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Change is hard – even if it's welcome, and especially if it's not. How do we react to it, and why? What does it show us about others and ourselves? When the ground shifts under our feet, what are we capable of doing? We all have our stories. Here is one of them:

Playing new roles

Gary Briggle

Gary Briggle's big change happened twice. Decades ago, he faced it as a young man just starting to seek his path as an actor and singer. And recently, he confronted it again as an older and far more experienced performer, a theater veteran whose resume has expanded to include directing, writing and instruction.


It arose from the same question, perhaps more painful the second time: Who am I as an artist and where do I fit into this profession?  


The latest answer seemed to be a stark "done and nowhere," since Briggle is now beyond the age when many people retire from their jobs. Older actors often find fewer and fewer roles open to them as time goes on. And age isn't the only issue: Over the years, theater and American culture have changed, with more roles going to actors who have the specific ethnic, national, regional and other backgrounds that describe the characters – a good and too-long-delayed change, overall, but one that leaves many actors feeling that they can be cast only as who they are in real life, not who they have the skills to play. As a white man over 65, Briggle saw his options dwindling. He thought maybe his performing life was over.


And then he thought, "Oh, hell, no," he said – he wanted to keep doing everything. What needed to change, Briggle realized, was not his profession, but his approach to it. Rather than relying on others to give him jobs, he needed to create his own opportunities. He realized that the change would come "by way of evolution and not seeing dead ends, not seeing shut doors," through self-generated work and "the ongoing doing of it."


As a student performer, Briggle had had an epiphany, suddenly understanding that his professors were giving him chances to experiment that – even though he didn't feel at all ready for them – he should take. "I needed to wake up to the fact that opportunities were being put before me by people who understood my talent in a different way than I did," he said.


Afterward, rather than heading for New York after graduation as many young actors typically do, Briggle spent his subsequent career taking on big challenges – Shakespeare, opera, directing, arts-company executive positions – that pulled him into work of ever-greater quality and visibility. He gradually built an enviable reputation in such regional theater centers as South Florida, Cleveland and his home city of Minneapolis.


His credits include serving as artistic director and principal tenor for Lyric Opera Cleveland (Ohio), artistic associate for Seaside Music Theater in Daytona Beach, Fla., and ensemble member of the West Palm Beach-based Stage Company of the Palm Beaches (and its later iteration, Florida Repertory Theatre), Minnesota Opera Company, the Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis and the Arizona Theatre Company. Along the way, he has developed a passion and special affinity for Gilbert & Sullivan and Noel Coward, won a South Florida Carbonell Award for his role as Bunthorne in Patience, and portrayed characters ranging from Dr. Watson to Falstaff. He's even done television


Briggle took every opportunity he could and worked hard to be ready for new, more difficult ones.


It was, he explained, "a kind of goal-oriented, product-based" achieving that would help him attain his first goal: "Getting over my largely made-up sense that I was disappointing everybody by not being a hit on Broadway." Eventually, Briggle discovered that that kind of splashy success wasn't what he wanted or needed; being able to choose fresh roles and paths was.


"I needed to make choices that kept me learning, growing, expanding, that took me out of my comfort zone," he said, rather than letting people make him keep singing the same few roles over and over again. He didn't want to keep doing endless productions of The Barber of Seville. "I needed more adventure. And I've never needed to be the star."


That same realization came back to Briggle decades later, just when he thought his life on stage had ended. At that moment, he understood that it was only his apprenticeship that was over. Now it was time to take what he had mastered and give it to young people. Though he's reluctant to call himself a teacher – he's seen how brilliantly his life partner, Twin Cities theater artist-educator Wendy Lehr teaches, "and that's not me" – he's found that he can sit in a room full of kids and engage with them, offering them artistic methods and tools that have worked for him.


To help a young person become a more expressive and holistic artist: Briggle said exuberantly, "I discovered I could do that and I loved doing that."     


But he's doing it his way: Burned by an attempt at joining a university faculty that turned into what he called a "staggering experience, professionally," of politics and backstabbing, Briggle has acted on his second epiphany by constantly creating his own professional opportunities. He mentors young artists at his own home studio; still acts in and guest-directs musical productions in the Minneapolis area and elsewhere; and has become a writer/adapter of stage works. These range from a chamber opera about 17th-century scientist Isaac Newton to a piece about early-20th-century stage artists Coward, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt that was picked up by NPR. They also include a hit version of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I and II called The Rogue Prince (and also based on the related Orson Welles film, Chimes at Midnight) that Briggle co-directed with Lehr for the Twin Cities' Theatre Coup D'Etat.


He acknowledges that doing his own work this way makes being a theater artist – always financially dicey – even more precarious. But "I just enjoy it so much," Briggle exclaimed. "It's so pleasurable because I have no expectations for it. And when it turns out that people are excited about it, I'm just amazed. It's a joyful alternative to waiting for somebody to write something for me to be in."  


It turns out that change has taught this lifelong learner something powerful. When circumstances alter what you are, have or do and there doesn't seem to be any choice left, "make something up," Briggle urged. "Something that gives you the greatest joy."

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