LOS ANGELES - Actress Jen Faith Brown is an accomplished actress with a deep background in musical and traditional theater. Her work in such plays as “The Glass Menagerie,” "Phantom,” “Man of La Mancha,” and others earned her much acclaim thanks in part to her striking soprano voice and her ability to channel varying characters, from aristocratic matrons to young, wide-eyed ingenues.
The native New Yorker's path has taken her from the stage to the small screen, having been featured in "Law & Order," "All My Children," and ohers. Her film work includes "My Father," and the upcoming "Johnny Shadow." But her passion these days is "Only a Girl," the World War II-themed play she co-wrote with actor David Mulholland.
"Only a Girl," is based upon the life of 17-year-old Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish nurse who hid Polish Jews in a Nazi officer's cellar during World War II. The play, based on personal interviews she had with Opdyke, shows her courage and commitment through narrative memories, film images and original music as well as songs written by composer Danny Whitman. The play is currently on touring the U.S.
Here's our interview:
Question: Where your from originally?
Answer: I am originally from New York-but my dad was a traveling salesman and my family moved 17 times by the time I turned 15. I received my BFA degree at Syracuse University and my Masters through a fellowship program at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Alabama.
Q: What were your majors and what led you into acting and singing?
A: My majors were Musical Theatre at Syracuse and Acting at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival/University of Alabama. I started acting when I was 8 years old. My first play was a production of "Annie" done by a local senior home. The Activities director at the time, John Hauser, began an outreach to schools in order to have the seniors and children working together. He found that the seniors had less physical pain and were able to gain confidence and a sense of community though an active drama program.
Q: What was your first acting experience like? What lessons did you learn?
A: It was an incredible experience-I learned at a very young age the healing power of the arts. Strangely enough, through my committee work at SAG, I now coordinate cabaret shows at the SAG Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills. The impact of that first experience has stayed with me all of my life.
Q: Who inspired you to act and sing? Who were your idols growing up?
A: It is a great question. Many people ask who you admire as an adult and they are very different questions. I can remember when I was very young about 5 or 6- My idols were Sammy Davis Jr. and Barbara Streisand. What I always admired most about them was how unique they were and how committed they were to being their own kind of artist.
Q: When did you come to California?
A: About two and half years ago. My husband had a job opportunity out here. I was fortunate to have done a show a few years prior in Sonora Calif. at Sierra Repertory Theatre. I met several LA actors doing that show and I was lucky to have some connections out here.
Q: What were your pivotal or most memorable roles when you came to Los Angeles?
A: I have played some wonderful roles since moving to LA. I think Olivia in "Twelfth Night" was one of the greatest experiences, and it was the first play I did after coming here. I did “Twelfth Night” with a company called Vanguard Repertory Theatre. I will never forget when I drove to the audition it was up a very windy hill when you reached the top, where the theatre was, the view took your breath away. I pulled over and started to cry, it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. In addition to that, it was an amazing company of actors and directors. I think another role would be the one I just played at Lee Strasberg theatre-Anne Schalter in Ingmar Bergman’s “The City”. My agent called me and said they just lost an actress and I think I had about 3 days to learn the role. I love challenges like that.
Q: How did you learn about Irene Gut Opdyke and her story of saving Jewish families during the Holocaust?
A: I was involved in a student outreach project at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival-it was right after 9/11 and the children were really struggling with the feelings they experienced as a result of that event. No one was talking to them about what had just happened and they were all looking to adults to help them understand how to cope with their fears and emotions. I was inspired to create a series of plays about child heroes. I wanted young people to realize that the answers to their questions and fears was inside themselves. I started reading biographies and researching and one day I came across Irene Gut Opdyke’s book “In My hands…memories of a Holocaust rescuer” The dedication in her book states ….” I dedicate my life story to encourage young people to find hope and strength within themselves…”
I contacted the woman who helped Irene write the book-Jennifer Armstrong who kindly gave me Irene’s contact information. Irene was thrilled at the idea of a play about her life that would tour to schools. She shared with me that it was becoming difficult for her to speak at schools as she had gotten older. Irene and I started talking by phone and writing letters back and forth. I told her I wanted to meet her in person. She said “if you come now I will still be here but if you wait I don’t know.” I flew to Orange County to see her a few weeks after that conversation.
Q: What led you to bring her story to the stage?
A: I knew that a play would be a way for Irene to continue telling her story. In my interviews with Irene, I asked her what she wanted me to say. Irene told me, “Love…they must know that love is the answer to all things”. The play is her voice, not my own. Originally, I had envisioned the piece to be a one woman show-and I struggled writing it in this way. It was only after meeting Irene and my interviews with her that I realized what was missing. Irene’s daughter Janina, shared a manuscript with me that her father had written as well as a book of letters from the young people her mother had spoken to over the years. I realized that the play needed to be told through William, her husband, in order to work. Irene was extremely humble, There needed to be a voice that could honor her the way she needed to be honored. I remember her telling me…” I was only a girl just a little girl-stupid.. that is why I did what I did.” This “girl” was responsible for saving not only the twelve Jewish people she hid, but countless others, as a result of her warning people in the ghettos of attacks-her smuggling food and supplies to the ghettos, as well as her work with the Polish resistance.
I also always envisioned music as an imperitive aspect of the play. Irene spoke to me about her childhood quite a bit and how she enjoyed singing and music. One of my friends from college is composer Danny Whitman. Dan wrote all he songs and the incidental music. His Grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and so the project was very important to him. The actor I cast as William, David Mulholland, and I wrote a great deal of the play through workshopping the scenes.The process took us over a year before we started inviting teachers for feedback.
Q: What was she like when you met her and during your interviews with her?
A: When I walked in the room that first day Irene was alone... She was crying and told me about these two very deep loves in her life. She kept talking about the children how it hurt her she couldn’t tell them her story anymore. She also told me how much she loved her husband. Meeting her made me feel like I could never honor her the way I wanted to. Irene is simply “love”. When you meet her all you feel and see is “love”-As one student wrote to her “you make me realize that this vital love still exists in the world” I searched my heart to understand how I could give more. I remember thinking how in the world can I honor this amazing woman when I have nothing. I am Only…this…only…that-and that is when the play revealed itself to me. Irene herself was “Only a Girl” , yet, this 17 year old girl-with no money-no resources, was able to save hundreds of lives during World War II.
Q: How have audiences responded?
A: When people see this play this is part of what they experience. Irene wanted people to understand the “power of one can make a difference". You don’t need anything “extraordinary” to make a difference. You need to make extraordinary choices” You need to “stand up and be counted”. This is why her story is so important for young people. What I am most proud of is at the end of the play one of the last film images is a slide that comes up saying “In Loving Memory of Irene Gut Opdyke”. It is in that moment people are standing and it is for Irene. The responses have been unbelievable. I have had survivors show me their numbers-they say this is my story. The students share with me they had no idea what the Holocaust was about or that it was that bad. Most people are crying deeply moved and inspired. We did a production on Veterans day where any Veteran could attend for free. A homeless man came, and afterwords searched his pockets to donate money to us. He said what you are doing is important I want to help.
Q: You've brought the play to many schools, how can educators contact you?
A: Educators can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: What are your future plans?
A: In addition to my work as an actress and singer I am also pursuing my certification in Drama therapy. My husband and I want to someday run a theatre where we can also have a creative arts therapy center. We are especially interested in working with sexually abused children. Irene was brutally raped as a result of her brave decision to help during the Holocaust. David Mulholland and I took months to write that particular scene in the play. It is the scene where Irene is able to share with her father what happened to her. One of the lines is “you have a choice now…do not let them take that away from you”. Irene had every reason to become angry or bitter, yet she chose love. This choice changed the world and she has inspired me to do the same.
Jen Faith Brown is online at www.JenFaithBrown.com.