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Brenna Petersen is at home.
Comfortable. Relaxed and at ease, even as she’s being interviewed. Attired in a dark, loose-fitting button down blouse, dark trousers and tall Renaissance-style boots and sitting with her long legs outstretched in the green room of Texas Woman’s University’s Redbud Theatre. The room is full of TWU’s theatre company in bits of costume, cradling props and affecting English accents. No, it’s not Halloween. Petersen and her colleagues are rehearsing for a Shakespearean-era play, The Children of the Queen’s Writ.
Petersen is coming off co-starring in TWU’s season-opening play, The Effect. She’s also currently in Scrooge! The Musical for the North Texas Performing Arts. For that production, she’s assistant director. And costume coordinator.
“I feel like I need to stop doing so much,” she said. “All I really do is school, rehearsal here or rehearsal at the other theatre.”
Doesn’t leave much time for a personal life. She laughs at that.
“This is my personal life,” Petersen said.
A junior theatre major at TWU, Petersen has been in or around theatre most of her life and is closing in on 20 shows on her resume.
“She comes at this with a great deal of maturity and a sense of seriousness and responsibility,” said professor and head of the TWU Division of Theatre Patrick Bynane, who is also directing The Children of the Queen’s Writ. “I think the world of her. She’s a promising young talent. I won’t be at all surprised that 20 years from now, I hear that she’s out there with a successful career.”
The pursuit of that career has had a number of stops along the way. Originally from Kentucky, her family moved frequently due to her father’s work as a transportation manager. That meant a lot of home schooling, made practical by her mother who is a teacher. It was the rest of her family that passed on stage fever.
“I grew up in a performative family,” Petersen said. “I have a composer for a grandfather, a classically trained mom, and all my aunts and uncles. I’ve been involved in music for a very long time.”
She had the usual youthful activities and distractions: piano (“didn’t like it”), swimming (“liked it, but it wasn’t helping me grow as a person”). She did the typical elementary school plays and musicals, but performing really took hold when Petersen was 12.
“My mom found out they were having auditions for a Rapunzel musical,” Petersen said. “I auditioned (and landed the part of the wicked witch) and that was it. I started going show to show and was constantly in one when I was about 16, and I’ve not stopped that since.
“It seemed, I don’t know, like the natural thing for me to do. Once this became a major part of my life, it definitely did shift my perspective. At 17, I was looking at shows that would expand my repertoire. This group is doing Newsies and I want to do Newsies again, but this group over here is doing Sweeney Todd and I haven’t done Sondheim before. That type of thing. But I didn’t realize at the time that that was me actually sort of subconsciously building a future.”
So subconscious, in fact, that Petersen began college as a music major, fueled by her interest in opera.
“That was a big period of adjustment to try to figure myself out,” she said. “But I realized how much I really needed to be in this world, not just doing opera. I liked working on my voice and all of that, but I thought about the theater every single day. Every single day. I was like, ‘Why am I not there?’ So I just went.
“But I think having that time to get to know myself and my goals without having my parents there or having someone tell me helped me adjust to actually being an adult.”
Playing adults has been part and parcel of her resume. In The Effect, she played a 47-year-old woman. In The Children of the Queen’s Writ, she plays an older man: William Shakespeare.
“We were talking with the writer (TWU associate professor of theatre Steven Young) and he mentioned a scene with Shakespeare and Richard Burbage,” Petersen said. “He explained that Shakespeare says, ‘Get your f***ing nose out of the book,’ or something like that. And I thought, I feel like I could really pull off that line. The script wasn’t available to us yet and I had no idea how big the role was. I just hoped for the best. They had me read for Shakespeare and I really, really enjoyed it.”
“We have a line in our audition form that asks, is there a specific role you wish to audition for?” Bynane said. “There’s no guarantee that they’re going to get it. We just like to know if they have a particular interest so they have a chance to be read for that role. Just about every other student said any role. She had down in her form, ‘Shakespeare.’ She really wanted to be Shakespeare. So I read her for it and she had a great read. And, lo and behold, here she is as Shakespeare.”
This is Petersen’s closest brush with Shakespeare since doing a Dr. Seuss version of Romeo and Juliet (“I had a blast with it”) when she was 16. But Petersen is no stranger to playing trouser roles – female performers portraying male characters.
“When I started in theater, my hair was pretty short,” she said. “And being tall and lanky, I gave off a more masculine vibe than a lot of the girls my age. I auditioned for a lot of trouser roles as a kid. I played trouser rolls all summer.” That includes Heathers, in which she played J.D., the antagonist made famous by Christian Slater. “I played him as a transsexual transgender man.”
Her transformation to play a 40-something balding man is substantial. Makeup (including prosthetic beard and mustache) and clothing that masculinizes her face and body, slicking her hair back to approximate Shakespeare’s retreating hairline, darkening her hair and adding an English accent. Then there’s deepening her voice.
“I’m a soprano, so playing trouser roles is more difficult for me. I have a pretty nasal speaking tone which I wasn’t aware of until I actually started paying attention,” Petersen said. “In order to denasalize it I try to resonate up in my forehead and in my chest rather than in the mask of my face. This helps me have a rounder tone. It helps me pitch lower and takes more of my personality out of it, I think.”
If you can’t already tell, Brenna Petersen is immersed in the world of theatre. That includes its backstage aspects.
“Once you have worked in some way that is not just directly on stage, you immediately have a much broader perspective of what you’re looking at.”
- Costume coordinator: “I’ve learned how to do my research. I do a lot of historical shows, and I learned how to find the proper resources. What did they actually wear, how is this functional, if we need to mix in modern elements how do we do that?”
- Lighting: “I had never stepped in a lighting booth and none of it made sense to me, but I had a really great teacher who is now a TWU alum, and he taught me lighting design. Now I understand better why costumes appear the way they do, why our makeup has to be the way it is, how lights can play into the theme of a show.”
- Directing: “A whole other ballgame. You do not know how different it is to act and direct until you’ve been on the other side of the table. You can bring such an amazing story to life. Once you’ve had that experience, even if you don’t align with your director’s vision, you have a new respect for that vision and a new willingness to try everything.”
“She’s like those athletes – gym rats – that gym owners have to turn off the lights and tell them it’s time to get out of here,” Bynane said.
At TWU, the theatre rats can be found in the green room.
In every theatre, the green room is the assembly point where performers – in costume and makeup – gather before being called to the stage. Such is the case at Redbud. But when no performance is taking place, Redbud’s green room becomes a clubhouse. Until last spring, it was closed much of the time, a remnant of COVID’s isolation. Now it is a gathering point for the students who inhabit the theatre.
And it is here that Brenna becomes Bern. The button-downed stage veteran morphs into a boisterous 20-year-old with a broad, sincere smile and infectious laugh.
On this evening, most of the cast of The Children of the Queen’s Writ are present. Opening night is two weeks away, and this week the actors will no longer be allowed to carry their scripts during rehearsal. “Linus having his blanket taken away,” Bynane described the moment.
Several members of the cast are called to stage, where they practice “kisses and violence.” Raised voices and profanity reach the green room. It’s that kind of play.
In the meantime, a member of the fellowship arrives with a paper tray full of French fries. Garlic fries from Hera’s Kitchen, a new place in the Union. Without objection the fries quickly become community property.
“Up until last semester, my peers were just my peers because, you know, we couldn’t really hang out,” Petersen said. “We would do rehearsals, we’d see each other in class and then that was about it. Then they started slowly reopening the common spaces and some of the mandates started to go down. A lot of us have been in the same classes for a while and a lot of the same shows. So it’s nice to have the option where it’s just kind of natural if you’ve got some time, you can just hang out in the green room and someone’s almost definitely going to be there. It opens a lot of options for connections and conversations outside of class.
“When I was a kid, I never quite clicked with my peers,” she added. “It’s not like I didn’t get along with kids my age, I just never quite felt like I was on the same wavelength with anyone until I hit college. When I got involved in the theatre department, that was when it started to feel like I was actually clicking with people my age. My peers here are my friends, which is really nice.”
So, what’s beyond college? What are her career ambitions? Whatever it is, it will probably be on stage and not in front of a camera.
“I like how you have to live in the moment,” Petersen said of live performance. “When you’re in theater, if something’s going wrong, you fix it or you roll with it. And I’ve had moments where we really needed to fix it and roll with it, but they were funny. It worked out. There’s a lot of, I think, freedom in the knowledge that whatever is happening now, it’s happening now whether you like it or not. If someone doesn’t see the show twice, this is what they see. This is their interpretation of the story. You know, pressure, but I think it’s a nice pressure.”
On her theatrical bucket list is her favorite play, Les Misérables, the musical based on the historical fiction of Victor Hugo.
“Les Mis got me into theater,” she said. “I think in 2010, my mom had it on TV. I was a kid and didn’t understand musical theater singing or anything like that. And I’m like, why is mom watching opera? And then eventually I just sat down and watched it. And that was like the beginning of the end for me. By the time I was in fourth grade, I had the complete symphonic recording, memorized every line.
“I was listening to Les Mis in the car today. I’m reading the book. I have seen many, many interpretations of it. I’ve read the abridged versions. I’ve done papers on it. I’ve talked about the symbolism. My ultimate dream role ever of all time is Enjolras in Les Mis, and I would kill it. I have a lot of feelings about Les Mis. I could talk about it for much longer than I care to admit.”
Enjolras, for those who don’t know, was a leader of the revolution and would be, for Petersen, another trouser role.
What Petersen doesn’t mind admitting is her love – bordering on addiction – for the stage. It’s here she’s made a life, and it’s here she intends to build a career.
“My ultimate career goal, at least currently, is to be in the national touring cast of a show, preferably a musical,” Petersen said. “Who knows, maybe Broadway. But I want to travel and see the country and just get to do what I love, get paid to do what I love, and travel around while I do it. You know, I feel like there’s something noble in it.”
Yep, this is definitely home.
The Children of the Queen’s Writ
Tickets for The Children of the Queen’s Writ are $10 for adults, including TWU faculty and staff, and $5 for students, children and senior citizens. The performance on Saturday, Nov. 19, at 2 p.m. is a pay-what-you-can performance for TWU students if tickets are available. Tickets are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Cash only.
- Wednesday, Nov. 16, 8 p.m.
- Thursday Nov. 17, 8 p.m.
- Friday, Nov. 18, 8 p.m.
- Saturday, Nov. 19, 2 p.m.
- Saturday, Nov. 19, 8 p.m.
- Sunday, Nov. 20, 2 p.m.
The Children of the Queen’s Writ contains adult language and content, violence, and sexual situations. Viewer discretion is advised.