For a few years, BCKSEET Productions was one of the coolest independent theater companies in Philadelphia. Aggressively challenging, risk-taking, and full of quality, their productions of new and seldom-produced work were among the highlights of several seasons. Their 2006 production of Angels in America Part I (reprised in two-part rep in 2009) introduced me to Kate Brennan, whose emotionally rending performance stole the three-hour show. Kate ended up marrying director Greg DeCandia, eventually taking his reigns as BCKSEET’s artistic director and producing two of her original musicals with the company. She also rocked the stage for other local outfits, most memorably in a whirlwind performance of Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette (review) with Luna Theater (she put Isla Fisher’s turn in the movie version to shame).
BCKSEET lost its residency at the Society Hill Playhouse’s Red Room in 2010, but still produced a show or two a year until 2012, when Greg and Kate departed Philadelphia for new shores. Phindie caught up with Kate, who will be in town for a few weeks this summer with Student Stage, an offbeat kids theater camp. (Find out more about the camp here.)
Phindie: What are some of your fondest memories of Philadelphia theater?
KB: Live Arts/Fringe Festival. Two years ago, both Greg and I got to take our classes to see Six Fingers’ Traces. I also took my college students to see Anna Deavere Smith when she toured Let Me Down Easy. James Ijames’ Threshing Floor directed by Brandon McShaffrey was amazing (and not given enough attention). Going way back, Pig Iron’s Lucia Joyce Cabaret and Mission to Mercury. Oh, and I guess I met my husband on the steps of the Academy of Music. So there’s that.
Phindie: You’re coming back for a few weeks this summer. Tell me about Student Stage. How did you get involved in it?
KB: Student Stage is perhaps the coolest camp I’ve been involved with. Honestly, I answered an ad and interviewed with the founder of the camp, Melissa Church, in the basement of Chapterhouse. We were inseparable last summer and I’ve been working with them through the year to gear up for this summer. I’ll be back for six weeks. Student Stage is running three Performing Arts Camps this summer—Multimedia, Comedia (with The Ombelico Mask Ensemble as guest teaching artists) and Musical Theatre Camp. We are slated to do everything from yoga to filming, mindful meditation to mask work. The musical has to be my favorite. You don’t know how Aerosmith is supposed to be sung until to hear a bunch of kids belt out “Dream on,” and I dare you not to get teary-eyed when a slew of 10-year-olds leap into singing “I’ll spread my wings and I’ll learn how to fly…”
Phindie: How are things in NYC? What have you been doing since you left?
Kate Brennan: Things are great. Unseasonably cold, but great. I moved up last August to observe Kristin Linklater work with the Columbia graduate students as part of my Linklater Voicework Designation. I was really fortunate because Kristin announced her retirement during my tenure, so I got to see her last American semester! I’ve been accepted into the final training in Scotland this summer. And because I’m a lifelong student, I also just graduated from yoga school. I found this great place which does yoga unlike anywhere I’ve practiced called Yogamaya. It’s like each class is its own little play. I’m excited to start teaching on that front.
In other news, I’m in my sixth year teaching with Broadway Across America’s Broadway Classroom program. When groups come from Australia or England or Texas to see a Broadway show, I’ll teach them an acting class and then a performer from the show will visit my class for a Q&A. It’s one of my favorite jobs.
Also, I was asked back to teach at St. Joe’s this past Spring so I commuted down from NY to teach a theater class there.
Oh, and I read all the time. I’m reading right now as I type this. I started a book blog—brennanbookblog.tumblr.com—and have been writing a ton—new songs, new fiction, reviews, you name it.
Also, I recently started work as a matchmaker. No, not in Fiddler. Yes, a real live matchmaker. That’s a story for another time. But if you are single….
My various adventures can be found at katebrennan.org.
Phindie: And Greg, what is he up to?
KB: I have no idea. I never see him! Just kidding. Greg is in North Carolina getting his MFA at UNC/ Playmakers Rep. He got a full scholarship and such a good package, it was impossible to refuse! As part of his graduate study, he performs with Playmakers’ Rep, a fabulous LORT D theater which I would say is most like Philly’s Arden. Latest info about his adventures can be found on his new website: gregorydecandia.com.
Phindie: For me, Philadelphia lost one of its finest actors and most interesting companies when you left and took BCKSEET with you. Were you disappointed that the company wasn’t given more attention or funding in the city?
KB: In terms of funding, we were generously supported by the Wyncote Foundation, the Cushman Foundation and the Dietrich Foundation, not to mention countless private donors. Without their support, our seasons would not have been possible.
As for attention, we were ambitious, socially conscious, and risk-taking. We churned out three original musicals in the span of five years. We did Angels in America in rep before they even announced they were remounting it off-Broadway. We partnered with a charitable non-profit for each of our shows, and forged alliances with Action AIDS, The Diabetes Center at CHOP, The Parkinsons’ Council, Musicians on Call, and The Mezzoni Center, to name a few. Greg and I (and the people we choose to surround ourselves with) are true believers in the power theater has to change the world. As a result, we committed to hiring solely Philadelphia actors, to giving more opportunities to women, to sharing our forum with other non-profits and to giving chances to new actors in town. I wish I could say the same of the rest of the companies in the city.
Phindie: Did you have any disappointments as an actor in terms of attention and the roles you received?
KB: I had some great opportunities with Luna, Simpatico, New Paradise Laboratories, Mauckingbird and other companies in town, and I am grateful they gave me a chance. I still do work with Passage Theatre Company in Trenton, NJ. Let’s face it, roles for actresses are scarce across the country, and Philadelphia is no exception. In the year that we left, I went through the seasons of all of the major players in town and there were something like 80 lead roles, 50+ of them men, several all-male plays. No all-female plays.
It’s an uneven and difficult comparison, but what are the key things which Philadelphia theater lacks which NYC has and vice versa?
KB: Please see my attached 70-page document. No, but really. What does NY have? More opportunities to fail. And I say that with all honesty. It’s a formidable thing to be an actor in a place where the options are limited. If you aren’t cast in the coming Philadelphia season as of the previous spring, your chances have significantly slimmed.
What I really enjoy about the theater community up here is the tremendous amount of humility and earnestness I encounter from even the most successful Broadway actor. I had an actor come into my class who auditioned for Lion King 37 times over the course of 12 years until he made the show. Now he’s been in 9 Broadway shows. A lot of actors are vigilant about their health, education and attitude. Which makes my job as a teacher really easy. Cause when students speak to the performers in class, they understand the tremendous amount of time, energy and perseverance being “successful” (whatever that means) takes.
That said, if I see one more article about it being possible to make a living as a Philadelphia actor, I may scream. The damn Broadway actors talk about how it’s impossible to make a living, how they are always looking for another gig, how they maintain jobs on the side. A young woman who plays Cinderella—THE TITLE ROLE—twice a week on Broadway said to my class that she still babysits for money when she doesn’t have a show.
Can you sustain yourself solely in the arts? Yes. Greg and I do—as do countless actors, directors, designers, Philadelphia and NY alike. But all of us are the most resourceful multi-talented bunch since they invented the term “renaissance” (wo)man.
Phindie: Is BCKSEET still alive?
KB: BCKSEET is always alive. In our hearts. Just kidding, it’s also alive as a theater company, but currently with a New York address, and a new website: bckseet.com. It follows us wherever we go—we just can’t shake it! My musical ELFuego was our last fully mounted production and it got to be a finalist for NYMF. We are hoping to mount it in NY this coming year. We are also pairing with the Veterans Center for the Performing Arts in NY (VCPA) for a docudrama with the Chapel Hill (NC) community. And needless to say, BCKSEET will soon offer yoga!
Phindie: Any plans to return to Philadelphia stages? I’d like to see 1. A public reading of your truncated all-female Julius Caesar, 2. You and Greg put on some years and come back for a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
KB: Greg and I already play George and Martha on a daily basis. But I jest. Actually, would you believe that was the first Broadway show we saw together, with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin? I would love to do that show. As for our all-female Julius Caesar, I’d love to remount it. We had a company of great (and need I say under-featured) Philadelphia women in our cast. We brought it to Montgomery County Community College, St. Joe’s and Waldron Mercy among other places. It really sent the kids reeling. And isn’t that how we want all our audiences to feel?
Phindie: Thanks Kate!