Arts Profile: Professor Brian Grandison

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Josiah Mederich, photographer

Professor Brian Grandison

Josiah Mederich, Contributing Writer

It’s not often you meet someone with a big stamp on the world. When I registered for “Acting for the Camera,” one of the humanities electives, I didn’t expect to learn much from the community college course. However, I had heard a former classmate praise the Professor, Brian Grandison. “I love the class! Brian is amazing!”

Yeah, ok. I’ll believe it when I see it.

I sat down on my first day in a classroom situated in the basement of Helland. We started class like all others, a syllabus drag. The professor, a calm, soft-spoken man stated, “We’ll be reading two books, one of them written by a good friend of mine who cast ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Walking Dead.’”

Wait, what? No way does this guy have a connection like that.

The whole class endlessly pestered him with questions about it, eventually prying out the truth. It turns out, he actually does. Here I am with the rest of the class, sitting here like an asshole in what I thought would be the classic, “community college acting class.” Maybe I will learn something here.

A few weeks in, and I’m so excited about the performing arts. Something that has seemed so far away has suddenly been brought right to me, and it wants me to grab on and run.

According to Grandison, the life of a performer is hectic. I recently took the opportunity to sit down and hear what it’s like to juggle acting, writing, teaching, and parenting. The veteran theatre actor and writer has been teaching the art of acting to students for over fifteen years. Four of those have been here at Minneapolis College.

He has performed in many prestigious theatres around the country, including the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Locally, he has blessed the stages of many venues including the Mixed Blood Theatre, the Illusion Theater, and the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.

Why did you start teaching?

I got burnt out. The hustle is, okay, I’m in a play, I’m doing this, what’s the next job? So you’re always kind of looking, and you don’t want to play the end and not know what you’re going to do. Which, you know, is a pain in the butt. I had no idea I’d be doing what I’m doing now. I just kept saying yes. Things just kind of folded into one another.

What are some of the bigger roles you’ve taken, either theatre or film?

I was part of the acting company at the Guthrie for a number of years. I worked at the Goodman Theatre, which is Chicago’s version of the Guthrie. I did a play at Brooklyn Academy of Music and toured the East Coast. Couple films. Lots of TV pilots. What’s great about the Twin Cities is that you can do both. You can do on-camera, and off. I did a bunch of Best Buy commercials in the 80’s.

Can you name any of the TV pilots?

I can’t even remember any of them. You know, TV is derivative. So, there was a version of an FBI show. The guys who were producers of it produced “Hill Street Blues” and “Law and Order”. It was about a team of FBI specialists, and I was their sound guy. And you think, “This is going to be the one!” Didn’t happen.

I was also hired by Don Cheadle, who’s a good friend of mine. He wrote a play, and I was in it. Showtime was going to option it, so he hired me to do the screenplay.

How did you meet Don Cheadle?

He did a play at the Guthrie, “Leon & Lena (and Lenz). We had a group of actors. We would meet at this church. Actors would come to town and they’d hear about this pick up basketball game – it was all actors, good, bad, whatever. And we’d play four on four in this little church basement. We would pay a dollar a day. Over the years, we paid them thousands of dollars, because they would just let us play. We had lots of famous [and] semi-famous folks come and play.

Don and I got to know each other there. We worked together at a play in St. Paul. When I was going out to LA, I’d stay with him, and we hung out. I wrote a script of a play that I had written that he was gonna be a part of. So he knew about my writing. So after I wrote it he said, “Dude, lots of actors out here. Not a lot of writers. Everyone wants to be an actor; not everyone can write.”

We had this meeting at Showtime. He said after the meeting “We’re gonna finish this draft, but I can’t do this. I just signed for a different project, and this will bump my salary up. I gotta do it.” I said, “It’s okay.” It was an opportunity for me to move back here, and you can do the work from wherever.

Why leave LA?

I was a divorced dad, and my daughter had come to visit.

Being a dad, every day she was with me, every day waking up made sense. Then she left, and nothing made sense. So the call came. Don said, “Hey, Showtime wants you to produce this film.” And I said, “I’ve got to go back to Minnesota. I gotta be dad.”

Have any of your students found success in film or theatre?

I had two students get signed by agencies locally. But that has nothing to do with me, I think. These students were determined on their own. It’s a 50/50 relationship. I’m 100% responsible for saying, here, pay attention to this. But if the student doesn’t pick up the book, doesn’t do the reading, doesn’t do their part, it’s just an experience.

What other schools do you teach at?

I teach at the University of Northwestern in Roseville. I just taught a class at Augsburg. I also teach for Children’s Theatre Company. I got a Fulbright to take what I do there to Jamaica. The work that I do with Children’s Theatre Company, they’re elementary school kids, and we use theatre as a tool to teach literacy. But you can use it to teach english, history, science. It makes kids active so your kinetic learners and visual learners have a way to enter it. It’s a lot of fun.

What are you working on right now?

Well, I’m directing “Our Town” here at the college, and I’m working on the Jamaica stuff. I just got asked to be in a piece for Illusion Theatre. I’m currently writing a piece for the History Theatre. I’ve got two other pieces that I’m doing, that are my own, and when the time comes I’ll decide “Hey, I think I’ll do it at this theatre.”

I’ve also been doing research for a piece on the Negro Leagues. There was a barnstorming team here in St. Paul from 1906-1909. The guy who owned it was considered the wealthiest colored man in the West. If you were a teacher, back in the day, you were paid maybe $35 a month. The lowest paid players on his team were paid $65 to $75 a month. And he never missed a payment. It’s amazing.

Do you have any advice for new actors?

I tell actors all the time, you can shoot your own video with your iPhone, edit it, and upload it on the web. There’s no excuse not to be working, writing, creating your own content. Work engenders work.