He is a few inches taller than me (I’m 5’2”). He has white hair, soft eyes and a straight smile. And when one meets him for the first time, he gives you a handshake, looks at you and says “Nice to meet you.” It was a pleasure to finally meet Donald Brearley, who has been playing a major part in The History Boys as Hector. And for the eight young men who play the boys of the title, he has been an example of how to be a professional actor. (“I anticipated that kind of feeling from them and consequently, you feel you have a responsibility,” is Don’s thought about that particular role.)
After introducing ourselves, we move to my chosen interview location, only to discover that the room is locked. I was somewhat embarrassed to leave Don standing in the middle of a hallway until I found another room. We eventually continued our conversation in one of the TimeLine staff offices (thanks Liz Auman!).
Don was born in Hinsdale, Ill., and much of his childhood was spent in Lake Forest before he moved to Chicago with his parents. When he was 12 years old, Don became a part of the Columbus Boychoir (now the American Boychoir), attending school and touring the United States, Canada and Japan, among others. After attending two different high schools, he enrolled in the University of Illinois and later, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He landed his first acting job a month after graduation in a production of Moonchildren, directed by fellow Illini Robert Falls, here in Chicago. The History Boys is his first time working at TimeLine and he has been enjoying the experience.
“Since you have been involved in The History Boys since the beginning and are going to be involved until the end —,” I said as the opening to one of my questions.
“KNOCK WOOD,” Don joked, forming his hand into a fist so he could knock on the desk beside him. After the double knock on the desk, he smiled, leaned back in his chair and waited to hear the question.
Laughing, I asked, “What do you think caused The History Boys to be such a great hit?”
“Well, I think …,” Don looked away and paused for a moment to think. “First of all, I’ve just got to imagine that it is just the play because it was clear from the way [TimeLine] was working on the play that they just knew that it was going to be a hit. They had a big read-through and had auditions. But I think that even before the auditions that they had anticipated and thought to themselves that ‘we want to extend so long and it is possible that we may go so far.’”
He continued: “Frankly, I had read the play certainly a number of times, but I had never seen it all the way through ever. And it’s a little hard really to see WHAT exactly is working. It’s not much like any play I’m familiar with. The wit, we certainly see that in all sort of writers, but it is more than that for the TimeLine subscribers and staff, and also the community, to anticipate that it was going to have such success. Everyone just had great expectations for it. But then the only other thing I could say is that the team that PJ and Nick put together is great.”
After Don explained that working with TimeLine has been an exciting experience for him (even though he hardly gets excited about anything!), I asked, “The theme of history comes up in the play. What does history mean to you?”
“Well … I very much agreed with what the character Rudge says — that ‘history is one fucking thing after another.’ I think that the older you get, for me, I tend to see more randomness of existence in this universe. And that a lot of things are just, I guess having an acting career, very random. Your good streaks are more likely to happen just like your bad streaks, and it really has not much to do with you but really timing and intersections of events. I believe this is very much of the theme in this play. As my character Hector says, ‘you don’t really know that what you’re doing has any effect on students that you are teaching. All you can really do is pass it on the best you can and hope that everyone else will.’”
We continued our conversation with Don explaining that the most unexpected thing that has happened during this production is that things have not totally disintegrated. He laughed about it because his experience working with eight young men and even the older actors is somewhat chaotic (in a good way) — it has more to do with keeping the play fresh and alive. There is a lot of individual work, and sometimes it feel that things get a little out of control, but they all work on getting things back together.
The last thing Don wanted say was, “We still have a long way to go and it will be very interesting to see if anything I have said here will still be true to by the end of September. But I just hope that people are still enjoying the play and I hope I still am. I hope I just continue making my contribution.”
Read more about and from Donald Brearley at our Web site in an interview he did before The History Boys opened with Artistic Director PJ Powers.