Brian Jansen

Brian Wayne Jansen: Brave Chameleon

by Alec Clayton for OLY ARTS

Whether as the lothario Vince in Brian Willis’s Seven Ways to Get There, the title character in Agamemnon, the purely evil Emperor Saturninus in Titus Andronicus or the insane Renfield in Tacoma Little Theatre’s Dracula, Brian Wayne Jansen is a larger-than-life presence on any stage. And he’s an exhibiting artist to boot.

Born in 1980, Jansen grew up on a farm outside the small town of Norfolk, Nebraska, famous as the home of Johnny Carson. Jansen quips, “There is a big sign as you enter Norfolk with (Carson’s) face on it saying, ‘Heeeeeeeeere’s Norfolk!’”

At a young age, this farmboy became fascinated with movies, and with picture books of movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars. “I would look at pictures of Luke Skywalker and think, ‘Thats me!’ — not so much as me being Luke Skywalker, but me being Mark Hamil,” Jansen recalls. “Movies were very real and serious to me. I would watch them over and over and memorize the lines, and then go on long walks and reenact the movie with me playing all the parts. Sometimes I would just make up movies and act those out, too.”

Life was not all play acting for Jansen. As a teenager he suffered from depression and became suicidal. He was admitted to a center for mental health, where he stayed for about a month. “After I got out, I began working on a life of crime,” he said. He got arrested for shoplifting. “You know, normal kid stuff, nothing too drastic, but all leading down a road that would not end well.”

Seeking something for him to do to keep him out of the penitentiary, his mother suggested he try out for the speech-and-drama team. Jansen remembers the drama coach saying he was “very good,” but if he kept getting in trouble, he wouldn’t be able to be on the team. He chose the team and quit hanging with his fellow criminals. “The coach’s name is Peggy Belt,” says Jansen. “She still coaches high-school speech, and while I’m not sure that she and my mom were in cahoots, I give her much much credit for saving my life and turning it around. I still go see her whenever I go back home. There was also an assistant coach on the team who would work me and my event partners for hours and hours practicing, and never say ‘good job’ or ‘you’re done.’ His name was Shane Berhardt, he was such a drill sergeant. I am so grateful for that, and I give him so much credit in establishing in me a serious work ethic when it comes to art.”

Jansen moved to Olympia in 2001. He lived in a house with a bunch of musicians, with people constantly coming and going. They turned his bedroom into a recording studio, and he spent his days writing and recording songs, something he still loves to do. At age 24, he had another mental breakdown. “It came in the form of really spooky anxiety attacks,” he says, “followed by a deep grief over all the losses I had suffered from childhood, which is now resurfacing because I was of the age that I could process this stuff without the shock of it killing me. Understanding that I was in a time of healing and that it would be best that I do things for self-care, I decided to reinvest in the things I loved.” That led him to seeking the theater community here. He now says his immersion into local theater has blessed him “with many new friends, many new experiences and some great roles.” Among his favorites, he lists Einstein in Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which he says might be the best experience he’s had in theater. “We were a really close cast. That play is amazing. I love the venue, the Midnight Sun, and Olympia really turned out for that show. We had incredible audiences. The audience is so much a part of the show.”

Among his other favorites are a trio of plays directed by Pug Bujeaud: Titus Andronicus, Reservoir Dogs and The Weir. “Out of the three, maybe The Weir was the favorite,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s a toss-up. Pug and I work so well together. We’re family and we scarcely have to use words.”

Bujeaud says, “Brian’s a brave actor, which is the ultimate gift to any director — a true chameleon. He commits to a role and it is a joy to behold. He is smart, sensitive, witty: the best of the best.”

Among his fellow cast members in The Weir was David Wright, who recently passed away. Jansen says of him, “He was an inspiration, and someone I really admired and loved to watch work as well as work with. He was really so sweet and cool, definitely someone I would hope to be like as I progress through life. … I believe you are never done learning,” Jansen adds. “I have studied Stanislavski in Seattle under Charles Waxberg at theater 9/12. I have an agent in Seattle and from time to time do some sort of filming there. I definitely am looking more toward film projects in the future.”

Fellow actor Brian Hatcher says, “He lives, breathes, eats and s—s his art with the gusto of a madman. … Brian is one of the most committed artists I know. He believes full-heartedly in the craft of theater, in the creation and skill of his paint and brush, in every sight and sound he experiences. He lives art, even the art of living. Brian holds dear the truth within every moment while he works to create, and is the most humble being I’ve ever encountered on stage. Brian Jansen breathes life into every play he participates in. In every character, he works endlessly to understand every aspect of that being. He is the epitome of a great player of the stage, and he knows his work is far from being done.”

Actor and director Kathryn Philbrook echoes that sentiment: “When we performed onstage together, he was constantly adapting different moments and bringing something new to the table throughout rehearsal and performance. As an audience member, I always love watching Brian’s total commitment to his role; he is not afraid to go places other people might shy away from. And as a director, I appreciate how seriously Brian takes his work as an actor.”

As mentioned earlier, Jansen is also a visual artist, mostly self-taught. He took a college course in art history while still in high school and now says his teacher, Gwen McLauren, was inspiring enough to make him buy his first set of paints and canvas and begin working on art outside of an academic setting. He had his first show in Olympia at Stonewall Youth, and he was featured on the Arts Walk map cover last fall. His artwork can be seen on his website, BrianWayneJansen.com, and he says he’ll soon construct a separate website for his songs, videos and writings. This modern-day Renaissance man posts every weeknight at 10 p.m. on his Instagram account, @skinnybjansen.

What: Brian Jansen art exhibit

Where: Trinity,
107 Occidental Ave., Seattle

When: Thursday, Oct. 19

How much: free

Learn more: 206-697-7702 | Trinity




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