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Bryan Schimmel opens up in More Than a Handful

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Musical maestro Bryan Schimmel, a King David Linksfield alumnus, is about to launch his new one-man musical show in Johannesburg, More Than A Handful. The SA Jewish Report caught up with him.

You’re a multi award-winning musical director. Which musicals have you directed?

I won awards for Chicago, Jersey Boys, and Annie. Other productions include We Will Rock You, The Rocky Horror Show, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Rent, and Dreamgirls.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career to date.

My career was stalled two years ago when the entertainment industry went into shutdown. Prior to that, I created a niche for myself as a music director, arranger, and orchestrator of major theatre productions and also musically headed up some of the most high-profile corporate events. I’m currently busy with my ninth Bidvest CEO Awards.

What motivated you to do More Than a Handful?

In 2016, I was approached to make a speech at Limmud about my career and achievements. I agreed to speak, but not about the entertainment industry or my career. I said I had more interesting content to share about my life and the challenges I have overcome. Having never given a speech like this before, I was rather surprised at how well it was received and how it moved people. I subsequently delivered the speech to various organisations and corporate wellness divisions. People began suggesting the idea of combining my talents as a musician and pianist with the content of the speech. At first I shunned it because I didn’t see how it could work. In 2019, I reconsidered it, came up with the title, and approached Alan Swerdlow, my longtime friend and colleague, and the only collaborator and director I would trust.

Laying yourself bare in front of an audience night after night is incredibly brave, why do it?

I have long believed that there’s immense strength in vulnerability. My life mantra, which is tattooed on my right arm, says “Live to inspire”. Laying myself bare is about inspiring people to have the courage to look at themselves and see something in someone else’s story that they can identify with. It’s about relatability. I defy anyone to say that they’ve come out of these past two years unscathed by something. Everyone has been affected in one way or another. Everyone has a story of their own, and everyone needs to hear affirming stories of triumph over adversity.

In More Than a Handful, you tackle the obstacles you have overcome. What were they and what do they represent to you today?

There are many. I’m a stutterer who now performs a two-act solo play. As a kid, I could never have dreamed this would be possible. I was a victim of bullying and homophobia, a story so eloquently reviewed in a recent edition of the SA Jewish Report. I was diagnosed HIV+ 24 years ago when there was no certainty of prolonged health or long life survival. I’m a recovered crystal meth addict. These are just some of the obstacles. Being able to take all these obstacles and channel them into a piece of theatre represents resilience, defiance, empowerment, strength, resolve, and peace.

You use your letters to your mom in the show. Why did you choose to do this and what does your mother symbolise in your life?

When I met Alan to discuss a way of transforming the Limmud speech into a theatrical experience, he said I needed a dramatic story-telling device. I was always an avid letter writer. When my mom passed away in 2009, I found a folder with every single letter I had ever written to her dating back to 1973. These letters became one of the story-telling devices and the pathway to adapting the speech into a play. My mother was everything to me, and she becomes a central figure in the play. I don’t want to give too much away.

Doing a one-man show can’t be easy for the most seasoned actors. How tough is it for you and why?

To be honest, I think it takes it bit of insanity to do a solo show, and that’s probably why most seasoned actors have never done it. Perhaps that insanity is what drew me to it. It was tough to rehearse and build the physical and emotional stamina. I’m doing things in this piece I’ve never done before. But performing it now is actually exhilarating.

You’re a musical maestro, skilled at musical direction and playing the piano, but this is a new-ish (considering A Handful of Keys) career move for you. Is it a once-off or the start of a newish career and why?

It probably is a once-off. It becomes quite clear in the play that it’s something I’ve always wanted to do but have never really been able to because there aren’t many roles written for people with a speech impediment. So it’s unlikely to be a career change.

COVID-19 posed the biggest threat to your industry and all its professionals. What impact did it have on you and how did you survive?

COVID-19 didn’t pose the threat. Lockdown, a shuttered industry, and a government which left the arts and culture sectors to die, posed the biggest threat. The impact has been incalculable. Many entertainment industry professionals have left the industry out of necessity and found other means of survival. I had to cash in investments, dig deep into my bond, and rely on the kindness of others to get me though. A year ago, I was in a state of grief. Like many in our industry, I felt a profound sense of loss of identity. When your reason for being and living is taken away from you, you feel rudderless, purposeless, and directionless. I had conquered many obstacles in my life but this one seemed overwhelming and insurmountable. I cannot overstate my gratitude to Dr Hanan Bushkin, an absolute genius therapist, who guided me through an unfathomable period in my life.

There was one upside to being in lockdown for so long. Time. We had lots of it. Alan and I would meet every Thursday from May until November last year, and we had the time to carefully craft, structure, and sculpt a script that we’re both extremely proud of.

What impact has lockdown had on the future of theatre in South Africa – if at all?

For starters, we’re playing to restricted capacity in theatres. This has an impact on revenue and the ability of theatre producers and performers to survive. Solo shows are big right now because they are the most viable. People want to go back to the theatre. We’ve seen that already. They’re tired of looking at a screen. And besides, nothing can ever replace the live theatre experience. It’s going to take at least another good few months before we’re restored to full capacity. Producers and theatre managements are going to have to work together and collaborate like never before. The model of how we used to do things has changed irrevocably.

  • “More Than a Handful” will be at Theatre on the Square in Sandton from 31 March to 16 April. Book through Computicket.

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