Drag queens, dramatic scenes and a whole lot of blood
If there’s one thing we can take away from Dave Thomas Brown’s American Psycho performance, it’s blood. Lots of blood. “I had a pretty tremendous death with all sorts of fun blood effects,” he shared of his role in the Tony-nominated Broadway musical, which is based on the best-selling novel by Bret Easton Ellis.
In addition to his supporting actor role, he also worked overtime this spring as the understudy for the lead role: a debonair Wall Street banker with a penchant for murder. It’s a new experience for Brown. “Let me tell you ... it’s a full-time job learning your own part and also the part of the person who speaks nearly every line in the show. But it's exciting.”
By now, the stage has long been a comfortable place for Brown (HS ’06, BFA ’10), who has starred in off-Broadway hits like Heathers: The Musical and The Legend of Georgia McBride — the latter of which garnered him a Clive Barnes Award for Theatre in January of this year.
“Winning that award was a genuine honor and surprise, and it was so lovely for it to be in recognition of a play that meant so much to me, and a role that was truly once in a lifetime,” says Brown.
The star role of a struggling Elvis impersonator-turned-drag-queen was a departure for Brown, in a performance the New York Times called “flawless.”
“Georgia McBride was probably the toughest role I’ve tackled thus far,” he says. “Playing a straight man who becomes a legendary Floridian drag queen tested my physical and mental abilities, but in the end it paid off in such a tremendous way.” He likens the experience to being given a master class during each performance, and it’s clear that each role leaves a lasting mark on him.
As a newly minted UNCSA graduate, Brown moved immediately to New York City and started auditioning, reading, and attending plays — anything he could do to stay engaged with theatre.
Sometimes it felt slow and I would think, ‘Am I actually doing anything worthwhile? Will I catch a break?’ But having a community of different places to do short plays or readings helped to maintain and cultivate my craft.
He has worked with many theatre companies, including the Ensemble Studio Theater, Abingdon Theatre Company, The Flea and Calliope, but it is his connection with a fellow UNCSA alumnus that he credits with nudging him in the right direction.
“I believe that Sean Murray (’89), who is the artistic director of Cygnet Theater in San Diego, kickstarted the career I am blessed to have now,” says Brown. “He cast me and three other alumni in Romeo & Juliet, and the following year I did Spring Awakening with him.”
Singer-songwriter and composer Duncan Sheik was in the Spring Awakening audience, and two years later Brown is starring in American Psycho, for which Sheik wrote the music and lyrics.
Murray isn’t the only UNCSA connection that Brown recalls with gratitude. His mentor in the School of Drama, Gerald Freedman, supported him throughout his years in school. “He instilled his legendary comedy technique work in me and it’s something that I use in every show; in every audition.”
During a rehearsal of Saint Joan, Brown recalls that he reached an impasse with his teacher over his acting in a particular scene.
“I just could not comprehend what he wanted me to be doing in the scene,” says Brown. “He pushed me in the chest up against a wall and, startled and angry, I pushed him back! ‘Now that’s what the scene is about,’ he told me with a smile. It was exactly what I needed and I think about that moment often with such fondness.”
Brown met Gerald Freedman in 2005, when he and his two best friends transferred from Mt. Tabor High School in Winston-Salem to attend the High School Drama program at UNCSA.
Once I went through that incredibly formative first year of discovery, I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. And I spent the next four years finding out who I really was as an actor and as a person.
Intensive Arts, UNCSA’s annual two-week period of specialized arts courses, inspired Brown to explore theatre from a place besides the stage.
“I had never written a play before, but I wrote three short plays during my Intensive Arts years, and I was able to perform them with lights, actors and a supportive audience,” Brown recalls.
Experiences like Intensive Arts gave Brown a strong foundation, but it is his perseverance that has led him to achieve success. “You have to knock on doors, see theatre, embrace slow times, build a community for yourself and when you get into an audition, prepare thoroughly and breathe.”
Wise words from someone who knocked on a Broadway stage door and crossed the threshold.