With Scott Beers, conversations always turn back to the stage.
The 36-year-old founder and artistic director of Brüka Theatre of the
Sierra dons many hats: director, actor, grant writer, businessman. To keep Brüka
now in its 12th season vibrant, hes done it all, but he
lives to put on shows.
Weve done a lot of plays, and thats the exciting thing,
Beers said. Just getting lost in the play. In 1991, Beers opened
Brüka in Nevada City, and two years later moved it over the hill to Reno.
Money was meager, but he was convinced Reno had an underserved audience: children.
For three years, Brükas adult actors produced programs for kids.
Then the theaters leaders gave mature audiences a try. More than a decade
later, the theater is one of the most successful in Northern Nevada.
VIM AND VIGOR
Childrens theater still is in the repertoire, but those shows are matched
by an ambitious schedule of main stage productions, ranging from classical to
avant-garde. Whatever the company produces, it does so with zeal.
Thats what attracted actor Michael Grimm to join shortly after moving
to Reno in 1996. Grimm had made the rounds to most local theater companies when
he stumbled on a Brüka production of The Mystery of Irma Vep. Back
then, Brüka was producing plays in a small room on the second floor of
the Reno Masonic Temple.
By the end of the show they were all sweating, Grimm said. I
could just tell there was a different passion involved in the shows. ... Other
shows in town might have had more of a budget, had a little more backing and
money and stuff, but I was intrigued by the garage-type of performance that
was going on there.
Today, Grimm is one of Brükas most prolific performers and directors.
Last year, he directed William Shakespeares Titus Andronicus, adding
to a Brüka résumé that includes two original productions
and numerous starring roles.
The great thing is that weve grown, Grimm said. I
dont think if the company hadnt grown, and me grown with them, that
I would have stayed with them. Its that concept of, OK, weve
done this. Now what can we do?
DOWN TO EARTH
Brüka graduated from producing bare bones shows on the second floor of
the Masonic Temple to full-time theater space on the buildings first floor
in 1997. Today, Brükas theater, on the corner of South Virginia and
First streets, is a crux of the downtown arts corridor. But gaining a full-time
venue didnt separate the group from its earthy roots.
To look at Brükas space during a dead week is to walk into a small,
bleak room that, more than anything, is black. Every wall is slathered with
dark paint, making it a chameleon of sorts. With no distracting color on the
walls, production designers can transform the venue into anything from a seedy
German cabaret to a warm family home.
You never know, when you go in there, what the setup is going to be,
said Renos Debbie Smith, a regular Brüka patron. They change
it so often.
Often, however, youll find the famous Brüka couches. When setting
up shop, Beers decided to forgo traditional theater seats, instead inviting
audiences to lounge on a mismatched collection of sofas.
Thats one of those things that, man, I would piss some people
off if I ever changed that, Beers said. I just felt like the more
I could do to make (audiences) feel like they were comfortable, whether they
were dressed up or in jeans and a T-shirt, would be good.
The strategy seems to be working, as Brüka audiences have grown over
the years. The company now supports eight full-scale productions a year on its
Main Stage, plus a schedule of smaller shows in an intimate, downstage venue
called Sub-Brüka. The Main Stage theater seats between 80 and 85 patrons,
and it can be tough to find a ticket after a shows first couple of weekends.
I think thats really the only thing that keeps us going, is the
steady word-of-mouth and the dedicated patrons of the theater, Grimm said.
There are some people, the faces, I know them by heart now.
Smith probably has one of those faces, because shes been visiting Brüka
I couldnt tell you how long Ive been going there, but years
ago for my birthday I asked my family for a theater pass, she said. I
just would call some friends and say, Hey, lets go. And then
pretty soon that started snowballing. ... Theres about a dozen of us women
who go every season.
Smith attends performances by other local theater companies, but she said
Brüka is her favorite because its productions tackle real life. She and
many of her friends volunteer or work in fields involving social justice
such as family violence, womens rights and Brükas plays
often address those topics.
They dare to be real is the way I kind of look at it, Smith said.
There will be instances in certain plays where we willbe cringing because
we know it too well because we work so directly with these issues ... It kind
of pushes us to recognize our work isnt done.
Past Brüka productions have included night Mother, a Pulitzer
Prize-winning play about a woman on the verge of suicide; and Buried Child,
playwright Sam Shepards tale of family tragedy. But the company isnt
all doom and gloom. Earlier this year it wrapped the showbiz comedy Ruthless!
The Musical, and in May, Beers directs Shirley Valentine, a comedy
about an English housewife in a rut.
FROM THE HEART
Brüka Producing Director Mary Bennett said much thought goes into the
way a season of shows unfolds.
We put it in all sorts of orders, she said. We think about
whats going to fit. ... A lot of it just comes from your heart.
She and Beers discuss plays and toss ideas around with potential directors
and actors, sometimes as much as two years in advance of the proposed show date.
By April, Bennett said, the theater had a pretty good idea of its 2005-06 season.
For the current season, Bennett said, Brüka had a $180,000 budget, about
one-third of that funded by individual donations. Grants covered another third,
and the slack will be picked up by ticket sales, she said. Some companies are
more reliant on grants, but Beers said Brüka does whatever it takes to
keep the doors open.
When all of a sudden the funding isnt there for culture, you have
to go to the street or you close up and die, he said. Theater is
fragile. You just want it to succeed.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
By most accounts, Brüka is an unlikely success. According to The Small
Theatre Handbook, the average life of a small theater that survives more
than one season is six seasons. Brüka has doubled that.
Still, running the company isnt easy. Beers and Bennett are the only
full-time employees, and they supplement their salaried positions with additional
jobs. Among other duties, Bennett works on theater education projects, and Beers
has a yearly contract doing organizational chores for Burning Man.
Neither, however, seems beaten down by the long hours; and Beers grins when
he talks about their salaries.
We make less than a Burger King employee, he said, but were
quite rich emotionally and spiritually.
Shirley Valentine. Written by Willy Russell. Directed by Scott Beers.
Shows at 8 p.m. May 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, and 14.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Written by Paul
Zindel. Directed by Rod Hearn. May 27, 28, June 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17,
18, 23, 24, 25, 30, July 1 and 2. Matinee at 2 p.m. June 12.
As Bees in Honey Drown. Written by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by
Kahele. Shows at 8 p.m. July 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23, 28, 29, 30, Aug.
4, 5, and 6. Matinee at 2 p.m. July 17 (part of Artown 2005).
Brüka Theatre is at 99 N. Virginia St. For reservations and more information,
call 323-3221 or visit www.brukaland.com
Forrest Hartman is the arts editor and film critic for the Reno Gazette-Journal.