It’s not very often that a performer admits that the play they’re starring in could induce self-harm. American star Brian J Smith, who’s playing the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie, is happy to break that mould. Why? Because of the exceptional work of director John Tiffany.
Without it, he says, the piece could be all too depressing. It’s hard to argue with him. The story, which helped make playwright Tennessee Williams’s name, is not a happy one. It follows a family in which the mother yearns for the luxuries she’s lost, the son is stuck in a job he hates, and the sister is crippled by insecurity and low self-esteem. In walks Smith’s character, cloaked in the promise that he might change all this. But nothing improves.
Yet Smith, a former Stargate Universe star who leads the cast of Netflix drama Sense8, returns to the production in London having wowed audiences – and Tony Award judges – in New York. Why? Because the heart of the piece is so affecting. And because Harry Potter And The Cursed Child director Tiffany has worked his theatrical magic on it.
What can audiences expect from The Glass Menagerie?
They can expect to leave the theatre with their hearts opened up a little bit. Just a little bit shaken, but moved by something very beautiful. Some shows want to impress you. They’re very intellectual and they play with your mind. This is not that kind of experience. This one really aims to haunt you.
How did you feel about making your West End debut?
It’s something I knew was coming for a while, but it didn’t feel actual until our first preview. You’re always wondering, “How are they going to react to us here? How are London audiences going to take to this show? How are New York audiences going to take to this show.” It’s always been in our favour. I think it’s because we love the show so much. I think people understand and feel that care we have for it. They respond to it.
When this finished in New York, I knew I wasn’t done with it. It was such a special time in my life, doing this play in the States. You very rarely in life have the opportunity to revisit something that meant so much to you. It’s almost like going back to where you spent summers in your childhood.
Why do another revival of The Glass Menagerie?
First off, this is definitely [Harry Potter And The Cursed Child director] John Tiffany’s production. He brings this sense of uplift and magic and compassion and stage trickery to the show that can make an otherwise very bleak piece of work into something that’s beautiful. What John saw in the play is something to do with the beauty of nostalgia. The really pleasurable and painful side of looking back on something that happened in your life. He turned that into something that can only exist on a stage.
How important do you think it is that the show is selling 20,000 tickets for £20 or less?
I think it’s amazing. I think it’s really important that we make sure the next generations come and see shows, are inspired and want to be part of the theatre world. Making tickets affordable in this way is part of that. In New York, tickets can be $200 or $300 for back-row seats. I think it’s great to bring the show to London and have it be where students, baristas, anyone can come and see the play. It’s made for everybody. I don’t think theatre should be an elitist experience.
Did you go to the theatre as a teenager?
Not really. Little boys in Texas didn’t go to the theatre much. Although in high school, when I did start becoming interested in the theatre, we had a lot of really great theatres in Dallas. I saw a beautiful production of The Seagull. I can remember almost everything about it. The feelings it made me feel were so wonderful. I didn’t know that was possible. I was in awe of what they did.
I always remember that. Sometimes I turn up to work and I’m tired or I’ve got a cold and I think, “How am I going to walk on that stage and give something?” Then I remember that there are people in that audience just like my 16-year-old self and that I have the possibility to give them the same feeling I had. That wakes me up immediately and really gets me excited to get out there and share something with them.
What is it about watching theatre that you love?
I saw Hedda Gabler at the National after rehearsal one night, which I absolutely loved. Sinéad Matthews gave amazing performance. Her heartbreak, the emotion… she was trembling. That’s what theatre does in a way nothing else can. You see an actual person in front of you having an experience and it can’t help but open your heart and humanise you. Her face is something I’ll never forget. That’s why I go to the theatre and that’s what inspires me to make theatre.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring actors, what would it be?
You’ve got to find ways to keep your mind and body healthy. Yoga is something that’s kept me really sane and fit in a good way. You need to have those spiritual practices in your life because you can get lost really easily, especially in moments when you’re not working, which can be frequently.
You really have to make a decision. The actors I’ve seen go on and make a living are the ones who have stubbornly said, “This is what I’m doing. This is what I am.” They’ve stuck with it in the face of a lot of rejection, uncertainty and complete abject poverty. I’ve been there. For whatever reason I just had that little voice in my head saying, “I’ve studied. I’ve sacrificed. I’ve done everything. I’ve put myself in this position and my God I’m going to follow through on it.”