life and faith journey. The son and grandson of preachers, Grandison grew up in the church and moved a few times before his parents divorced and he grew up in Missouri. He admits to falling away for awhile, but even then, while reaping success as an actor, “I’d go home and wash the dishes. I didn’t go party. It wasn’t the lifestyle I glommed on to.”
Today he explains his faith through story, on and off the stage. "There’s a lot of ways to walk,” he tells people. “I’ve walked this path, and I’ve walked this path,” gesturing as if pointing to two roads. “For me, it’s easier with the light on.”
Finding a new path
Several years ago when Grandison saw doors closing on acting opportunities, he felt the Lord guiding him to write plays and teach. “As people of faith, you think you have arrived, then you realize you have to make another trip around the mountain.”
A history buff, he has since found a niche writing historical screenplays, including one on the Tuskegee Airmen. In February, the History Theatre in St.Paul commissioned his most recent play, Adrift on the Mississippi, which told the story of the slaves who escaped from Missouri in the 1860s on a makeshift raft up the river and formed Pilgrim Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Ultimately a story of faith and freedom, it also had personal connections for Grandison, who grew up in the county next to the one the slaves left, and whose wedding and daughter’s baptism were at Pilgrim.
Seeing this story that was eight years in the making come alive “was surreal,” he said. “People are up on stage saying the lines that you wrote in the back of a coffee shop.”
UNW theatre major Sarah Howell ’11 was hired as assistant stage manager for Grandison’s play. She said his experience helped her see things from a broader perspective. “Brian constantly reminded me that everyone in the cast and crew was there for a purpose.”
Grandison also gets students to wrestle with difficult decisions they’ll inevitably face as professionals, such as deciding if they’ll work with material that has profanity, or act in a role that involves disrobing.
“What are you going to do? What are your boundaries?” he asks. “Let’s have this conversation. It doesn’t start when you graduate, it starts now.” Uncomfortable at first, the discussions encourage them to engage their faith with real life.
“And what makes the arts wonderful is that we can disagree, and even vehemently,” said Grandison, “and still walk out and walk in love with each other.”