Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Director Cyndee Brown on PROOF, Trust and a Life in the Theater

The cast and crew of PROOF, with director Cyndee Brown at left.

As David Auburn's PROOF heads into its second week or performances at Bloomington-Normal's Heartland Theatre, I posed a few questions to director Cyndee Brown to get the inside scoop. Here's what Brown had to say:

First, let's talk a little bit about your experiences with Heartland Theatre to sort of set the stage. How did you first come to Heartland?

My first experience with Heartland was in the fall of 2000 when John and Peg Kirk were doing GIN GAME under the direction of Sandi Zielinski – she invited me to a rehearsal, and of course I then had to go back and see the show! The following fall, my neighbor Ann White, current chair of Heartland Theatre, invited my husband Dean and I over to her house to have dinner with artistic director Mike Dobbins and his wife Gail. Since then I have acted in a couple 10 minute plays, directed several plays, and become an avid supporter of Heartland. It really is one of the best places to direct in our community!

I know you've directed and acted in some very different shows over the years. Any roles or directing assignments that stand out in your mind?

Each of my directing stints at Heartland have been really special. I directed I LOVE YOU YOUR’E PERFECT NOW CHANGE, the first (and I believe only to date!) collaboration between Heartland and Prairie Fire Theatre. It was performed in the large meeting room of the Senior Center and presented challenges and rewards for all associated with it. It was a great experience.

RABBIT HOLE was done while I was on sabbatical from the university, and was the first time I had directed a play in quite a while. (I had done BIG RIVER and SECRET GARDEN at ISU prior to that.) It was a wonderful experience to just focus on the directing experience – being on sabbatical, the show had almost my complete attention during the weeks of rehearsal – heaven!!

Tell us something about your background. Did you start your theater career as an actress, director or teacher?

The acting bug bit hard in high school and I went on to major in theatre in college. I had some great opportunities in college - LION IN WINTER, CARNIVAL, STOP THE WORLD I WANT TO GET OFF, GEORGE M!, YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN, MAME and others. My interest and experience in directing really began as I started my career as a high school theatre teacher after graduation from college. I continued to act in community theatre (MY FAIR LADY, FINIAN’S RAINBOW, SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, THE INNOCENTS) but directing began to move center stage.

I feel that I kind of came into my own as a director after I completed my PhD. Grad school makes you stand up and think for yourself, helps you realize that your voice is as good as anyone else’s, and that no one knows everything. I think some of my best work was done after I realized that risk taking is ok, that high school students will go with you wherever you want to take them, and that good theatre is possible anywhere there is good, responsible leadership, creativity and eager students. The last thing I did with high school students was to take a group to the Fringe Festival in Scotland the summer 2000. Best experience of my life with students.

I'm sure your work as an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre at Illinois State University, teaching Theatre Education, keeps you on your toes. What do you enjoy most about that?

I love the students at ISU – all of them! Directing, teaching and sharing ideas with these university students is inspiring and challenging. Students are always the best part of teaching!!

What can you tell us about PROOF and this production of the play at Heartland? On its face, PROOF is about math, but I'm not so sure that's what's really at the heart of the play. What do you think? Math, madness, family, romance, or all of the above?

At its heart, I think PROOF is about trust – trusting yourself, trusting those around you, trusting that you will get through the difficult times. These folks trust their minds to get them where they think they need to be. What could be more tragic and ironic for such characters than to discover those faculties are limited at best, and, at worst, disappearing altogether? This play is honest, doesn’t pull its punches and pulls the theme of trust through so many universal relationships – fathers and daughters, sisters, significant others, to name a few.

John Bowen and Gwen de Veer in Heartland Theatre's PROOF

PROOF really took Broadway by storm, piling up awards and honors. What about the play do you think struck such a chord with audiences and critics? Has anything unexpected emerged as you've worked on the play with your actors and crew?

I think we expected to find things in this well-written play – I think what surprised us is how deep those discoveries went, and how they keep revealing themselves to us night after night. This cast is a remarkable ensemble in the true sense of the word. They support each other even as they challenge each other to get better, go deeper, and discover more about the play and themselves as actors. Our crew and design team are part of that ensemble feeling too. Everything about this process was so positive – everyone has been so generous.

Your husband, Dean Brown, plays the mathematical genius father in PROOF. Is it harder or easier directing an actor in the family?

I have directed Dean before, as well as both of our children. It has been a long time and both of us have grown a great deal as artists since those experiences. I worked hard to treat him the same way I treated the other actors – with respect for his process and his creativity. And I think he worked hard to respond to my direction as any actor would. I found it to be a wonderful experience. I wanted him to see what I was like as a director – and maybe after the show closes we can have a discussion about that!! We have shared our love of theatre for over 40 years – our relationship began in the theatre. The theatre has been very good to us – personally, artistically and professionally.

What should audiences expect to see when the curtain (figuratively) rises on this PROOF?

I hope what our audiences will experience is a thought provoking and enjoyable evening of theatre. We want them to think with us, laugh with us and maybe cry with us too. It has been wonderful to sit in the audience and watch and hear the audience response to the performances this weekend. Our audiences have been generous with their engagement and energy – what more can a production ask for??

Thanks, Cindy!

PROOF has proven to be a hit with audiences so far, so you would be well-advised to nab tickets now for performances running through March 6th. For more information or to reserve tickets, visit the Heartland website here.


  1. Wonderful interview, loved learning all this! I so enjoyed the production of PROOF at Heartland. Beautiful acting, beautiful writing, and, of course, beautiful directing!

  2. Heartland and Cyndee Brown have done a terrific job with this show, which I fully admit I didn't care for on Broadway. Mary Louise Parker (who won a Tony in the role) was never convincing to me as a 25-year-old Math wiz, plus I found John Lee Beatty's big, honking set off-putting and not all that great a foundation for the real issues of the play. The director, Daniel Sullivan, seemed to be focusing on the whodunit part of the plot and the relationships kind of eluded him. And me!

    But after seeing it in U of I's Studio Theatre (a smallish black box) with my friend Steve Keen as the dad and Holley Fain, at that time a U of I student who went on to Chicago, Broadway, "Law and Order," and "Gossip Girl," playing Catherine, and now seeing the Heartland production, I can definitely say I think a smaller, more intimate production with an eye on the relationships and the truth of the characters works SO much better!