Theater Spotlight — Brian Shea, Actor, Teaching Artist and Filmmaker
Brian Shea has been a boozy, disgruntled department store elf, a flustered hypochondriac, a murderously ambitious writer and Count Dracula himself. He wears his roles like a second skin with a particular knack for conveying those tics and edgy moments that make characters virtually incarnate.
The award winning stage actor has been a top-tier choice of professional theater directors for the past two decades. He has recently appeared in Lend Me a Tenor and Deathtrap by Hat Trick Theatre; freeFall Theatre‘s Harvey and The Buffalo Kings; and American Stage‘s God Of Carnage and Art.
In the film Waiting on Mary, shot entirely in the Tampa Bay area, Shea portrays Nathaniel Harrison, a heartbroken, struggling actor in a failed colonial theme park. The role is particularly poignant because Nathanial becomes delusional — a shocking turn of events leads to him thinking he really is a Revolutionary War-era soldier in his present-day life.
Shea co-produced the gentle dramedy, which features a local all-star cast. The film received the Gasparilla International Film Festival, Audience Selection Best Florida Film Production 2016 Award.
Shea’s current theatrical turn as Mick Dowd in A Skull in Connemara — his ninth production with Jobsite — shows off his ability to shift from comical one-liners to angry drunk to tormented widower, all while speaking in a consistently believable Irish brogue. Cast mates Brandon Mauro, Diana Rogers and David Jenkins turn in highly watchable performances too.
Directed by Paul Potenza, the 1997 dark comedy is the second in playwright/In Bruges screenwriter Martin McDonagh’s gritty, working-class Leenane trilogy, of which Jobsite has now staged all three. All three shows were directed by Potenza, who cast Shea in two of them (Connemara and The Lonesome West; Shea assisted backstage with The Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Potenza weighs in on working with Shea:
“In essence, it’s a treat to work with Brian. As an actor, he does his homework. He reads the play — a lot — and is open to direction, which, as a close friend, can be difficult at times. He’ll tell me an idea about how to tackle a character and I love his discovery process as the performance goes on — his instincts are quite good.”
When he’s not acting, the Seminole resident works as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble and outreach teaching artist with American Stage.
Creative Pinellas caught up with Shea for Q&A on his current skull-smashing role, his past work and what inspires him:
Martin McDonagh is popular with theater and film buffs who enjoy black comedy. When were you first taken with his work and what about it appeals to you?
I was first introduced to McDonagh’s work when Jobsite Theater did the first play in the trilogy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 2003. Paul Potenza asked me to come on board to assist with some of the rehearsals. I was taken with the plays great balance of great and sharp Irish wit within a story of characters who are living bleak lives. It’s very Irish and being of Irish descent, I felt a connection to the work.
You did great work as the hapless Father Welsh in The Lonesome West. Like Mick Dowd, he is one of those uniquely and deeply flawed McDonagh characters who is somehow endearing. Can you talk a little about how Dowd is different, and any preparation/research you might have done to prepare for your portrayal of him?
Dowd is different from Welsh mainly because of age and life experiences. Dowd is older and a widower. There is more bitterness in Dowd than in Welsh. Though both characters deal with heartbreak and loneliness. Welsh tries to hang onto hope more than Dowd. Though in A Skull in Connemara, Dowd one commentary about Welsh, “There nothing the matter with Father Welsh.” I find interesting Welsh is one of the few people Dowd speaks sort of positive about. As far as research with the character, with all of Dowd’s gruffness and bitterness, I always wanted to remember that he deeply loved his wife, and keep that as a central point of his character.
What are three of your most memorable roles and why?
My first professional role with the long past theater group, The Hillsborough Moving Company, was the character of Presley Stray in the quirky possible post-apocalyptic play, The Pitchfork Disney. That put me on the map in this area as a professional actor. The production was critically praised and I received my first, Best of The Bay award from Creative Loafing. Next I would have to say is Crumpet in the one-man production of David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries. I enjoy Sedaris’ wry humor, and could definitely relate to the hellish experiences of retail working during the holidays. The production was enjoyed by audiences so much we mounted five different productions from 2008 to 2014 at American Stage in St. Petersburg. And last I’ll mention Nathanial in Waiting on Mary, my first leading role on film; a great artistic and professional challenge. Each of these characters had a distinct quirkiness about themselves, living through very heightened experiences. And what I believe got them through their respective journeys, was their heart. Their quirky, funny hearts.
Your starring role in the locally shot Waiting on Mary leaves a lasting impression. Did the experience leave you wanting to do more work on camera? If so, what do you have coming up or what would you like to work on?
I always would like to do more work on film. And I am forever grateful to Corey Horton, the creator and director of Waiting on Mary for wanting me as part of this endeavor. He asked me not only to be the lead but to be a co-producer on the film — two responsibilities I’ve never before done in my life. I jumped right into the deep end on this one. The largest in scope artistic and professional challenge I’ve done. It was an enormous task. Corey opened a new door for me. And I’ll always be grateful to him. In my twenties I started working on a short film project of my own, but I stopped because it felt too daunting for me to do. Perhaps I’ll revisit and complete that short project now because of this experience.
How did you school and training experiences prepare you for your outreach work in Pinellas schools?
I co-teach with the fantastic Katie Castonguay through American Stage’s Educational Outreach Program at Pinellas Park and Maderia Beach Middle Schools, respectively. This is the first semester I have taught in a public school setting. Previously, the classes I’ve taught at American Stage and at Ruth Eckerd Hall have all been conducted at the theaters. I find it an interesting and a worthwhile challenge bringing our theater programs into the public schools, especially in the school that may not have any arts programs at all. I grew up in Pinellas County, and in fact, I attended Pinellas Park Middle. I would have loved to have had a playwriting or drama program during those years. When I discovered theater at Osceola High School, it literally transformed my life. I believe it may have saved my life. So I am a huge advocate for arts education in our public schools. It isn’t just for those wanting a life in the arts. Arts educations fosters collaboration, critical thinking, determination, empathy, engagement, innovation and more. All of these qualities help create better adults and better citizens. Arts education is vital and I am happy to do my part in bringing it to our younger generation.
What do you tell young people today about the importance of training?
Be curious about your craft. Be serious about your training. If you’re not taking a class, pick up a book. Read, read, read, and then read some more. Read not only plays, but novels, history books, science books, everything. Knowledge is your best friend with all things. Stay curious and ask questions. Know that you must always be opening to learning new things. Be open to collaboration. The craft of acting isn’t about your single performance. Even in one person performance. It’s about all involved, directors, designers, playwrights. Develop your critical thinking skills towards what you can bring to a character and the story. Analyze the text and characters in detail. And lastly, be deeply in love with what you do and care for yourself. All of this will carry over to the rest of your life and make you a better person.
Has the ever-present reality of cellphones, social networking and the internet affected the focus of your students in beneficial and/or negative ways?
All the student are never without one. They have been good with putting them away when asked. A few times it’s a challenge. With our devised theater program at Madeira Middle we are trying to include those challenges into our final performance. Our overall theme is “The Future” and we have segments that address technology and how it is affecting us today and what will be the results our vast dependence of technology in the future. Trying to present the positives and the negatives.
If you had to play a new character in your favorite TV show or movie, who or what would it be?
Pure fantasy roles?
It would be awesome to be a character in one of the new Star Wars movies. Or even a Marvel Studios film. I’d love to play a character on Sherlock. And if they ever let an American play the Doctor on Doctor Who it would be cool to have a go at that role. But all that’s all pure fantasy — I think.