Tensions are high on the set of Brace Yourself, author Ray Dobbins' fractured parody of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. With only a few days before opening night, there's been a last-minute cast change, the costumes aren't ready, the actors haven't learned their lines, the playwright seems apprehensive, the tech crew is missing in action, and the production's entire collection of glass figurines has just crashed onto the floor. "It's a good thing they're just a dollar each!" jokes director Brenda Bergman, maintaining a sense of humor amid the chaos.
With her Sally-Jesse-Raphael glasses, a glorious burst of Chaka-Khan hair, and an instantly recognizable New York accent, Bergman is a familiar face on the downtown theater scene. She gained her status as a "cultural icon" performing in Tom Eyen's Women Behind Bars with Divine, her solo shows such as Endangered Species: The Brenda Bergman Story, and most recently, TWEED's hilarious silver-screen spoof Imitation of Imitation of Life with Lypsinka and Flotilla DeBarge. As a director, however, Bergman is a work-in-progress. Brace Yourself is her directorial debut.
"In some ways, I've always been a director," confesses Bergman. "During rehearsals of Psycho Beach Party, the other actors would ask me for suggestions. The director, Carl Walker, usually 'gave notes' on pieces of paper," she remembers. "One day, I got the message: 'Brenda, stop giving notes!' I can't help myself!" With her feet firmly planted off stage, Bergman is discovering the challenges of directing. "On stage, I know how to manipulate an audience," she reveals. "Behind the scenes, I have to translate that energy through other people. I've never studied directing, so I'm relying on instinct and experience."
Most of Bergman's experience comes from working with other directors. Her direction of Brace Yourself is dedicated to the late Ron Link, who directed the aforementioned Women Behind Bars. Bergman also credits her directorial instincts to Walker and TWEED's Kevin Malony. "I've watched really great directors," she states. "I've learned so much from these people."
On the stage of La MaMa, where Brace Yourself will run through April 30, Bergman is now picking up pieces of shattered faux-Hummel figurines that were once shaped like ballerinas. "They look like something from Boxing Helena!" she quips. She then offers her cast (Michael Arian, Chris Kapp, Mark Baker and Nate Mooney) direction on staging and line readings. The process of directing is one of empowerment for Bergman, who is also a wife, mother of two children, and producer for an interactive web site, www.kewn.com. The process also has a tremendous learning curve. "I discovered that being a director does not always give you complete control--especially when the playwright is alive and the actors are divas!" says Bergman in her unique, sardonic tone.
As a playwright, Dobbins has created the hits East of Edie, Island of Lost Shoes, Get Hur, and Gland Motel for the drag performance group Bloolips. In adapting Tennessee Williams' masterpiece, Dobbins has replaced Laura's usually sensitive Gentleman Caller with 50s pop star Johnnie Ray, emphasized Tom's homosexual tendencies, and transformed the domineering mother, Amanda, into an Avon Lady. "Ray (Dobbins) is a fabulous writer. He's a true genius!" beams Bergman. "Not one word of The Glass Menagerie has been copied, and yet it has the same classic feel as the original."
While praising the playwright's abilities, Bergman also admits that she and Dobbins have not always seen eye-to-eye on Brace Yourself. "He doesn't want the play to be too broad," she contends. "Anyone who can write a line like 'I'm one bubble short of a full lather' or 'Let's get this cheese-ball rolling' shouldn't worry about being too broad!" Bergman pauses, before continuing with an endearing sincerity. "I want the playwright to love how I've presented his vision. I also want the audience to laugh and enjoy it. My biggest fear is that people will say, 'Brenda, you should have just stayed on stage!'"
Based on the success of Brace Yourself, Bergman hopes to continue fine-tuning her directorial talents. Her main goal, however, is to learn from this experience. Eventually, she would like to direct for the Internet and produce Betrayed and the Others, a soap opera for television. Given the dynamic personality's resumé, it's difficult to imagine her spending too much time off stage. "Would you rather be starring in Brace Yourself?" I ask. "Oh, f**k no!" she instantly responds. "I'm too lazy to put on the makeup and memorize all those lines!" Moments later, she retracts her previous statement. "Change that to 'Oh, hell no'!" Bergman says. "I'm trying to go 'mainstream'!" The director has spoken.