You owe it to the audience.
It's an idea that well-loved and respected local actor, director, and drama professor, Donald Brady, learned at a young age. For Brady, who is being honored with the 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Big Easy Theatre Awards, the audience goes well beyond the people sitting in front of a stage. It includes thousands of students Brady has taught at Loyola University, his adopted son, ex-convicts, orphans and just about anyone Brady has ever met in his life. It's not that Brady feels the heavy burden of guilt, rather it's that throughout his life, Brady has benefited from so many life experiences -- some of them painful, searing and scarring -- that he feels a need to give after receiving so much.
One thing he doesn't think he owes anyone, including himself, is his age.
"I think I'm 73 or 74," Brady says. "I lie about my age so often I don't know the truth anymore."
Beyond that, Brady keeps on giving. Even though he is retiring in May from Loyola, he isn't pondering rocking chairs, vacations or his memoirs. He is thinking about how he can continue his social work. In the past, he has made his Uptown home into an informal halfway house for ex-convicts, letting them live there while they were trying to get back on their feet. Currently, he is part of Arts á La Carte, an organization that supports collaborations between artists and special needs children. Brady says that through visual and performing arts, kids discover themselves.
This kind of self-discovery should be a vital part of any child's education, but it can be difficult when children have to worry about basic necessities like food, clothing and a roof over their heads. Brady believes kids shouldn't have these concerns, and he would like to remedy this by possibly opening a house for abandoned children. He has been assisting the homeless for a long time, so a home for kids would be a natural extension of previous projects, but it would also be one born from experience.
"I know what it's like to be homeless," says Brady, a Brooklyn native. "When my father's mistress got tired of me and my father didn't really care to take care of me, I was put in an orphanage for about two years. That experience I value tremendously because when you feel unwanted it leaves a mark, a good mark."
Sometimes you're playing for an audience of one. It was a snowy night in El Paso, Texas, and a young Brady was looking out at the nearly empty Playhouse Incorporated. The theater was located nearly at the top of a mountain and driving there was treacherous, so no theatergoers, save one man, had made it there that evening. Brady, who was in the Air Force and stationed in El Paso, spent most of his off hours working at the theater, which was run by the Kibbee family. He considered the Kibbees, who had taken the 20-year-old under their wing, his adopted family. Still, he couldn't understand why Mom Kibbee refused to cancel the performance that night.
"I said to Mom Kibbee, 'Mom, couldn't we just give the guy double what he paid and go?' She said, 'Honey, he paid to see the performance. We do the performance.' We went out there, did it, and we played beautifully."
Brady was sold. It didn't matter, Brady thought, if the crowd was five or 500, you played your part. Brady then began to see theater as defining his role in life. The Air Force had brought him to El Paso and the Kibbees, and it had introduced him to acting through one of the armed forces' prime motivating emotions: boredom.
Brady enlisted in the Air Force to get away from his father. He was first stationed in Okinawa, where he learned about radar systems. Outside of his job, there was very little to do on the island, and with no United Service Organization (USO), there was no entertainment for the men. Brady and friends decided to put on their own vaudevillian-style show, and it was a hit.
Brady, however, wasn't exactly a natural born performer. One of the players in the show, James Joyce, was a successful stage actor in New York City. Brady asked Joyce if he could teach him how to act. For two hours, Joyce tried to get Brady to simply act out two lines out of Shakespeare's Othello.
"I was doing it like gangbusters on TV or Philip Marlowe on radio," Brady says. "He was trying to get subtlety into me, but he couldn't do it."
Joyce might have been frustrated, but Brady wasn't. He re-enlisted in the Air Force after the recruiter promised Brady he would be stationed in one of three cities he picked. "I chose New York, Chicago and San Francisco, so they sent me to El Paso, which I didn't even know existed," he says. One night at the playhouse, a representative from Texas Western College, now the University of Texas at El Paso, approached Brady and offered him a full scholarship in acting.
Brady accepted and four years later, he was relocating to New Orleans and enrolled in Tulane University's graduate drama department. This time it was no mistake. Tulane was renowned nationally for the Tulane Drama Review, which Brady describes as "the outstanding theater magazine in the USA." He became an editor for the review while earning a doctorate in acting.
After receiving his doctoral degree, Brady walked across the street from Tulane and asked the administrators at Loyola if they could use another professor in their speech department. The department, which produced plays and offered drama courses, felt like a good fit to Brady and he has been teaching there for the past 42 years.
When Brady began at Loyola there was no drama department, but he managed to change that in 1967 when he became chair of the speech department. He purposefully began hiring drama professors and instructors, and after a while, he suggested to the head of Loyola that they should change it into a drama department. The administrator only wanted to know if it would cost any money.
Brady's negative reply gained Loyola a drama department.
Throughout his tenure at the university, Brady has directed numerous plays, created more than 40 commercials and written five original plays. Terrance McNally, the critically acclaimed playwright, praised Brady's play, A Quartet of Regrets, referring to it as the work of a "unique voice" in American theater.
Brady doesn't talk too much about his own creations, but he loves to chat about the plays he has directed. Some of his favorites include J.M. Barrie's What Every Woman Knows, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Harold Pinter's The Hot House. First on the list, however, might be Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which Brady says is a freewheeling and imaginative romp about the history of the world that challenges the audience, players and director. At one point the play is interrupted because the set falls down.
In the wake of Katrina and after New Orleans had fallen down, Brady wanted to produce a work that would reflect the city's plight and future. He settled on Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, which relates the story of a king mistakenly accusing his pregnant queen of infidelity, causing the queen's death and the newborn child's disappearance. Later, the remorseful king is reunited with his lost daughter.
"In Winter's Tale you have life ending and life beginning again through a miraculous recovery," Brady explains.
Brady's art reflects his life, and he has had his own close experiences with death and rebirth. When he turned 40, he went for a checkup and was diagnosed with leukemia. For a few years, Brady walked around thinking he didn't have long to live until another doctor discovered that Brady had a condition that mimicked leukemia but wasn't fatal and wouldn't even make him sick.
Before he found out he'd been misdiagnosed, Brady refused to turn to prayer because he thought it would be insulting to God. He could almost hear God's answers to his prayers.
"Look, Brady, this is a con job." Brady remembers thinking. "You're coming to me now and it won't work."
A few months after getting the news he wasn't going to die, Brady found out God hadn't forgotten him. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and Brady was relaxing in his French Quarter apartment. He was listening to Mozart concertos on the stereo with The New York Times spread out on the table and a cold pitcher of Blood Marys waiting to be imbibed. Suddenly, Brady felt like he'd been punched in the stomach.
"I saw the mind of God," Brady says. "I saw why everything had to be, why everything had to be interconnected. Why everything. It was an instant -- no words were connected; there was no music, no angels. It was just everything."
He wanted to pay back this tremendous insight, so he started working with the homeless and ex-convicts trying to restart their lives. He sometimes worries that he hasn't done enough, and this was on his mind one December night in 1983.
He had finished his final grading for the semester and he was walking to the Maple Leaf bar to celebrate. Out of the shadows stepped a man who repeatedly stabbed him with a long knife. Brady managed to escape, running across the street. He collapsed, but ever the playwright, he worried about how he would phrase what had just happened. To this day, he is still disappointed with his response: "I've been stabbed."
When Brady recounts this episode today, he intersperses it with a couple of chuckles -- this isn't a man who takes himself too seriously, but he does take the event to mean something.
"Motivation is still there. Talking, it sounds like I've done a lot, but I haven't, I just haven't. There's just so much to do."
With his so-called retirement, he will have plenty of time to devote to his mission of goodwill, but it will never be enough. For no matter how much more he accomplishes, when Donald Brady takes his final bow, the audience will still be there, applauding and wanting more.
Best Big Easy Youth Performance
Just starting his career is 15-year-old Ethan Andersen. He received the award for best performance by a child at the Big Easy Entertainment Awards. The award recognizes Andersen's lead performance in the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) production of Over the Tavern.
Also recognized with nominations were Tyler Chetta, who appeared in Crescent City Lights Youth Theatre's The Dracula Spectacula, Tony Felix for his role in Little Bit at Anthony Bean Community Theater and Jonathan May for his role in The Ransome of Red Chief at Actors' Theatre of New Orleans.
In Over the Tavern, Andersen played Rudy Pazinski, a 12-year-old Catholic boy growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1950s. Pazinski is undergoing a crisis of faith and living above a bar with his dysfunctional family.
Although he isn't Catholic and lives a long way from Buffalo, Andersen realized there were many similarities between growing up now and back in the '50s. In general, as Andersen sees it, people share many of the same thoughts, feelings and anxieties their counterparts did decades earlier. Plus, the main character searches for what kids today still are looking for.
"I could relate to him," Andersen says. "He wants a normal family and he wants his dad to understand him."
Andersen, a student at Isidore Newman School, isn't sure yet if he wants to be a professional actor when he grows up. He's a good student and he's keeping his options open. He does admit, however, that theater will always be a part of his life. Perhaps it has something to do with his auspicious beginning in an acting workshop at JPAS.
"I was going into the second grade and I was doing their summer program," Andersen says. "We put on the Wizard of Oz, and I was a dancing stalk of corn."
- Cheryl Gerber
- Don Brady has dedicated his life to entertaining and helping others through theater arts.
- Ethan Andersen won the Big Easy Award for best theater performance by a child.