Brendan Griffin Talks “Clybourne Park’s” Journey to Broadway

Good news for all the chatterboxes out there: there is one actor on Broadway who doesn’t mind if you’re loud in the audience.

Brendan Griffin, currently making his Broadway debut in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, has experienced a variety of reactions from the audience throughout performances of the intensely dramatic, verbally charged play. Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park addresses racial tension in America over the course of several decades. Act One is set in 1959 and Act Two in 2009, and, as one quickly recognizes, not much has changed in the 50 years between.

Griffin, who plays a priest in the first act and a lawyer in the second, also performs in the coda, playing a young man who has recently returned from fighting in the Korean War. The roles, which differ drastically, take place in scenes filled with tension, shouting and swearing, which, he said, the audience responds very strongly to. He recalled one performance when a man in the audience kept shouting “Yes” throughout the play. After the curtain call the cast went backstage and asked amongst themselves why he was cheering and wondering if the man might have been a racist.

“He was just really viscerally responding to what was going on out there,” Griffin said. “That’s f***ing cool in the theater. It’s such a formal environment, that when people react like they’re at a sporting event – that’s f***ing great.”

The strong response to Clybourne Park is not isolated to merely Broadway audiences. The play was first workshopped and then performed to critical acclaim off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Rumors circulated about it transferring to Broadway then, but when that did not take place, the play was performed in London, where it won the Olivier Award. Then came the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, followed by a planned West Coast run. The dates for those performances had been set, but when they changed suddenly, no one knew why until the cast received an e-mail saying the show was moving to Broadway.

Being a part of Clybourne Park’s journey from a workshop to to Broadway has been fulfilling for Griffin, who said, “In this day and age, when a middle class actor is becoming more and more marginalized by the need for star power, the fact that you can ride the entire wave of the play as it feeds all echelons of success and climbs…the fact that we were all able to do this together is a really beautiful thing.”

The Broadway cast of Clybourne Park has been together for several years, made up of the same actors who performed the show in its first incarnation. Griffin cherishes this, saying the seven of them have developed deep friendships while working together, a factor which has enhanced their ability to perform onstage. The play addresses some volatile issues, including racism, classism, and sexism, and much of the second act is made up of jokes that could be interpreted as extremely offensive.Griffin credits the ability to address such sensitive topics partly to the trust the cast has established with each other. However, he said, the play is not only about the surface-level issues that are discussed.

“We have so much leverage with each other, it opens the window wider and wider to new things,” he said. “As we’ve settled into the play and gotten to know it so much better, our ideas about what the play is about topically has changed over the board. It’s not just race and real estate.

“A lot of cast members will talk about communication,” he added. “I know for me, I think this play is about what happens when people feel that what they value is being threatened. That transcends the issue of race.”

One of the resonant issues of Clybourne Park is how little has changed between the first and second act – and the 50 years between. Of the seven actors onstage, none of them are clearly defined as the hero or villain. They are all deeply flawed.

“Everybody’s stupid. Everybody foots their foot in their mouth, and everybody’s wrong,” Griffin said. “Everyone has something to say, but nobody in the world is going to say it perfectly. The root of the issue of injustice exists…that’s what’s so great about this play. Everybody’s an a**hole!”

Audience members might feel that that title applies to them when they find themselves laughing at certain jokes that are told in the second act.

“When you look at this play, it has really insidious qualities,” Griffin said. “You might find yourself laughing at a deaf woman in the first act, and in the second act you might be offended by the c**t joke. By the end of it, you realize that everyone is culpable.”

That culpability is the result of what Griffin calls “competitive conversation,” which he credits to Norris’ writing. Describing it as people disagreeing inappropriately, Griffin said, “People never actually communicate. What’s at the heart of this story is a basically tragic human moment. That’s never what is prioritized by people…We’ve laughed at everybody, we’ve been shocked by what people have said, but at the heart of this is tragedy.”

Laughter – hilarious and uncomfortable – is inspired frequently by the script of Clybourne Park. The audience’s response to the actors in turn affects the actors, which Griffin calls a “cast audience continuum.

“As we respond and adjust to each other onstage, we’re constantly adjusting to the audience,” he said. “Onstage when we’re making these points, we have such clear and incisive objectives, when an audience reacts in a certain way, that can change how we pursue that objective. It sends you into a different tier of also lets us know if we’ve landed it or if we haven’t.”

Griffin spends much of the first act earning those laughs and much of the second responding to them. His character in Act One is quite verbose, and his character in Act Two goes for long periods of time without saying anything. He said the challenge of that role is to remain connected to what is happening on stage in nonverbal ways. Even if he himself isn’t earning the laughs by the lines he says, he said he relishes hearing the audience’s response to the play.

“I love loud laughter,” he said. “People aren’t afraid to be heard crying. It’s an emotional experience, and to share that – to know that your vocation is producing something – that’s ultimately gratifying.”

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