Brennen Reeves has a theater degree from the College of Charleston. What gives his one-man show, “Breath. A True Story,” its authenticity is its autobiographical nature. Reeves has lived with cystic fibrosis for nearly 24 years — his entire life — but by partnering with his professor, the playwright and comic David Lee Nelson, Reeves turned that difficulty into a compelling story of survival. “Breathe” is playing through June 6 as part of Piccolo Spoleto’s Stelle di Domani theater series.
Q: How did you decide to write a one-man show about your experiences?
A: My senior year of college, I took a solo performance class with the professor David Lee Nelson, who’s my co-creator and my director. The first day of class we were asked for the next day to bring in 10 events in our life that kind of shaped us or that were a big event, and I didn’t really talk about my transplant or anything like that, and he had known about that, so the next day in class he mentioned it, like, “Why wouldn’t you write about this?”
So the next day, I brought in a couple pages that I had written about my transplant, and I was just crying in class. All of my classmates were crying, and we started kind of talking outside of class and (David) mentioned that he’d love to create a solo show of me.
Before that class, I had never really thought about solo performance as really an avenue for storytelling or writing for that matter. So we started meeting once a month, and then twice a month, and then once a week, twice a week, and then almost every day. Then we started creating it. Then last fall, in November, I workshopped and previewed “Breathe” at Theatre 99 here in Charleston.
Q: So you hadn’t thought too much about writing in college.
A: No, I always enjoyed writing and reading. I performed sketch comedy. I’ve done some stand-up and stuff like that. I’ve always enjoyed kind of writing my own material, but I never thought that that was really a style I’d be interested in doing until I took David’s solo class. He’s my co-creator, so I’d say it’s almost like 50/50, our work on this show. He’d probably hate me for saying that. He probably thinks I did a lot more. He edited a lot of the material. I have tons of scripts at my house that I’d bring in, and we’d go through it together, cross some things out, throw some stuff out, which was kind of hard...
Q: It would be easier while writing fiction to “kill your darlings,” but this is literally your life.
A: It’s a totally autobiographical piece. It’s like: I think this is funny, but what’s our demographic? What does the audience find interesting about my life? Because our show’s about 65 to 70 minutes, but it could easily be five hours long, you know? It could be a movie. But it’s like: What are the main themes? What is shaping this show for the climax? It’s a story. It’s got a beginning, middle and end.
Q: How autobiographical is the show, really?
A: I’d say it’s creative nonfiction/autobiographical. So there are elements of the show that I maybe fantasize a little more or drag out a little more, but every event that I mention is a true story. I just might put some more pieces or elements in that are more creative. That’s for emotion and humor and things like that. The climax of the show is me getting my (double-lung) transplant, but all the way up to that, it’s me talking about the disease and me growing up with the disease and my challenges and the setbacks I had because of this disease. I mention my brother going to sports camps; I wasn’t able to do that, so I went to Camp Wak-n-Hak, which is for kids with cystic fibrosis, so I talk about things like that. But the whole arc of the story leads up to the climax, which is me getting my transplant.
Q: What were some of the reactions you got from your family and your close friends when you told them you were working on it? Or did you tell them at all?
A: I didn’t really talk about it. I worked with David, worked a lot by myself, and I’d work for months and months and months at a time, and then sometimes I’d just take a month and clean my head, hit the reset button and start fresh, thinking and picturing past events that I could maybe incorporate into my story. So I sent an email to my family in October of last year, once I had booked the Theatre 99 gig. My mom has five brothers and five sisters, so I sent it out to all of them, all my cousins, everyone in my family. I wrote them a page-long email like, “This is what I’ve been doing. I’d love for you all to come and support this, for you to see what you have inspired in me, since you’re my family,” and things like that. Some of them were like, “Wow, that’s amazing! You’ve been really quiet, so we didn’t know if you were OK.” But my parents have always been my biggest supporters and my backbone. With my brothers, they were like, “Great, can’t wait to hear how inappropriate it’s going to be.” You’ve got to have a little edge and a little creativity to such a powerful piece to maybe be borderline, maybe sometimes wading over that line a little bit. But that’s just me. That’s where my humor comes in.
Q: Sometimes people get uncomfortable with a work that’s extremely on the nose emotionally and dramatically. Have people said that to you after the show?
A: I had a man come up to me recently who was 72 years old and say, “That was the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” I also had a woman come up to me, and she was like, “I just read the program. I didn’t know you wrote this as an autobiographical piece. I thought you were just an actor in this play,” and I was like, “No, that’d be a really ridiculous play if, like, Neil LaBute wrote this play or something.” Audiences have been very welcoming to this piece, and I’ve been very grateful for that because I try to not put so much right on the head and on the nose because I don’t want pity. I don’t want pity from anyone. I’ve never wanted pity, unless it’s like a really hot girl. Then I will take, trust me, all the pity that is given. But I don’t want people to feel bad for me because I don’t feel bad for myself. Yeah, some of it sucks, but it’s like, oh well. Life’s not fair. ... You get one shot, so just accept it and be grateful for what you have.
Q: Are there any plans to take this show on the road?
A: Before I started this adventure, or this journey, you could call it, with writing this piece, I was just like, “Yeah, I’ll write it, and it’ll go into an archive like a piece that I’ve done before to put on my resume.” But then, I’d been getting some great feedback. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the community has been very open to helping me with this. So has the organ donation (community). They’re like, “This is a very powerful piece.” And David, who is just a genius — I owe so much to that guy, he’s very talented himself — we always talk, like, “What is this show? Is there a place for this show?” And of course, there is, and I would like nothing more than to share this show with people and take it in on the road, but is there an avenue for that? I never wanted much for this show as far as making it somewhere big. I just wanted people to learn more about the disease and more about how to get involved and how to become an organ donor to help people like me who wouldn’t be living without them. So that’s kind of the main message of the story, and it’s a part of me that I’m able to share as far as my humor goes and in terms of being an outgoing person.
This Q&A has been edited for content and clarity.
Patrick Hosken is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.