Interview: Stan Brown Adds Broadway to His Resume at the Age of 61

Brown is making his Broadway debut as Camel in Water for Elephants.

Stan Brown (© Sophy Holland)
Stan Brown
(© Sophy Holland)

Stan Brown’s wide-ranging acting career has taken him from theater (Open Heart) to film (The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy, Modern Love) to television (Homicide: Life on the Street, I’ll Fly Away). He has also worked as a vocal coach and was the first director of graduate studies of the MFA in Acting program at Northwestern University (he is currently on leave to do Water for Elephants). “I’m very excited that I have 61 years of life to get me through this process,” Brown says.

Now he’s making his Broadway debut in Water for Elephants. The musical is based on Sara Gruen’s novel about a veterinary student, Jacob (Grant Gustin), who joins a traveling circus during the Great Depression. The show is playing at the Imperial Theatre, which is significant to Brown because it was home to Dreamgirls, a show that Brown dreamed of seeing as a young man but couldn’t afford. Now he gets to go to the theater nightly to play Camel, who works at the circus and takes Jacob under his wing. He spoke to TheaterMania about developing the role, how it differs from the book and 2011 film, and more.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Grant Gustin, Stan Brown, and cast (© Matthew Murphy)
Grant Gustin, Stan Brown, and cast
(© Matthew Murphy)

You’ve had an extensive career, but is Broadway something you’ve dreamed about?
Early on it was. It almost automatically presents itself as a hallmark or something that one wants to achieve to validate that adequate progress has been made in a career. But during that period of time when I would have moved to New York, I went to England instead, and that redirected my life. So when I came to New York, it usually was for work, but to be totally honest I couldn’t get an agent to even meet with me let alone represent me. I made peace with the fact that I probably wasn’t going to work on Broadway.

Have you read the book or seen the movie?
I saw the film quickly when the opportunity came, so I could get a general idea about it and then I read the book later and the character in the book is a white Polish gentleman, so I had to create a history for Camel because I wanted to be true to the history of an African American person. And there were references to him being a gunner in the war and I had to point out that African Americans weren’t even allowed to have guns until World War II. I constructed a history for him out of what I could in terms of what the book offered.

Can you tell me a little bit more about that and how you think of the character?
My father I’m told made moonshine before I was born and that was interesting because the character is losing his ability to walk because of ill-made moonshine. My father also was an alcoholic, so I tapped into that as far as creating Camel and addiction. As far as the military history, the usual stuff that happens to people when they go to war is they want to forget things. He’s drinking because so many African American military people that came back during that period fought for their country and risked their lives and then they came back to a country where they couldn’t even get a job and they were treated poorly.

I don’t know anyone who is an African American who made their life in the circus, but I know Camels. I grew up in the rural south in the ’60s and the ’70s and so that part came pretty organically, right down to the way he speaks. He’s evolved and Rick Elice [the show’s book writer] helped tremendously with that because during the Atlanta production, Rick started to write to my strengths and my sense of humor. I will always be grateful for that and that will probably never happen again in my career.

Did you do anything with the cast to create the camaraderie of the circus troupe?
From the very beginning, we are suspicious of it now, but we got along incredibly well. There wasn’t a diva in the crowd. One of the big lessons I think that the circus folk brought to the process is they do literally have to have each other’s back. One of the first lessons I remember was the circus people saying the first thing you have to do is get over the fear of falling and when you get over the fear of falling, everything else just kind of falls into place and I took that seriously, not just literally but figuratively as well.

Stan Brown
Stan Brown
(© Jenny Anderson and Natalie Powers for Jenny Anderson Photo)

How did you start working as a vocal coach?
I started out as a child singer and I was around vocal training for a long time, but it all changed after I finished my MFA degree. I was living in England, and I got on a train bound for London sitting down reading The Voice Actor and the Text by Cicely Berry who was — she’s no longer with us — one of the biggest voice people in the world. Across the aisle I hear this voice that was so magnificent I kept peeking, and then something said turn the book over and her picture was on the back of the book, and I thought, “Oh my God it’s Cicely Berry.” Something said hold the book a little bit higher and ego will take care of the rest and so she invites me over. Fast forward to the future she becomes my mentor, this person I randomly met on a train while reading her book and it just changed my life and I got into vocal coaching that way. Coincidentally, before Water for Elephants, I was the vocal coach on Good Night, Oscar with Sean Hayes last season and so that was a total coincidence because I had never vocal-coached on Broadway before.

Having worked in TV, film, and theater, is there anything in your career that you are most proud of?
I’m just proud when I can leave something and know that I was as present as I could be. But there have been those instances when I’ve gone into an audition and the role was not written for an African American and the directors and producers decided who says that we can’t do this. To walk out knowing that I not only got the part, but I changed their minds about how to even cast the thing, those have been supreme moments of triumph.