DEAD BRAINS (2018) / Planet Connections Theatre Festivity / by Erik Champney

Dead Brains was originally a product of the American College Theatre Festival. The Kennedy Center awarded it the National AIDS Fund/CFDA-Vogue Initiative Award for Playwriting. Yep, THE National AIDS Fund and THE Vogue Magazine. Crazy, right? To top it all off, the deciding judge was THE Craig Lucas! This resulted in a fully staged reading at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, presented by The Kennedy Center, The National AIDS Fund, The Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the Vogue Initiative. It was directed by John Morace and featured Brian Erlich as Henry, Stacey Jackson as Philly, and Kenny Shults as Corey.

In 2002, Dead Brains took its first bow at the Seattle Fringe Festival. Directed by Megan Carter, the original cast was David Hogan as Henry, Emily Vise McBride as Philly, and Eric Stevens as Corey. Seattle Fringe honored it with their Sold Out Award. It was a very successful run.

Fast forward to 2018 and a completely gutted and rewritten script (making it practically a new play), under the guidance of Jake Smith’s sensational dramaturgy. I made the decision to resurrect the play at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. The quirky, wonderfully sedate Adam Chisnall came on board to direct, and we put together a cast that included Richard Wingert as Henry, Ellie Gossage as Philly, and Matt Maretz as Corey. If ever a cast looked like these characters, it was this one. There was no denying it.

During our crowdfunding campaign (something I hate doing but it was simply necessary), Jim Kierstead assumed the role of our lead producer, matching the funds we’d accumulated from so many incredible people. He was our angel and quite a prominent name to have associated with the production. At the time, he had two Tonys, an Olivier, and an Emmy (he would win his third Tony for Hadestown). Not to mention he was already my producer on Sparkler, a play we’d been developing for a couple years. He’s also a wonderfully generous and loving human being, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Dead Brains was dark to begin with. Lots of humor as well, but it was ten times more grim in New York than it was in Seattle. The rehearsal process was arduous. To be fair, the play was asking the actors to take on a great deal, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. It’s a parable about the manipulation of art to, essentially, seduce, destroy, and reinvent people. These characters were a lot to shoulder, but they powered through it and totally delivered.

Something that deserves special mention is Matt Maretz’s performance of an extremely complicated, heartbreaking monologue, which he had already begun to conquer during his first reading, only to grow it into an extraordinary moment that was as beautiful as it was painful.

The production was simply staged, to its benefit, and lit masterfully by the one and only Gilbert “Lucky” Pearto. Alongside us all was our stage manager, Richard Sommerfield, who was invaluable in every way imaginable. He’s pretty much the one who kept me sane throughout the process.

The new Dead Brains received two Planet Connections Awards that season: Outstanding Overall Production and Outstanding Playwriting. Richard Wingert was also nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Leading Actor, and Matt Maretz was nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actor. I was so proud to see everybody shine.

It was a tough summer, but we did it. And I think we did it right. Dead Brains lives again!

Matt Maretz (L) as Corey, Richard Wingert as Henry, and Ellie Gossage as Philly. Photo by Bryan Cash; design by Erik Champney.

Matt Maretz (L) as Corey, Richard Wingert as Henry, and Ellie Gossage as Philly. Photo by Bryan Cash; design by Erik Champney.