LOS ANGELES — Before they donned the hospital gown, actor Amanda Kruger admits, they didn’t know much about the musical “A New Brain.”
“Which maybe was helpful because I didn’t realize the immensity of the role and the responsibility behind it,” they said with a laugh.
It certainly is immense, and in this rendition, even more so. Kruger plays Gordon, an autobiographical character based on composer William Finn and his own experience with arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, which required him to undergo brain surgery in the early ‘90s. However, in this production, Gordon, like Kruger, is non-binary.
“We had some really intentional and important conversations around the language,” they said about the early rehearsal process. “So we found like small moments to kind of integrate what it is to be a gender non-conforming person facing a health crisis, or you know, in a relationship, or how we’re perceived versus who we know we are.”
The team is also quick to point out that Finn, who wrote the musical with James Lapine, signed off on the interpretation.
“We wrote him a letter,” director Khanisha Foster said somewhat shyly. “As a team, we were like, ‘Dear William Finn.’ But he was amazing. He wrote back right away. He seemed really excited about it.”
Foster has long held the subject matter close to her heart. Her best friend had a brain aneurysm when she was 27, and wrote a book about her long, arduous recovery.
“It taught me so much about the brain and how we learn and how we process and what it really is to come back to your new self after all of that,” Foster said. “So I’ve had her story on my heart for a long time.”
Plus, in a way, she points out, we all suffered a collective medical emergency during the pandemic and, like Gordon, are trying to process it all.
“We had to really kind of look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves what we want, and seemed like a good time to put all that to music,” she said.
The original musical, which centers on Gordon and his relationship with his partner Roger, premiered off-Broadway in 1998. Foster is thrilled to be telling the ultimately joyful story in a gender expansive way, where instead of two gay men, the couple at the heart of the story is a non-binary person and a woman.
“Yassi [Noubahar] is also a woman of color,” she pointed out, “so we just wanted to see something that’s really very everyday for a lot of us, but something that we’re not always seeing on stage.”
The stage in question is particularly unique. The show is being performed in the Davidson/Valentini Theatre, the smaller space at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. It’s a space that both Foster and Kruger find absolutely thrilling.
“When you walk into that room, you’re like, ‘This has to be the theater, it had to be here,’” Foster explained.
“This space is so intimate and I love that,” Kruger added. They confessed that they “geek out” over immersive spaces and credited the design team with really making the theatre look and feel like a hospital waiting room. And since it only allows for about 40 seats, the audience is sometimes inches away.
“When stories can happen that close to people, it’s impossible not to be emotionally affected,” Kruger said.
This is the first time in its 40 year history that Celebration Theatre has performed at the Los Angeles LGBT Center although it’s long been on their bucket list.
“And so it’s basically a dream come true,” artistic director Brittney S. Wheeler said.
She describes Celebration’s mission as a dedicated effort to bring unheard voices and stories into the spotlight. Given the rise in anti-trans legislation around the country, she wanted to give gender nonconforming and trans artists a safe and positive space in which to shine.
“We need to be able to see ourselves on stage,” Wheeler explained. “We need to be able to feel again, and feel things that are joyful.”
That joy is evident, not just in the script, but in the performers. Foster says great care was taken to make sure the text honored Kruger’s experience and that of the rest of the cast.
“There’s nothing like watching artists become more of themselves on stage,” she said.
Kruger, who says they rarely get considered for the parts they really want, radiates in the role of Gordon and is grateful to William Finn for his willingness to let the company perform the show this way.
“It kind of really gives me hope, and affirms what I feel is true about musical theater as an art form,” Kruger explained. “The people who created it, created it from…a place that was very meaningful in their hearts. And they want these stories to continue to have life and to continue to be relevant and the way in which we do that is to continually reimagine them, continually breathe new life into them.”
Despite the title, ultimately A New Brain is really about heart, humanity, and hope — giving audiences an infusion of joy and empathy. Just what the doctor ordered.