You Are Welcome Reno, a Love Letter from an Anonymous Thespian
~Written by an Anonymous Thespian~
~Photos by Dana Nöllsch~
Reno, Nevada is most famous for being a last stop, before one ventures across a state filled of small towns with gas stations, casinos, and desert (lots of desert). When one hears the name the first thing that comes to mind is casinos, not the illustrious casinos of Las Vegas, but the rundown forgotten casinos who’s best days are far, far, behind them. It’s a city who hides amongst the shadows of the Sierras, a victim of many predisposed stereotypes. As a tourist you might find yourself staying in one of the hotel rooms on the strip. The strip lies on North Virginia Street. On weekend nights, North Virginia is bustling with tourists, they make their way up and down the street, booze filled, hunting for their riches on the casino floor. For the lucky ones who stumble to the end of the strip, they’ll reach a small theater on the corner of 1st and North Virginia. It’s name is Bruka and the art it has produced has been a cornerstone of entertainment in the Reno area for 27 years.
As I write this I find my memory wandering back to a darker time. In more ways than one, I was in a dark place, I was unstable and consensually unkempt. I wrote quite often in those times. Consistently poor writing, but as any young writer I thought my work was on the brink of brilliance, I knew it was my ticket out. I had written a play titled Rapture, and I desperately needed to see it produce. So in the midst of these darkened benders I would send a message to her. I would slide into her DM’s, generally at 2am, like a drunk boy to a pretty girl, I reached out to her hoping she might find interest in my words. Her name was Bruka, and at the time 18 year old me knew she was going to be the first theatre to produce my work. She’d always reply to me the next morning detailing the proper protocol I’d have to follow to submit a play for production.
The next morning I never would submit a play, out of embarrassment at how poorly written my previous DM’s were. So time went on.
In middle school and high school I read a lot, but not books, I read plays. Mother always suggested I audition for a play, she suggested it when I was 13 and 14 and kept suggesting it till I was 19 years old. I always said I would and never did, a common dialogue between mother and son I assume, mothers saying do and sons lying that they will. I was drunk that night, I was too drunk that night, but it was one of the sad drunks that began to become all too common in those days. They grew overwhelming and always ended up with the heart wrenching question of why? Why are you doing this? Why are you like this? Why can’t you be better?
Why can’t I be better? I laid on the floor of my bedroom, my shag carpet rubbing against my ears, I remember peering over to my bookshelf and there rested my copy of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, it was annoying, dramatic, and coincidental that out of all my plays this would be the one to be staring at me
My mother’s advice rang through my memory’s ear and pulled me off of the floor. I opened my laptop went to the Facebook profile page of the Bruka theater, and there it was. A post, stating that tomorrow they were going to hold their season auditions. I would audition and soon be offered a part in the cult classic for the Reno community, Buttcracker. I accepted the role, although I had no idea what Buttcracker was, and had also never seen the Nutcracker, the show in which it parodies.I would show up to the first rehearsal to be greeted with open arms by quite possibly the most professionally eccentric woman I had ever met. Her name is Mary Bennett, she is one of the founders of Bruka and one of the creators of Buttcracker. I recall her wearing drapes, I don’t know how true that is, but in my memory for some reason whenever I 3 conjure up an image of Mary she is always wearing some outfit made out of bright colorful bed drapes. She’s truly a wonderful sort of person. Her description to me of what the show was, was broad to say the least (I would later find out this was her intention).
The year I was a member of the show would be the eighth and final year Buttcracker would be performed. Each year the 20 performance long run would consistently sell out. The show takes all the basic elements of the ballet and spews its own zaniness and derangement on the piece. Men play women, and children play adults, as constant sexual innuendos, drug references, and drag queens grace the stage. This is not your grandmother’s Nutcracker. Our intention was always comedic, but so often we found that if the audience wasn’t laughing, they still could not take their eyes off the stage, usually with faces of awe that clearly stated what was on their mind, which generally was “what the hell am I watching?”.
As mentioned before cross dressing is a norm in the play and at the start of the rehearsal process I told myself that wearing just a dress and a wig would be my limit (I come from an extremely conservative Roman Catholic background). By the final show as we made our way down the staircase to sub Bruka to change, with the applause and laughter of the audience still echoing throughout the theater, I found myself unable to take my eyes off of my dressing room mirror. There I was, the 19 year old altar boy, in a white bedazzled bra, with a matching silk mini skirt, a big blonde beautiful wig, and glitter, lots of glitter. I was dressed as a half naked woman. I didn’t know how it had gone this far, but what I did know, is that I could never go back. I was home.
Time continued in a rush. Before I knew it I would have performed in many shows in Reno. I’ve performed in front of sold out audiences that have been truly enamored with our 4 work, and I’ve performed in front of audiences not bigger than five people and in this specific case each of the audience members scowled as we tried relentlessly to stir some sort of emotion other than disdain in their souls. I’ve stripped half naked, fenced, danced, mimicked seizures, been doused in gasoline, and had my half naked body massaged in Dreyers low fat chocolate ice cream, all while audiences stared on.
I’ve met lots of people and in many ways it is the people I find to be more entertaining than anything we might produce on stage. I’ve met nurses, teachers, lawyers, students, waiters, and a whole bunch of day to day normal…People. I’ve seen them transform in front of my own eyes whilst they conquered a stage as kings, soldiers, monsters, and whatever being they must be for the sake of the show. The people that have interested me the most are the commuters. The actors and directors who make the trek from Fernley and Carson City and Tahoe everyday just to rehearse. Keep in mind, in almost every case, to rehearse for no money.
One of these most recent commuters I had the pleasure of working with was a 25 year old woman named Alexis Brandt. Alexis and I were in a show at TMCC called Almost, Maine. For rehearsals every weekday for the course of two months Alexis made the two hour long journey (hour there and an hour back) from South Lake Tahoe just to be on the stage. One might assume that she’s been doing this all of her life and can’t live without it, which is not at all the case. Almost, Maine was Alexis’s second show. Her first show was less than a month before and her audition for that show was her first time ever stepping into a live theatre in her adult life. She does not necessarily have the most disposable income, and when asked why she would do this she replied “It’s just something I’ve always thought about doing, and now I can’t stop doing it”.
She’s not alone. Too often actors get hooked, and can’t stop, they might be able to take a break from the stage, but they always and I mean always, come back. Now soberly and in a method that didn’t break my heart I found myself asking “Why?” . Why are me and my counterparts like this, why do we sell ourselves constantly, why can’t we leave that stage?
There’s a Facebook group page called Reno Theatre Resources, members consist of hundreds of locals who are all interested in theater, we post things like audition notices and calls for assistance in volunteers, and more often than not our fellow thespians answer back eager to help. I decided to ask my friends the big question “Why?” I told them in one word please tell me “Why you perform?” I received many responses, the thespians, truly are very helpful people. Their responses were: “Community, Freedom, Growth, Escape, Validation, Passion, Comfort, Release, Fulfillment, Belonging, Acceptance, Empathy, Amusement, Ritual, Connection, Love, Joy, Purpose, Vulnerability, Family, Home” and so much more.
We are a community dedicated to the free, we encourage growth, and vulnerability, and escape, and validation, and release, and love, because too often in this world it is easy to forget that those things might exist. We make one another feel connected, we make one another feel joy, and in a society where us the performer has failed to find purpose, on that stage and with those actors empathy is constant, and through that we give our fellow performer the acceptance we never knew. In a way it is our religion, our daily and weekly rituals do not cease. In many ways for some of us it is more home than home could ever be. They answered my “Why?” and yet so often I hear that we are dying.
To take two titles from articles published by The Telegraph, and the American Theatre, just reading them one would too assume that the end is near for the live theatre. The titles are as 6 follows,“Regional theatre is dying – and to save it, we need to act fast”, and “Will Theatre Ever Regain Centerstage in Our Culture?”. The articles go in depth on how so many regional theatres in both the US and UK receive government funds to stay afloat, and that in both countries these funds are being threatened. In the UK and the US “regions are vital to … theatre’s ecosystem, fostering talent, sparking ideas”. In its essence the theatre one generation knew is always dying, to give way to the next, audiences will diminish as a spark of new artist will allow the audiences to once again replenish themselves. According to the article from the American Theatre, Robert Schlosser, “the audience development director at L.A.’s Center Theatre Group,… said he’d been hearing the same concern since the beginning of his time in the theatre” which was in the 1950’s. In the Reno Sparks Area, the theatres that have called the region home for decades are continuing to stay afloat. These theatres support works crafted by Nevadan playwrights, encouraging opportunity for all artists. The Nevada Arts Council plays a crucial role in supporting the non profit theatre and artists, through funding and other resources. In Reno theater troupes are constantly starting and folding but in itself that is good, because it only means more people might have a chance to enjoy the art form for what it is. Penniless, passionate, artists trying to put on a show.
I reread my writing, I can’t seem to understand what my intention might be. I can’t help but read the piece as a love letter. I’m not quite sure who’s in love. I suppose I might be in love with the stage, maybe that’s what I’m trying to say here. But then I reread it again and see it’s a love letter to Bruka, yes for taking me in and giving me that first chance (Bruka also did produce my first play as a stage reading on my 21st birthday, 18 year old me was right), but that doesn’t feel right so I reread once more. It’s this third time of reading that I entirely understand who my 7 intention of love is written for. It’s for you, you the person sitting on the edge. You’re looking over it and wondering if the leap is worth it. For some reason you need to hear this because it might be that push you just need. That push to audition or that push to just go see a show. You’re on the edge that I once sat on as my face lay muffled in a disgusting shag carpet. You’re on the edge Mary Bennet was once on when she auditioned for her first show. You’re on the edge that Alexis Brandt was once on when she decided on a whim to audition at a theatre she never heard of in a town she never cared for. We were all on that edge, unsure what we’d find or if we’d even like finding it. It’s a scary leap more for those that are taking it to perform. The stage can be a fearful place to the outsider, knowing that an audience beckons and even though you answer, they might not love you for what you create, that they might actually hate you for what you create, and so often we forget; that it doesn’t matter. In this art form emotion seems to be the only aspect that matters. We stand on that stage so that we may stir emotion in you the audience or ourselves the actors. And we pray that in that emotion, no matter what it might be, we will find understanding, and in turn find the only thing ever worthwhile in this world…meaning. So take the stage if you must, she’s always waiting, or see a show if you must, because all are always welcome in the theatre. Whether that be in the audiences of New York or a stage in a black box theatre on the corner of North Virginia and 1st, all are always welcome.
Weinert-Kendt, Rob. “Will Theatre Ever Regain Centerstage in Our Culture?” AMERICAN THEATRE, 1 May 2019, www.americantheatre.org/2019/05/01/will-theatre-ever-regain-centerstage-in-our-culture/.
Cavendish, Dominic. “Regional Theatre Is Dying – and to Save It, We Need to Act Fast.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 31 Mar. 2017, www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/regional-theatre-dying-save-need-act-fast/.