Mar 11, 2008

Neal Brasher talks about loving his job and the joys of the theater

by Kerah Kemmerer

Moving from the heart of Alabama to the heart of Virginia, Neal Brasher has spent the last four years of his life teaching in the theater arts department at Liberty University. 
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 Brasher has a large extended family and spent the majority of his life close to home with loved ones. He recalls becoming a Christian on Aug. 2, 1979 at a revival meeting and spending the summer of his freshman year of college working as a summer missionary in northern California.
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The furthest he has traveled is to Mexico, and although he hates to admit it, he has never been to New York City.  Brasher would like to travel to England to see places such as the Globe Theater, the birthplace of Shakespeare, Oxford, Cambridge and where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien taught.  He would also like to travel to Germany since he studied the German language while in college.
With a childhood ambition to be a visual artist, theater seems like a natural variation of that dream.  Lately, however, his drawing opportunities have been limited to creating pictures of “rainbow firetrucks,” fairies and mermaids for his two daughters.
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Housed in the Fine Arts Hall, where he is serenaded daily by the piano on the other side of his office wall, Brasher talks about his youth, admits he struggles in his relationship with God and discusses his role in “Shadowlands” as the brother of C.S. Lewis. 
Champion:  Tell me a little more about your background.
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Brasher:  It was an odd thing to come to Lynchburg, because when I say I was born and raised in Alabama, I grew up on the land where my dad was born and his dad was born. 
My great grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and he settled the piece of land in the 1880s, after the Civil War, and that is where I grew up. My family has been there for three or four generations living on that land. 
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To get up from there and go anywhere…I mean, I went to college in Birmingham, but that’s not that far away.  My masters degree was in Tuscaloosa, but that’s just an hour and half away.  I was in Army National Guard at one point at Fort Knox, Ky., for just three and a half months.  I had a professional theater job in Virginia. That was my first job out of grad school, and I came out and worked with the American Shakespeare Center.
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Champion:  Do you have any fond childhood memories?
Brasher:  Some of the best memories I have involve my extended family.  My dad has nine brother and sisters, and most of them still live around that area.  Holidays are big events, and everyone always seems to get along really well.  There was just a lot of love and friendship in the atmosphere.  That is the best thing that I could have hoped for as a child…to grow up in that kind of atmosphere was just wonderful.
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I brought a friend home from college one time, and my family used to have an Easter egg hunt with my dad’s brothers, sisters and cousins.  They had already started the hunt, so when we drove up, my friend asked, “Is this your church?”
I said, “No, this is my family.”
Champion:  Are there things you know now that you wish you had known in your college days?
Brasher:  I wish I had taken the time opportunities that I had in college more seriously.  I didn’t have to work while in college — my parents supported me all the way through.  Because I wasn’t required to work, I didn’t appreciate the kind of time I had.
I was a music and history major in college, and I wished I had practiced the piano and guitar more — just taken my studies a bit more seriously. I don’t think I completely wasted my time, but there were a lot of opportunities for bettering myself that I could have taken advantage of, but I didn’t. 
Although I do have a lot of wonderful memories from college and most of those involve good lifetime friends, I wish I had practiced and studied and become a bit more of a proficient musician than I am. I’m having to kind of catch up.
Champion:  What have been your most memorable teaching experiences?
Brasher:  I have had a couple of experiences…a student has been in my class and some time has elapsed, and the student walks up to me in the hallway or town and says something like, “What you taught me in that class helped me do this” or “I was able to get this job and it really was helpful to me.”
Or, I have had the experience of a student coming up to me about a year after the class, and asking where he could find one of the books I used because he liked it so much and wanted to know more about it.  Those experiences are very good, very rewarding.
Champion:  Do you feel you are at the place in your life where things are settled? 
Brasher:  Yes. Right now, I am definitely doing what I feel I should be doing.  Some very interesting things happened in my life regarding the school I used to attend in my undergrad, a seminary I went to, regarding a school I taught at before I taught here, people I’ve met.  A lot of interesting things happened that seemed to lead me here. 
I decided I needed to get back into theater, sent out a lot of resumes, and Liberty is the one that worked out.  A friend that I had met in Birmingham from Scotland was living in Lynchburg, and he was the only person I knew here.  He helped us move in, and it was good to have that contact.
While I have no objective proof that it was the hand of God, it certainly seems looking back at it and the things that lead us to this place, like there was providential action in it.  I have been very happy at Liberty. It is a great place to be, and I love what I do.
Champion:  You mentioned earlier that you struggle with your relationship with God. 
Brasher:  I struggle with God a lot…I have doubts, struggles.  I think we ought to be honest about that as a Christian.  It is helpful to know that the name Israel pretty much means “he struggles with God.”  The Jewish people certainly have done that for thousand of years, and we do, too.
This play, “Shadowlands,” addresses this struggle because it is the story of C.S. Lewis. (Lewis) had written all these wonderful theological books, but then this woman came into his life and he didn’t expect to grow in love with her. When she got cancer and died, that was a huge struggle for him.  There was all this pain and grief and strife.
How do you put that alongside a God who loves us?  Does he care that we are hurting like this?  I think Christians ought to be very open and honest with each other about the fact that we struggle with God and even our beliefs.
Champion:  What is the last book you read, and why did you enjoy it?
Brasher:  I am reading several plays right now, trying to decide what to do next year.  I am reading “Brothers and Friends,” the diary of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis, C.S. Lewis’ brother.  In the play “Shadowlands,” I am playing this man.  He was a career military officer.  He and C.S. Lewis were both officers in World War I. 
I am reading this diary of his life, trying to get a handle on who he was and trying to portray him accurately.  It has been fun not only to read the book but to be studying about and playing him in the production.
Champion: How do you enjoy spending your time outside of the theater?
Brasher:  Well, I like playing the guitar or music in general.  We bought a house a couple of years ago, so I have tried to have a garden in the back once or twice.  My family likes having people over from time to time. 
I said initially that I wanted to be an artist when I was a kid, so I get to do a lot of drawing with my daughters and exercise my visual arts a little bit.
Champion:  Do you have any advice for students or thoughts you would like to share?
Brasher:  I do cherish very much the friendships made in college and elsewhere. I would say to students, don’t take those friends for granted.  Cherish them, love them and encourage each other, as the people you meet in college will very likely be friends for the rest of your life.   Try to cultivate those friendships as much as you can in college. 
Especially in the Christian mindset, we understand there is something even deeper, that we have been given the gift of each other, and we should really cultivate and cherish that gift.

Contact Kerah Kemmerer at kkemmerer@liberty.edu.


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