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10 questions (and a few more) with musical director Justin Braun

It’s good being Justin Braun these days.

Braun, a University of Memphis Department of Theatre & Dance MFA in directing candidate, interned last summer in New York City with the Manhattan Theatre Club. He’s toured the country with a children’s theatre group. He’s been featured in the winter 2019 edition of  Voices, the College of Communication and Fine Arts’ magazine. And the musical “Be More Chill,” which he is directing, opens its six-date run Thursday night at the U of M’s Mainstage Theatre. (And tickets are still available!)

Braun sat down for a few minutes before a dress rehearsal earlier this week to answer a few questions about theatre and dance, his career and “Be More Chill:”

Justin Braun, an MFA in Directing candidate at the U of M.

Q: How did you get involved in theater?

A: I have been doing theater since I was a little kid, since third grade. My dad was in theater, he grew up in New York and did theater while growing up, but then he transitioned to the music business, but there was always theatricality, I guess, in my blood. I remember when I was a kid, my parents took me to see the original Broadway production of “Miss Saigon.”

It was a heavy show, and I remember when we walked out, they looked at me and apologized and said, “Oh, we’re sorry, next time we’ll take you to “Beauty and the Beast,” and I was like, “No!” I don’t know if they realized how heavy that show was going to be, but I loved it. I remember just sitting there being completely engrossed with it. That’s my earliest memory of watching theater, but then I started doing it in school and I loved it. I always had a knack for performing and that kind of got me in the door

Q: What was the first musical or play you were in?

A: The first first first thing I can remember is a class play in third grade. It was called “The Care and Feeding of a Dragon,” and I played the wizard — no singing, just speaking. I was the wizard, I had lines and a couple of scenes. It was kind of like a funny, supporting character

Q: Do you get nervous when you perform on stage?

A: I was never nervous when I was younger. Those early years of performing and being on stage, I never got nervous. As I got older, nerves started to kick in. But I remember even in high school I mostly didn’t get stage fright and just enjoyed being on stage and having fun.

Q: Do you prefer performing or directing?

A: I performed for a long time, and I’ve gone back and forth between theater and musical theater and film. I lived in Los Angeles for a long time. I was doing film work out there, and that’s where I first started directing through film. It’s kind of the nature of the business these days, you have to create your own content. So just as a way of helping my career as an actor, I started writing and directing. I would direct things I was already in.

I enjoyed it. I really liked the act of directing, and it was completely different, too, because it was film. But I started missing theater because that’s what I got my undergraduate degree in, in musical theater performance, so I started getting back into theater. I actually booked a job with Missoula Children’s Theater, performing and directing across the country with the children’s theater, and I started to realize that I enjoyed directing way more than I enjoyed performing. I just got more satisfaction out of it. To me, it is more engrossing; you have more things to think about, more things to do, more problem solving.

Q: What is the hardest part of directing a musical?

A: I think it varies from show to show. Each show, I think, has a different challenge. I’m thinking about some of the past shows I’ve directed vs. “Be More Chill,” and with “Be More Chill” the challenge was the technology side of it because we have so many moving parts with these lights and getting everything kind of working together. Working with all the actors in the rehearsal room was kind of a breeze because it was easier than I thought it was going to be. But with other shows, working with the actors can be the most challenging thing, depending on the cast.

Q: What is your favorite part of directing?

A: My favorite part is when the event is fully staged and I get to start doing the detail work. We start doing run-throughs and I get to start really refining moments and working with the actors to bring out the most specificity that they can.

Q: You interned last summer in New York. How did that happen?

A: It happened through my advisor here at the University of Memphis, Sarah Brown. She has a cousin who is a line producer at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Nicki Hunter, and Sarah had pitched an idea to her (about creating an internship). She said, “Throw me a few student names who we could interview who you’d think would be good. So Sarah called me immediately. It was me and one other grad student here, and we both Skype interviewed with a producer there and they ended up choosing me.

Q: What did you do in New York?

A: I went to New York for two months (for “Prince of Broadway”) and I was in the room from the first day of rehearsal all the way through tech, through previews, all the way through opening night. (My role) kind of evolved because they had never had someone like me in the room before; they’d never had this position before. I was the creative-team intern. They were unsure how they would use me.

At the beginning of rehearsals, I was doing a lot of observing, mostly. They gave me a script and I got to sit there and watch them work. I helped out stage management a bunch during the early rehearsals, too, moving set pieces and whatever they needed. I would stand in for actors sometimes when an actor wasn’t at rehearsal

My role really shifted once we got into the theater because (co-director) Susan Stroman had to fly to London because she was opening a production of “Young Frankenstein,” and her associate basically took over for her, and then he needed an associate, and he basically took me as his associate. I kind of steeped into his old role. I was at his tech table all throughout tech, which was a four-day process in the theater.

Q: I guess your career aspirations are obvious, then.

A: I would like to just be a working director and be able to make a living at it, but do I want to go back to Broadway? Yes, absolutely. I got spoiled doing that show, too, because once it was over it was like, “I gotta get back here.” It’s like nothing else. It’s such a thrilling, crazy experience.

What’s also funny is it’s exactly the same process we do here, except when you’re in New York, you have 50 times the budget and 50 times the amount of people involved. It’s just more money and more people and higher stakes.

University of Memphis students during a dress rehearsal of “Be More Chill.”

Q: Why should people come see “Be More Chill”?

A: I picked this show because I thought it would be something our students would shine in with these roles. They’re relatable roles, they’re a bunch of high school students, and it’s about wanting to fit in. It’s about finding your voice. For that reason alone, I think it’s just a fun show and it moves quickly and it’s got an amazing rock score and the music is so catchy and so infectious. The energy of the whole show is just so much fun that people who come to rehearsals will sit there with their mouths hanging open because it moves a mile a minute. The choreography is explosive, we have an awesome band playing rock music, and the set is just incredible.

Q: Why did you choose to attend the U of M?

A: It’s actually super random. I was going to finish my bachelor’s degree in New York while auditioning and apply for grad school, but when I realized how expensive it was going to be to finish my degree in New York, I needed to look elsewhere.

My mom is actually from Tennessee and lives outside of Nashville, and so she said, “Look, you only have one year to do this degree before grad school, why don’t you just do it in a state school in Tennessee and get in-state tuition?” The U of M is the only school in the state that has the degree that I was trying to finish, plus it had the graduate program I was looking at, so I thought it was a great way for me to sample the school. I came here for a year and loved the department and applied for the grad program and got in, and so I stayed. It’s a great department.

The Favorites Section

Q: Favorite singer?

A: Alanis Morissette.

Q: Favorite movie?

A: “Back to the Future.”

Q: Favorite musical?

A: “The Music Man” and “[title of show].”

Q: Favorite part of “Be More Chill”?

A: The smartphone hour.

Q: Favorite place to hang in Memphis?

A: Anywhere downtown. I live downtown. I just like being downtown.

Q: Favorite class?

A: Seminar in Directing.

— Phillip Tutor, CCFA media coordinator, potutor@memphis.edu

Published inDepartment of Theatre & Dance

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