Local playwright Brian Townsend, a mild-mannered graphic designer by day, reveals his true superpowers at night, when he lights up local stages with his clever comedies and witty wordplay.
Townsend, an Allen Park native and current Dearborn resident, has written full-length plays and shorter works, including the drama “Therapy,” the comedies “Is This Seat Taken?” “Pass the Ducks” and “Gianni Schicchi” (based on the opera by the same name), and the murder mysteries “Murder Comes to Uptight Abbey” and “Murder Comes to the Courthouse.”
He has also written the clever repartee for Dearborn Area Theatre Association award night emcees Kenyada Davis, Alex Gojkov and Kori Bielaniec, as well as sketches and scenes for various musical revues and fundraising events.
Townsend said he wrote his first play while in high school.
“It was not the best by any measure, but it did set the tone for my writing style,” he said. “I’m one of those writers who will often start editing as soon as a page has been written, which isn’t always healthy. I’ve tried to adopt James Thurber’s advice of ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ There’s always times to tweak and adjust.”
Townsend said some scripts come together easily, while others require more planning. When he wrote his murder mystery and Downton Abbey parody, “Murder Comes to Uptight Abbey” as a fundraiser for Allen Park Presbyterian Church, he said he was writing the second act while the first act was being rehearsed.
“By the time Act I was completely blocked and run, I had copies of Act II ready for the cast,” he said. “It felt a little bohemian, and it was great fun.”
Townsend said the beauty of staging an original play is the discoveries made along the way: What works and what doesn’t, as well as the easy changes and the challenging rewrites.
“As actors start to inhabit their characters, they might question a line, or suggest something different, and you start to think of ways to improve the line or scene,” he said. “Sometimes even a mistake – a flubbed line, some confused blocking or a missed cue – can do wonders. I feel that kind of collaboration is important when developing a new work.”
Townsend said motivation can, at times, be a challenge.
“Your brain may not want to do it one day, and the next day your brain won’t shut off,” he said. “Sometimes it is learning not to fall in love with what you have written. It may be clear and perfect to you, but it doesn’t always translate to an audience.”
Townsend said each of his plays has something unique about it, so it’s difficult to pick a favorite.
He said “Pass the Ducks,” a series of scenes covering a wide range of topics, from an awkward first date to a surprising traffic stop, which premiered at the Players Guild of Dearborn in 2008, was unique because each scene had a different combination of the ensemble’s actors in it.
“The cast didn’t really get to see what other people were doing until we got closer to opening,” he said. “It was great to hear them laugh for each other.”
Townsend said the play “Is This Seat Taken?” a comedic mix of rapid-fire scenes, set during typical Friday and Saturday nights at local bars, had a small cast, which let them run with ideas and challenge each other creatively.
“When two actors get to know each other better through a scene, it would take on a new life,” he said. “And since it’s a small cast playing multiple roles, literally changing who you are in a flash of light, or while only three or four words are spoken, you get to stretch yourself as a performer.”
Townsend said “Murder Comes to Uptight Abbey” and “Gianni Schicchi” were more complete stories, with each actor playing a specific part.
“The cast becomes a well-oiled machine,” he said. “When you get to sit back and watch them do what they do best, it can be magical.”
Thus far, Townsend has directed each of the shows he has written. He also performed in “Is This Seat Taken?” and “Murder Comes to Uptight Abbey.”
“Wearing the actor and director hats at the same time can be tricky,” he said. “I had to make sure I was noting feedback for myself as well as others.”
Townsend said he is working on a comedy with friend and fellow actor Nick Graham, who lives in Florida, by sharing documents and doing FaceTime meetings. He said he also has a romantic comedy that he has shelved several times, which has a story he likes, but which he feels needs fleshing out. He said his “Uptight Abbey” cast is also eager for a sequel.
“There is always something,” he said. “Now to pick which one to start.”
Townsend said theater – whether writing, directing or acting – is an important part of his life.
“I’d be a little lost without it,” he said. “Theater has made my actual family grow a hundred times larger.”
Townsend said theater touches upon many of his artistic aspects, from writing and performing, to set design and painting, to the creation of properties.
“I get to tap into all those facets, and be my whole self while being part of the theater,” he said. “It is such a great way to find real human connection, whether between the actors on stage, or between the actors and the audience.”
Townsend said people will tell him how a performance made them happy, sad or got them thinking.
“Those are real emotions, shared by real people, and it’s proof that we have more in common than we might think,” he said. “It can be a comedy that takes you away from your worries, or a drama that makes you feel something you thought you had lost. It’s all life.”