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The Remarkable Sara Bruner

Jenny Graham | Oregon Shakespeare Festival
In Connie Gonzalez (Catherine Castellanos, left), Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) finds love and stability, two things that have been hard to come by in her life.

Some things you should know about Sara Bruner, the OSF actor who played both Viola and Sebastian in last season’s Twelfth Night and Norma McCorvey, a k a Jane Roe, in the premier of Roe.

She first appeared onstage in the guise of an appleseed.  The Missoula Children’s Theatre came to her small town of Deer Lodge, Montana, and as is the custom, two professional actors organized a production about Johnny Appleseed casting the local kids according to the sizes of the available costumes. Bruner was four years old.

Her grasp of a character is as much physical as it is textual; it's often through physical posture that she understands identity.

No one in Bruner’s family had gone to college, and though active in theatre, she’d made no plans for education beyond high school. But a friend was driving to Boise State University to audition for a theatre scholarship, and on a whim, she accompanied him and auditioned as well.  She was awarded a scholarship.

One year into the program, she decided to audition for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. For the practice. She didn’t know what regional repertory theatre was, and she’d never performed Shakespeare before. She chose Phoebe’s monologue from As You Like It, unaware that every young woman auditioned with the piece. She was invited into the company on the spot.

Initially, she was oblivious to the implications of her success; similarly, she took it in stride when director Bart Sher immediately cast her as Miranda in the Festival production of The Tempest. What she did realize was that acting could actually become a career, one that suited and challenged her talents, one that inspired her passion.  Though she did eventually complete her degree at Boise State, she performed with the Idaho Festival for seventeen years.

Bruner finds powerful theatre baffling. When a play isn’t gelling, it’s relatively easy to analyze and criticize, but those productions that transfix and transform audiences are inscrutable, their key elements impossible to pin down. Bruner places Lisa Loomer’s Roe in this category. For her the play radiates “emotional intelligence … a 360 degree understanding…There is so much in there, such artistic intuition.  I can recognize it but I can’t begin to explain it.” Bruner was first blown away by the play three years ago when she took the part of Norma McCorvey for an in-house reading. Since then, she’s read both McCorvey’s books, the latter recanting the former, and watched her on YouTube to get a feel for her character—“so complicated, damaged, love-seeking, full of contradictions.”

It’s the honoring of contradiction, the transcendence of a binary, we/they perspective not only on the abortion issue, but also on matters of sexuality and class, that Bruner finds most valuable, most truthful in Roe. In this regard, the contemporary play models Shakespeare. In the nineteenth century, when the poet Keats articulated his concept of negative capability, he was thinking of Shakespeare and his genius for entertaining uncertainties, contradictions, and doubts without insisting on a singular resolution. Not surprisingly, Bruner proclaims her love of “every single syllable of Shakespeare”—or to use her phrase, she “nerds out” on his language. The 2016 Twelfth Night marks her third production as Viola, but it’s her first playing both Viola and her brother Sebastian.  It has thus become her favorite for the way it puts the Bard in “conversation with gender issues” and embodies paradox without presuming to resolve it.

Except for Imogen in Cymbeline, Bruner has played all of Shakespeare’s pants roles and most of his other parts for young females at least once. She tends initially to inhabit them with her own tough resilience, yet so often, she concedes, that quality is compromised by the text. It becomes painful then to tell these women’s stories, to merge with their voices, only to have them diminished or silenced in the end. Offering the example of Ophelia, Bruner says, “I had it all for a while, but then I had to go mad.” Bruner pulls for these young women, but “the play wins in the end…You have no lines in Act Five, or if you do, the play takes you in a certain direction and you can’t rage against it.” With a wry smile, she concludes, “Shakespeare’s follow-through is not good.”

Bruner’s approach to a role is largely intuitive, fluid, dependent on the play. Her grasp of a character is as much physical as it is textual; it’s often through physical posture that she understands identity. Recall the expressive range of her Olympic leap over the deck chair in Twelfth Night and her sneaking a childlike snuggle against the Duke’s barrel chest. In Roe, she climbs on furniture in manic attempts to escape the prison of her life then hugs a child with tender intimacy. 

Has it been too smooth, this career path of Bruner’s? It led her straight to her tribe, as she put it, and she fell into its mentoring embrace. Those of us who have seen her onstage understand that this was not some sort of bizarre coincidence. Still, because she cannot point to deliberate initiatives on her part, she worries that it might all disappear as mysteriously as it came to be. She thinks about Sarah Bernhardt, who met a young actress right before she, Bernhardt, was to go onstage. When the younger woman mentioned that Bernhardt’s hand was trembling when she shook it, Bernhardt explained that she was afraid. The younger woman expressed surprise; she herself wasn’t afraid before a performance. Once you’ve performed long enough, Bernhardt replied, you will be afraid.

Of theatre and acting, Bruner offers a similar confession: “The longer I do it, the less I know about it, and the more precious it becomes.”

Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is a middle-grade fantasy adventure, Behind the Waterfall (www.fuzepublishing.com)

In an episode of sanity, Molly Tinsley decided twenty years of teaching literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy was enough. She resigned from the faculty, moved west, and now writes full-time in Ashland and Portland. She crafts the Theatre and the Arts column for the Jefferson Journal magazine.