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Brothers on Broadway
A lot has changed since brothers Brandon and Jason Dirden moved to New York in 2006 seeking theater careers. Back then, Brandon says, auditioning felt like “trying to sneak in the back door on a covert mission,” since they didn’t have the stamp of a famous theater school on their resumes.
But with these two University of Illinois alumni now starring in Broadway shows – Brandon as Martin Luther King Jr. in “All the Way” with Bryan Cranston, and Jason opposite Denzel Washington in “A Raisin in the Sun” – the temperature in audition rooms has gotten noticeably warmer.
“I can see a shift,” Brandon says. “Now when people see U. of I. in my bio, they say, ‘I hear that’s a really good program.’ ”
Jason, who earned his MFA in acting at Illinois in 2006, says his professors coined the phrase “count-on-able actors” to describe the graduates of this program. “I remember (theater professor) Robert Anderson instilling in us the concept of preparation,” Jason says. “You may be equally talented, but you should never allow another actor to out-prepare you. That tells them how seriously you are taking yourself in this business, and how hard you will work if they cast you. Things like that, that they preach within those walls of Krannert (Center for the Performing Arts) have really helped us survive and eat well in this business.”
Brandon, who earned his MFA in acting in 2003, says the secret to the Illinois theater program’s success lies in the faculty’s ability to enhance each student’s unique abilities.
“A lot of actors have the stamp of a famous school, where their diction is top-notch, their speech is superb,” Brandon says. “But not all programs teach you to bring your self to the role. That’s what sets us apart. The teachers at Illinois were never interested in changing who we were. They were only interested in giving us the skills to bring more of ourselves to the roles.”
Illinois almost had three grads appearing simultaneously on Broadway. Crystal Dickinson, who earned her MFA at Illinois in 2000, and made her Broadway debut in 2012, played the role of Coretta Scott King in the fall 2013 Boston-area production of “All the Way.” She opted out of the Broadway cast to accept another role – mom. She and Brandon, who married in 2006, welcomed baby boy Chase Dirden on May 31.
Being in such high-profile Broadway productions means both Dirdens regularly meet celebrities at their shows. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama recently attended “Raisin” and came backstage during intermission to shake hands with the cast. Jason describes that experience as a moment when time seemed to stop.
“The show is set in Chicago, it’s about dreams deferred, and their daughter had just finished reading the play. It was like Halley’s comet – everything aligned in time. I was so happy to be part of that historic moment,” he says. “My children’s children’s children will know this story.”
Brandon says Cranston draws a steady stream of stars to “All the Way,” and James Earl Jones, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Sting have met the cast backstage. “It’s kind of a who’s-who,” Brandon says.
But the Illinois ideals have a way of keeping him grounded.
“To be honest, it’s the same as doing a play in Krannert,” Brandon says. “Once you start thinking about who’s in the audience or the fact that you’re on Broadway or that your name is on the poster or your picture is in the paper, that’s all a distraction from telling the story.
“That's another thing we got from U of I: It’s always about the work. It’s always about storytelling. It’s about trying to be clear and bring humanity to the role.”
Other Illinois theater alums are available in your living room every week. Betsy Brandt (BFA) plays Annie Henry on “The Michael J. Fox Show” (NBC), Shanola Hampton (MFA) plays Veronica on “Shameless” (Showtime), Jon Michael Hill (BFA) plays Detective Marcus Bell in “Elementary” (CBS), Jonathan Kite (BFA) plays Oleg the cook on “Two Broke Girls” (CBS), Nick Offerman (BFA) plays Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation” (NBC) and Jessica Dean Turner (BFA) plays Communications Gunwoman on “Crisis” (NBC).
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