Photo: Broken Nose Theatre’s 2nd Bechdel Fest
By Brynne Frauenhoffer
In the Chicago storefront scene, there’s always a new company debuting—and another one disbanding. It’s hard to peg which fresh collectives have begun an exciting trajectory and which will flame out after a handful of shows.
“You see a lot of young theater companies kind of shit or get off the pot at year 2 or so,” observes Benjamin Brownson, Artistic Director and co-founder of Broken Nose Theatre. “Any new theatre company doesn’t really have a sense of who they are, what they do, their first couple shows. It takes a while to really settle into that identity.”
As it nears the end of its fourth season, Broken Nose has ably crested this two-year hump and found its footing as an up-and-coming producer of new works with a burgeoning new play development program and a Pay What You Can ticketing model.
Tracing Brownson’s career and the growth of Broken Nose illuminates the challenges facing young companies, and how to overcome them.
“My advice to anyone new to Chicago is: don’t start a theatre company,” Brownson says. “At least not right away.” For four years he worked with established theatre organizations while taking on administrative jobs in audience services and box office, as well as an Interim Managing Director position and the role of General Manager at Greenhouse Theatre Center. Brownson credits these experiences with giving him the particular skills required to run a company as opposed to staging a show. “[Young companies] don’t necessarily understand how different a skill set that is,” Brownson asserts. “Having done it for a while, I realized that it was a skill set that I also had–in addition to whatever my artistic abilities were–and it was something that excited me.”
So when, four years into working in Chicago, a friend approached him with the idea of producing the Chicago premiere of MY FIRST TIME, Brownson decided to take the leap and start Broken Nose. Brownson and co-founder Scott Johnston (now a Company Emeritus) plucked the name from a quote by writer Nelson Algren:
Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.
“It’s one of my favorite quotes about Chicago,” Brownson explains. “I just like the scrappiness about it. We’re here. We may be a little bruised and beat up, but that only adds to our appeal.”
The ultimate success of MY FIRST TIME kicked off a cycle of non-stop productions, including several other Chicago premieres and original plays by Brownson. In their second season, Broken Nose launched Bechdel Fest, a short play festival devoted to plays about women that pass the Bechdel test and are directed, written by, and star mostly female artists.
Then, suddenly, Broken Nose stopped producing for roughly nine months: they had reached their two-year, do-or-die moment.
Brownson says he and the other Broken Nose company members decided, “We need to…take all that passion and energy and drive that we’re putting into production, and turn it towards us as an organization, and figure out: okay, what are the things that are working? What are the things that get us really passionate? What are the elements that we want to focus in on and really create a part of our identity? And also, what is our role and sets us apart from the 250 other companies in Chicago?”
The experience of the first Bechdel Fest, Brownson says, nudged them towards more defined goals: “Amplifying underrepresented voices, doing plays that spark conversation, and making theatre more accessible for audiences.” The new works element of Bechdel Fest, as well as the strengths of Broken Nose’s multiple Chicago premieres, encouraged the company to keep pursuing new work as well.
Hence, Broken Nose’s fourth season featured a world premiere (A PHASE by Elise Sporlein) and a Chicago premiere (HUMAN TERRAIN by Jennifer Blackmer), both by female playwrights, and included the launch of a new play development program called The Paper Trail.
Striving to make this program as unique and effective as possible, Broken Nose designed The Paper Trail to provide a year’s worth of literary management. Brownson asserts that, after a staged reading of the play being developed, “Rather than leaving the playwright on their own again, we commit to helping that new play find a home, even if it’s not with us,” by sharing the script with artistic directors, literary managers, and other “decision-makers.” This year, they selected KINGDOM by Michael Allen Harris, the story of an all-African American, all-gay family in Orlando, Florida.
Perhaps the most radical shift this season has been Broken Nose’s adoption of a “Pay What You Can” ticketing model, which allows patrons to choose their own prices with the aim of increasing accessibility. “Hopefully it opens [shows] up to more audiences who might not otherwise be able to afford to see theater,” Brownson says. So far, he has observed that Pay What You Can leads to bigger audiences, benefitting both the company and the actors in their shows. “I’d rather have a house of 40 people who each pay 5 dollars than a house of 20 people who paid 10,” Brownson says.
During the recent run of Human Terrain, other endeavors to reach new audiences included a fully captioned performance and a post-show talkback with playwright Rohina Malik about the portrayal of Muslim women onstage. “Before we select a play I always ask who is the audience for this show,” Brownson explains. “And if the answer is just our friends or theater people then we should not do that play.” With HUMAN TERRAIN, Broken Nose aimed to engage with the Muslim community, military members, anthropology programs, and others who would feel a connection to the story.
For Brownson, when you boil down the specific goals of Broken Nose, you get the main ingredient of powerful performance: empathy. “I think that theatre has the potential to change the world by changing individual people,” he says. “If somebody walks out of HUMAN TERRAIN, for example, with a little bit better understanding of Muslims or of a veteran, then hopefully that ripples out.”