This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 10, 2008 - Six bodies lay deadweight under fluorescent lights in the Bensinger Studio at COCA on Wednesday evening. The glow of the light bounces from grain color carpet squares to whitish walls and back onto the figures on the floor. Dusk is falling outside. Untempered by the gentle sunlight, the glow inside seems to intensify. The bodies sink deeper into the floor.
"You can't do anything onstage unless you're relaxed and focused," says Brooke Edwards. And the bodies exhale.
She wears khaki capris and a brown three-quarter length button down, nondescript earth tones, with her dark hair pulled back in a black clip. Yesterday in her office at COCA, she wore all black with the exception of hot pink jelly flats. Sunday, playing Janine in “Scorched,” produced by Orange Girls , she donned a turtleneck and denim shirt. Three days, three dress codes, three professional lives rolled into one.
As COCA's newly appointed director of theater, co-founder of the St. Louis' women-run company the Orange Girls and actress Brooke Edwards will tell you, it's here, in the middle of the Midwest, where she gets to "really do stuff."
The bodies are moving now, animated as they stand and form a circle. Edwards leads her students through vocal warm-ups, which includes the exaggerated articulation of consonant/vowel pairings.
"Bay - bee - bi - bo - bu," the circle chants. "Kay - kee - ki - ko - ku." When the group gets to "p", Edwards pauses.
"If you want to laugh, laugh," she says, and begins to laugh herself. "We're gonna say 'poo' here. ... I have sons, and we laugh about 'poo'."
"We get to say pee and poo in this one," one student points out, and everyone laughs.
Edwards will tell you that, in this beginning acting class for adults, convincing her students that exercises like "bay - bee - bi - bo - bu" are critical to performance is one of her greatest challenges.
"People who aren't in the theater world aren't aware of what goes into it," she says. "It's vocal endurance, mental endurance, physical endurance."
She says this intensely, as she does most things (minus the "poo" comment). You get the feeling that she's been this way - intense - for a very long time, and maybe always. That she's the sort of person who lives deeply, to whom events and circumstances mean something. The sort of person who lives with an obligation to find this meaning, to seek it out and impart it through her acting, her teaching, her lifestyle.
To illustrate, let's go back to Sunday. Let's go back to "Scorched."
Nothing about Canadian immigrant Wajdi Mouawad's "Scorched" is easy. Not the staging, not the dialogue, and certainly not the subject matter. The story follows twins Janine (played by Edwards) and Simon as they trace the previously unknown history of their recently deceased and mysterious mother through a war-torn Middle Eastern country that closely parallels Mouawad's native Lebanon. Rife with descriptions of the horrors of war and an ending that leaves everyone - onstage and off - speechless, the production is often difficult to watch and impossible to ignore.
Edwards remembers first reading the script months ago.
"I was in my guest room lying down and was like, 'Oh, I'll take a look at this play Michelle [Michelle Hand, one of the other two Orange Girl founders] wants to do.' Two-and-a-half hours later, and I'm sitting up crying on the bed. I was like, 'We have to do this play, we have to do it now'."
So the Orange Girls did the play in September, premiering it in the U.S.
If the show is challenging for viewers, it also was a test of Edwards' endurance. "We got to opening night, and I thought, 'I am spent'," she recalls. It's no wonder. During the course of "Scorched," Janine's existence expands from a reclusive life devoted to theoretical math and equations to one illuminated by newfound understanding of her past, her mother's involvement as a political activist in a far-away country's civil war, and the potential for beauty and terror that is inherent in each of us.
What was it like, exploring this character over the past weeks? "I had to start from a technical place - like how do I think someone would react to this - and work in emotionally," says Edwards. "All of us [in the cast] did. We've had our share of crummy experiences, but we've never had to deal with horror on this level. ... I've been sad for eight weeks now."
If "Scorched" was hard, keep in mind that none of the Orange Girls' productions to date has been especially easy. With the goals of "promoting female stories and giving a voice to female artists," as Edwards articulates, this is the local company that has put on "Medea," the classic tragedy with a modern twist, "Standing on my Knees," which, as Edwards says, "examines how we treat the mentally ill," and, earlier this year, "The Road to Mecca," which portraits two women while examining questions of individuality and art. The Orange Girls, founded and run by Edwards, Michelle Hand and Meghan Maguire gravitate toward challenging shows.
Edwards and the Orange Girls' efforts have not gone unnoticed. Their first production, "Going to See the Elephant," brought home seven Kevin Kline nominations and three wins: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Ensemble,.
"We did this little show at the New Jewish Theatre ("Standing on my Knees") that cost $15 to put on and won best play of the year over the Rep - and they have a $4 million operating budget," says Edwards. "You had to peel us off the floor."
Right after the Kevin Kline awards, the girls got a call from COCA, who asked if they'd be interested in being the organization's in-house theater company. "It worked out for us wonderfully," says Edwards. "Space is a huge problem in this town."
Home and Family
Edwards, dressed in the black, is talking more about this town in her office at COCA. About how it's hard for her to be landlocked, about the sense of entitlement she's encountered in wealthy St. Louisans, about how social attitudes in the city can closely resemble those of Quincy, Ill., the 45,000-person town she grew up in.
When asked about her three boys, a black and white picture of whom rests on a cabinet in the back right corner of her office, Edwards seems to question how much you want to know.
As a preface, she says, "I'm not the typical St. Louis mom."
She had her first son, Dane, who smiles from the upper left corner of the photo, when she was 15. She had him in Quincy and lost the approval and acceptance of her best friend's family when she got pregnant, along with the approval and acceptance of most of those who knew her.
The next year, her stepfather, a well-known Quincy surgeon, committed suicide.
"I switched to the public high school after being in private schools," she says. She remembers what it was like to go to a new school as "the girl who got pregnant and whose doctor stepdad committed suicide."
"Theater saved my life in many ways," she says about her involvement at Quincy Community Theatre at that time. Her grandmother had introduced Brooke to the stage when she was 6, first buying her the "Annie" soundtrack, and then taking her to see the play.
"We'd re-enact movies, we'd re-enact TV shows," says Edwards about her early childhood. "From the beginning of my life, that's all I ever wanted to do."
At 18, Edwards left Quincy for Western Illinois University. “Going away to college was the best thing for me. I wasn't the freak kid anymore, I was part of the theater department," she says.
Getting a bachelor's in theater with an emphasis in costume design and world theater history, Edwards took her skills to Washington, D.C., where she trained with the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts and worked doing costume design with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and The Studio Theatre.
Despite this success, Edwards found that she missed being on the stage. So, she packed up again and moved cross-country, arriving in LA at age 24.
"Crazy. And I don't regret any of it" is the short answer to what Edwards thought of the city.
"I had just married my first husband and had gained the married 10. I was going to auditions, and my manager was hearing, 'Best read all day - but she's frumpy.' ... I started to exercise for three hours a day and was down to 600 calories a day. I lost 30 pounds and started getting callbacks. It's like you end up being rewarded for self-destruction."
Edwards had some success, doing commercials for McDonalds and healthcare group Kaiser Permanante, but she wasn't acting in the way she'd been trained to act. In early 2000, pregnant with her second son, John Henry, in the middle of the photograph, she and her husband relocated to St. Louis, where some of her family lived.
There was a brief stint in social work, and then things started happening. With the same honesty as before, she points out that this community has given her the opportunity to do the work she's always wanted to do: "Here I run a theater company, and I get to play roles like Janine. I get to really do stuff here."
And here we are. Eight years, one marriage, and one tow-headed boy later. Edwards' youngest, 18-month-old Atticus, smiles out from the bottom of her office photograph. He'll be hanging around COCA with Dad Wednesday evening, shocks of blond hair standing on end as he visits with "Mom's friends," better known as the Orange Girls, before Edwards' acting class.
When she's drained from rehearsals or feeling landlocked or frustrated that the company's productions aren't running with a full house even though they're "on par with anything off-Broadway," Edwards' boys give her energy, she says.
"Atticus' first word was light," she says. Her eyes are wide, smiling now, so very alive and intense, but in a different way. "He loves to dance. I put on ABBA's greatest hits and he'll dance and say, 'Light, light, light'."
Back to class
On Wednesday, as the light outside the Bensinger Studio continues to fall away, and the light inside intensifies, Edwards moves her budding actors into monologue training and then constructs scenarios for given characters to interact within. She guides her students in channeling a character's mood by instructing them to recall an event in their own lives where they felt the required motivation or sentiment.
"We as the audience don't need to know what got you there," she says. And the students begin again.
Anna Vitale is a freelance writer.