Many performing artists draw from past experiences of pain and angst to shape their performances. Albert Brownlee, by contrast, had a happy childhood that was highlighted by family support, social interaction and an appreciation for the arts. His maternal grandparents were singers, as was his mother, who had a natural talent for drawing as well.
Brownlee’s artistic family ties have carried on into his adulthood.
“My family is immersed in the arts,” he says. “My wife Tamarah was a theater minor in college and is an accomplished singer and thespian in her own right.”
He and Tamarah met while college students. Brownlee led a vocal performance and recording group, of which Tamarah, a theater minor at another institution, was a member. Like her husband, she came from a long line of artists and continues to perform today. Their children are also heavily involved in various aspects of the arts – dance, theatre, music and drawing.
Brownlee describes his own performance background as “a natural evolution.” Music was his first love; he began singing as a toddler and played piano and saxophone as a boy. He credits teachers Linda Greaf, Laura McCoy, Ed Harris and Mike Whitlock for honing his musical skills through the Summit Program with Fort Wayne Community Schools.
“I haven’t stopped performing since,” he says.
Other aspects of performing also appealed to Brownlee. During summer vacations he would write and direct plays with the other kids in his neighborhood.
“I had been bitten by the acting bug,” he says. He soon began participating in church and school theater and eventually community theatre.
While on tour with the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir, a fellow singer encouraged him to audition for the upcoming Youtheatre production, Ride a Blue Horse. The show was directed by Harvey Cocks who would become one of the primary influences on Brownlee as a performer.
“I was totally unfamiliar with the script or even the premise of the show,” he says. “I just knew two things: one, I liked performing, and two, I wanted to be cast.”
Despite his lack of preparation, the 11-year-old Brownlee was cast in a supporting role.
“I remember being nervously excited,” he says of his theatrical debut, “as well as enamored with the experience of performing live on such a big stage.”
Thirty years later, he hasn’t stopped performing.
His audition preparation skills have evolved since the 1980s. He reads the script ahead of time to determine which roles he would like to audition for, and he sometimes will turn to the internet to find videos of shows he is unfamiliar with.
Once cast, he utilizes his own instincts for the characterization while also heeding the director’s advice for how his character fits into the overall story.
“I also like to research and develop a context for the character by understanding the setting, time in which they lived and any social implications,” he says. “This helps make my characterization more ‘real’ versus ‘acting.’”
Brownlee’s method of acting is quite simple: “In the words of Nike,” he says, “just do it. The more natural your performance is, the less it will feel like acting to the audience. My goal as a performer is to take the audience on a journey into a world that is outside of their own. The audience should become a part of the show and emotionally feel what we are expressing on stage.”
He enjoys the challenge of working with different types of actors (an interesting irony, he says, is that people he might not get along with offstage sometimes turn out to be his strongest scene partners).
“It stretches you as an actor to find ways to connect with others on stage that you may have difficulty connecting with in real life,” he says. “This, at times, can produce great chemistry.”
Some of his favorite roles are also ones that buck the obvious.
“I love being cast in roles that are typically cast for other ethnicities, races or body types than me,” he says. “I like things that are out of the box and challenge us to change our paradigms.”
Brownlee enjoys playing the gamut of roles, from comedic to deeply serious. He says he is typically cast as “the family man or religious type.”
However, one of his favorite roles was the antagonistic Wazir in the musical Kismet, in which he appeared while an undergraduate student at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta.
“What I liked most about the role was the ability to portray someone who had so many varying dimensions,” he says. “The Wazir was the one you wanted to hate but loved to watch. He was the comic center of attention, but at the same time the nemesis.”
His current role is quite different. He plays Peter in The Zoo Story, a one-act play by Edward Albee that is part of a double feature of one-act plays at First Presbyterian Theater. Billed as Two Plays on a Bench, both one-acts feature two men sitting on a bench and talking (the other play is The Duck Variations by David Mamet). In The Zoo Story, Brownlee’s character Peter is both similar to himself and very different.
“In some ways, I am Peter – a professional family man who loves his family,” he says. “He’s a family man who is accomplished, somewhat reserved and the quintessential picture of normalcy in a society that is anything but normal. The biggest challenge has been to go outside of myself and find reasons to react as Peter does that is very different than the choices I would tend to make in my own life.”
Brownlee’s scene partner is Reuben Albaugh who plays Jerry.
“He is engaging as Jerry, as well as in real life,” he says. “We have great chemistry together on stage, and that has made it fun to be a part of this show.”
He says he has not only gotten a lot out of working with Albaugh, but from working with director Thom Hofrichter as well.
“I immensely enjoy working with him as a director and artist because he ‘gets it,’” says Brownlee. “His approach is very introspective in that he always encourages you to look within and find your character from there. It’s more about understanding who you are and why, versus ‘the author wrote it this way, so this is who and why I am.’ This makes working at First Pres vastly different from other theaters.”
When he’s not performing, Brownlee is the CEO of Genesis Outreach Inc., a social services agency that helps the homeless with housing, workforce development, and support services. His theatrical background has proven to be a boon to this organization.
“I often have to speak in public settings and engage donors in supporting us charitably,” he says. “The theater has helped me learn how to be comfortable in diverse settings and has provided me techniques in reaching others and gaining their attention.”
However, he also points out, “I think on some level, we all ‘act’ while doing our day jobs.”
His job gives him a unique perspective on his current role in The Zoo Story, which is not only funny but thought-provoking.
“It will make audiences look at life and how we live in a society where we see, but yet don’t see one another every day,” he says. “We often look past the forgotten ones: the homeless, the disenfranchised, persons of certain ethnicities. Yet these are all people who simply want to make a connection. This play will help us to think about that and hopefully make changes in our own lives and daily choices as human beings.”