Brenner Brings Buddha to the Bootleg, Reilly Directing

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Evan Brenner as Buddha

“I found myself discouraged by the confusing and contradictory array of Buddhist teachings, so I set out to discover what I perceived to be the source of the Buddha’s teaching. I became deeply engaged in the sÅ«tras, which are really quite dramatic and work extremely well just as a story. I had a “˜eureka’ moment: what if I did the Buddha as a one-man play “” in his own words, taken directly from the sÅ«tras?”

Writer and actor Evan Brenner is talking about the origins of his innovative solo, which presents the life of the Buddha as related by the great religious teacher in the first person. This is not a stuffy religious tale “” the Buddha’s life stands among the great archetypal adventure stories in history.

John C. Reilly

Acclaimed actor John C. Reilly directs the West Coast premiere of Buddha – A Fantastic Journey, at Bootleg Theater for a limited weekends-only run during February.

The man we know as the Buddha lived in Northern India around 500 BC and introduced the teaching known as Buddhism. Centuries after his death, the extensive oral history of the movement was written down and carried throughout Asia, becoming the taproot for all Buddhist traditions. These texts are known as sūtras.

Writer/performer Brenner brings edited selections from these texts to the stage, framed in an unusual and personal context, as he enacts the extraordinary life of the man from start to finish.

About the performer.

Evan Brenner

Brenner majored in drama and religion at Vassar College, then received a masters degree in dramatic writing at Loyola Marymount University. His writing and directing credits include both film (The Riddle, Two Bits, and Dr. Fisher) and television (America’s Most Wanted and Little Bill.)

As an actor, he appeared in the films The Deep and Dreamless Sleep, Two Boneheads, West Side Evan, Spare Me and Waking up Crazy.

Brenner has practiced meditation and studied Buddhism for more than 20 years and since 2003 has pursued canonical sÅ«tra studies in the Therevada tradition. He is particularly interested in the Buddha’s life as an expression and example of spiritual struggle, achievement and ongoing challenge.

Shaping the story.

Describing how this play came about, Brenner recalls, “About five years ago I found myself in the midst of a personal crisis, which was just the garden-variety raising of questions about the meaning of life. I believe our life is an adventure for all of us, and one of the interesting things about adventures is that you often get to a crossroad, and if you don’t go on the adventure, there’s a tremendous amount of suffering.”

The actor had studied Buddhism and Eastern religions academically and casually for almost a quarter century. “I wanted to break open and re-examine my meditation practice and go back to it in the purest form, in order to really understand it.” Brenner says he realized he had always been a bit confused by what his meditation practice really was about, so he decided to read the original texts and accounts of the Buddha’s life and teachings.  “I wanted to get the straight dope ““ go back to the roots.”

Evan Brenner

Brenner says he began reading the ancient texts Known as The Pāli Canon. These are among the first written records of the words and teachings of the Buddha.

The Pāli Canon is about 10 linear feet of books,” Brenner reveals. “It’s a lot of material. I read a lot of that, but there’s much that you can eliminate that is not relevant to his life, such as the sections about the disciplines. For example, they have a long list about animals that they ask that the monks not have intercourse with! In essence, I pulled out just his life story.” Apparently the first version of the play ran close to 4½ hours. “I then pared that down to tell it in an hour and a half, so it would tell his life story from beginning to end.” Brenner says that Buddha’s life is not all that neatly extractable, but he thinks he got close.

Brenner recalls seeing Alec McCowen stage a famous theatrical recital of the Gospel According to Mark, the King James version. “It’s very dramatic,” Brenner enthuses. “It’s wonderful ““ it’s filled with emotion and he stands up on the stage and does the whole thing verbatim. I saw this right when I had been reading all these ancient Buddhist texts and I thought, why not do the life of the Buddha as a one-man play? It’s all there!”

Adds Brenner, “The problem that I then faced was that there is no real “˜Gospel of the Buddha.’” The Gospels about Jesus were extracted by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who were all purported eyewitnesses to these historical events. Brenner found he didn’t have the same kind of material at his disposal. Instead he had to fashion a story from a vast range of texts.

Evan Brenner

During the writing process, Brenner decided that if the writers of the ancient texts said that Buddha said something, then he probably did. He then converted the texts into a monologue of Buddha speaking in the first-person voice, because he “felt it would be more engaging.”

Over the past four years Brenner has performed his show on about 200 occasions. He workshopped the play for two years before premiering it at Boston Center for the Arts in 2009, as well as staging it at a couple of little theaters in the area. Following the Boston production, Brenner has toured with Buddha to performing arts venues around North America including Pittsburgh and Denver. The show also played at Barouche College in New York in the fall of 2009.

A reclusive director.

Preferring to lurk behind the scenes, director Reilly declined to be interviewed for this article.

However, Brenner says that “when John saw the show, he was riveted by the adventure aspect of the story.” And Brenner enthusiastically describes his collaboration with Reilly.  “John’s really transformed the play,” the actor explains. “He’s moved it from a concept of just one man telling this life story as the Buddha to ““ now it has become so much more dynamic.”

Reilly brought the influences of Story Theatre, as pioneered and developed by Paul Sills, into Brenner’s show to maximize its theatricality. Says Brenner, “In this way I’m able to assume many different roles in the play.” He explains that he did portray different characters when he previously performed his one-man-show, but not to the extent that the pair has now achieved.  Reilly has gone to great lengths to draw out the different personae contained within the story. “There’s more of Evan as a more liquid character who can occupy different characters with much more intensity,” Brenner says. The process involved some judicious tweaking of Brenner’s script.

Evan Brenner

Reilly has also radically altered the staging from a formerly sparse, static and simple setting of a living room inhabited by the central performer to a less tangible setting. Now employing a scrim upstage, Reilly enlisted François-Pierre Couture to design a lightscape of shadows and intense, abstract colors. A scrim is used for projection of images to indicate settings such as a palace and a setting sun, when required to illustrate the story. “It’s going to be much more immersive, dramatically,” Brenner laughs with delight. “I’m now [situated] in a blank canvas that is painted by light on the scrim.”

To complete the transformation, Reilly introduced an element of live music, with two musicians — Jaeger Smith and Sheela Bringi — performing on a bansuri (a haunting bamboo flute) and tabla (an Indian drum) on stage.

Adds Brenner, “I’m totally excited. It’s great. As a director, John’s notes on acting are ““ he really knows all this stuff about acting that I didn’t really know about. Stuff like operative words and insights into the craft of how to perform as a stage actor. He certainly tuned that up.”

Brenner adds that there is much more of a sense of fun and levity in the show now. So, is he having more fun, with Reilly around? “Yeah. It’s going to an entirely new place and it’s great to be on that journey with him.”

Brenner adds that the process has been a delight. “John’s playful and he’s one of the smartest people I have ever met. I don’t know where he comes up with these ideas, but it’s just one wild, imaginative theatrical idea after the other.”

Buddha – A Fantastic Journey, presented by Bootleg Theater. Opens Feb. 10. Plays Fri-Sat, 7:30 pm. (No show Feb. 24). Please note early curtain time. Through Mar. 3. Tickets: $30.00. Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., LA. 800-838-3006.

***All Buddha – A Fantastic Journey production photos by Phoebe Sudrow

Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek