Emory Report

 December 1, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 14


Bynum enriches Emory
with steady doses of Beckett

Next March, Brenda Bynum plans to bring a production called "Notional Women" to the Oxford Lyceum for Women's History Month. This makes sense since Bynum is, to say the least, a notional woman.

"If you're not from the South, you probably don't know what the word means exactly," she said. "If someone says to me, 'She's gotten real notional,' I know that means she's got independent ideas of her own which she expresses freely and doesn't care what you think about it." Take that.

Bynum, who's spent 15 years at Emory teaching students to become other people onstage, definitely has her own ideas. Between preparing for her shows this spring and organizing the yearly program she runs for the Alliance Theater's professional acting interns-"It's the equivalent to a residency in medicine"-she's also packing up her small office in Annex C to move over to the recently vacated Rich Building.

She is a busy woman, but she likes it that way. The acting internship program collaborates with the Southeastern Playwrights Project on playwriting contest for emerging playwrights, whose works are then performed by the Alliance interns. The whole production, from first reading to first performance, takes less than a month, but Bynum said she likes energy created by such a manic schedule, and she adds the program is so popular that in three years she has yet to see an actual performance because she gives up her seat to accommodate the demand.

"It's an adventure," Bynum said. "I love to work fast like that, especially when I'm working with people who are responsive and capable. And it's always fun for an actor to create a new role."

Next spring, in addition to "Notional Women," Bynum will do a presentation based on the life of British composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth and star in The Displaced Person, based on the life of Flannery O'Connor, at the Theatrical Outfit. Bynum said she's becoming more and more interested in projects based on the lives of real women. "I'm in the position to do what I want to do, and this is where my heart is leading me."

And then there's her class, made even more interesting this semester since one of her students is psychology professor David Edwards. Bynum said Edwards participates just like the rest of the class (all undergraduates) and even brought with him a unique contribution. Edwards' father, famed late psychologist Allen Edwards, devised a personality inventory that Bynum has been able to use in the class. She had her students take the test first as themselves and again later in the persona of characters they had developed.

"I find it most exciting because character is mystery," she said. "How does someone become someone else onstage? It's great fun."

Bynum has been acting professionally for two decades. She fell in love with the theater while a bright-eyed coed at Mercer University in the late '50s. Then, after getting her bachelor's in drama and enrolling in Ohio University's graduate theater program, she lost interest in acting almost as suddenly as she'd found it. She dropped out of grad school, met her husband, Cary, and spent 10 years traveling and starting a family.

As her children got older and she found herself with more time, Bynum drifted back into acting. Her specialty and passion, ever since she read Waiting for Godot as a college sophomore, is the work of Samuel Beckett. "Any time I touch the hem of Beckett, I'm a happy woman. It is the most hellish, disorienting, impossible, hateful thing," she said, "but for an actor doing Beckett, it makes you feel like there's nothing you can't do. It's like climbing Everest. The mental, physical and emotional torture actors go through is incredible, but I love it."

Indeed, Bynum's goal is to have every Beckett play produced somewhere in Atlanta, and she has either directed or acted in nearly all of the Irish playwright's works-"There are just a few short, weird ones left." She especially enjoys introducing students to Beckett and says, though they may not be ready for it, years later they appreciate the experience.

In fact, working at Emory affords Bynum a unique opportunity to produce her favorite playwright since Beckett's works are not exactly mainstream fare. "Beckett is not Neil Simon," she said. "The Alliance couldn't do it." But an academic atmosphere and the enthusiasm of her students allows Bynum to take chances, make leaps she might not be able to make if she had to worry as much about selling tickets.

Still, the chance to do Beckett is not the only reason Bynum loves where she works. "The community here is almost like a small town," she said. "My kids grew up running around this campus; my colleagues are other soccer team parents. It's an extraordinarily rich well to draw from. I would give away my Social Security card before I would give up my Emory library card."

-Michael Terrazas

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