Scenes from the play.
Scenes from the play. (Courtesy of Theatre Nova)

In A New Brain, independent actor Jason Briggs was able to secure the role of Gordon, a composer who writes music for a children’s television program.

Jason Briggs has maintained a theater career during the constraints of the pandemic. 

As the development officer of the Flint Repertory Theatre, Briggs continued his administrative responsibilities.  As an independent actor, he was able to secure a role in A New Brain, a play produced in film format by Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor, working with the Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale.

The production features music and lyrics by William Finn and book by William Finn and James Lapine, the Tony Award-winning creators of Falsettos. It was filmed in April, edited in May and will be available this month for home viewing as released via Broadway On Demand.

Throughout the filming, cast and crew observed intense COVID protocols. 

“This is a beautiful show,” said Briggs, 44, who appeared in the pre-pandemic run of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET) in Walled Lake and won the Wilde Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. “A New Brain centers around a character named Gordon, a composer who writes music for a children’s television program, and he absolutely hates doing that.”

Jason Briggs
Jason Briggs

Gordon, coping with brain surgery options, thinks through his life, and most of the play is set in the hospital as significant incidents are recalled.

“I play Richard, one of Gordon’s two nurses,” Briggs explained. “I’m known as the nice nurse. My character is very flamboyant, overly dramatic and really caring.  He has a great connection with Gordon, Gordon’s mother and Gordon’s partner. He’s also extremely hilarious and delivers a lot of comedy into the show.”

The cast includes director Richard Payton as Gordon, Diane Hills as Gordon’s mother, Steve DeBruyne as the doctor and Vince Kelley as Roger, Gordon’s partner. 

Just as the creators of the show are from Jewish families, so is the character of Gordon, who rejects the visit of a minister, also played by Briggs. Gordon explains that he is Jewish and doesn’t want to hear what the minister is saying.

“There are other implied references to him being Jewish, but it’s not about that,” Briggs said. “It’s more about him struggling about his job and who he is. It’s like this brain surgery is giving him this second chance at life, doing the things he’s always wanted to do and not so much the things he has to do.”

Briggs’ religious insights come from being raised with Jewish culture and some observance because of the religious heritage of his mother’s side of the family. 

“We celebrated all the holidays, and I went to shul with my grandparents,” recalled Briggs, who lives in Grand Blanc and grew up in Flint. “I love to cook, and I make matzah ball soup, latkes and brisket. My bubbie taught me.”

Scenes from the play.
Scenes from the play. Courtesy of Theatre Nova

Briggs’ first impactful theater experience occurred in junior high school, where he appeared in his first play, Annie.  

“It was at that moment I realized I really liked performing,” said Briggs, whose wife, Noreen, is a kindergarten teacher. “I played the trumpet, but, in seventh grade, I discovered plays, musicals and singing. 

“I wanted to do something in the arts, so I went to the University of Michigan-Flint. I got an undergraduate degree in theater performance, and I’ve probably been in over 30 productions in my career — all over the state.”

Among his favorite roles have been King Alonso in The Tempest for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival and Lamar in Godspell at the Meadow Brook Theatre. 

In the current show, “there’s a song called ‘Sailing’ that the character Roger sings, and it is about wanting to lay aside all of your problems and obligations in order to do something that you are truly passionate about,” Briggs said. “In Roger’s case, he is scared to face his fear of losing his partner, Gordon.

“I relate to this song because, as a performer, the theater industry has been on hold due to the pandemic and forcing us off the stage. Theater isn’t just a job for me. It’s my passion and my release from the real world. When I get caught up in the trials of life, I always think of the stage and the many stories I’ve been able to share.”  

Details:

A New Brain is available on demand on June 12, 13, 19 and 20. $25. TheatreNOVA.org.

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Suzanne Chessler’s writing-editing career has spanned many years, and her articles have been featured in secular and religious publications across the state and around the country. There was a period of time when she maintained three regular columns in three different publications – one appearing weekly to spotlight metro volunteers, another appearing weekly to profile stage enthusiasts in community theater and a third appearing bimonthly to showcase upcoming arts programs. Besides doing general reporting, she has had continuing assignments involving health, monetary subjects and crime. Her award-winning work builds on majors in English-speech and journalism earned at Wayne State University, where instructors also were writers-editors on Detroit’s daily newspapers.