Actress Brenda Currin talks about her life as a Welty lover and adapter in celebration of the author’s birthday.
by Cerith Mathias
This story has been updated from 2015.
Brenda Currin is an actress of stage and screen, hailing originally from Oxford in North Carolina. While a student at Kansas University, she was chosen to star in the movie adaptation of Truman Capote’s true-crime novel In Cold Blood. So began her career-long connections with some of the greats of Southern storytelling, which include a long-running passion for the works of Eudora Welty. Currin has acted in many projects based on Welty’s writing and starred in a one-woman show made up of a patchwork of Welty’s stories and characters.
Her interest in bringing Welty’s words to the stage resulted in a partnership with Broadway director and fellow Southern letters enthusiast David Kaplan. Himself the curator and a co-founder of the annual Tennessee Williams Provincetown Festival, Kaplan began adapting Welty’s work for the stage in 1979 with “June Recital.” His 2015 project was launching the inaugural Welty Biennial in the author’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. The 12-week celebration combined music, art, photography and of course a production of “June Recital,” in which Currin starred.
Cerith Mathias spoke with the actress from her New York home.
CM: When and why did the connection with Welty begin?
BC: My first introduction to Welty was when I was in my twenties. I was meeting someone and in the background in another room there was a recording being played of Eudora Welty reading ‘Why I live at the P.O’ and I remember just being stopped in my tracks thinking ‘What is that?’, ‘Who is that?’ The person I was with said “Oh, that’s Eudora Welty” and that was kind of that.
A couple of years later I was recovering from an operation on my leg and I was studying acting and I had to come up with a scene to do where I was sitting down, and I remembered that story of the postmistress. Well it was a big hit in class. A year later I was doing the ‘Ghost Sonata’ at Yale Rep and my dressing room mate had been working on the Ruth Draper Monologues, so the two of us rented rehearsal space; we would get together and she would do Ruth Draper’s Monologues and I would do ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ Then she said after a while of doing this “I think we need a director. I know this guy from Yale – David Kaplan.’ So I was living in a fifth floor walk-up in Chelsea in New York and on a hot summer’s day David Kaplan came and sat in my living room. I sat in a rocking chair and did ‘Why I Live at the P.O’ for him and from that moment on we started building on the story and finding other material we wanted to add.
CM: How did you decide on what to include in the show?
BC: It was a long process. Ultimately, I wanted to do something from ‘Losing Battles,’ which is the exact opposite of ‘Why I Live at the P.O’ because it’s told in many voices of a family reunion in Mississippi. So we added that and then we put our heads together again. I had a notebook that was really for writing music, and on that paper just started to lift the names of all the stories, because the names themselves have such musicality and humor and character. So we begin the show with a list of the names of all the stories and all the novels and all the characters. And David set it to the adagio movement of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto. And then we end it with the Rondo movement, which is a cornucopia of fragments of the stories. So it really does capture the sheer abundance of Welty’s creation.
CM: Is the stage show still running?
BC: No. I’ve toured it and performed it in many cities in the states and in Rennes in France at an international Welty conference. I have spent a significant part of my professional life as a Welty lover and adapter. It’s coming from the standpoint of being such a fan of the stories — I’m such a fan that I actually have to act them out.
CM: Your partnership with David [Kaplan] runs deep. What are you working on together at the moment?
BC: David and I are members of the Eudora Welty Society and in addition to everything else that he’s doing, David is curating a Welty biennial in Jackson, Mississippi. The first year of the biennial is called ‘Classical Mississippi’ and is in a way the visual, the classical Southern images that Welty encountered as a little girl. The South has all that Greek reference, the architecture and of course Welty’s childhood and imagination were just inseparable to her relationship with that mythology. David has incredible things planned.
CM: Did you ever get to meet Miss Welty?
BC: Yes, I did. We had been invited to perform ‘Why I Live at the P.O’ and we had to get permission so it was arranged that I would meet her when she was in New York. She was staying at The Algonquin Hotel. She met me at the elevator. She had a little a cardigan sweater over her shoulders and she led me into this very modest room; it was in the back, tiny, looking out at a brick wall. There was a bed and one straight-backed chair. I sat on the chair, she sat on the bed and our knees were knocking and I became overcome with self-consciousness, and so was she. We could not get this thing off the ground. I was looking at the floor in one direction, she was looking in the other. It was just torture. Until we started talking about the characters in ‘Why I Live at the P.O’; the sister, uncle Rondo and Stella-Rondo and we started to laugh as if we were talking about members of our family. That broke the ice and then it was this wonderful meeting of the sensibilities. To me Welty is one of the greats, she has a perfect ear and she also has that funny bone of just seeing human nature. She’s so often relegated as a regional, Southern, little old lady writer — well far from it.
CM: You career is incredibly interconnected with some of the greats of Southern literature. Are your Southern roots important to you?
BC: My growing up in the South and being torn away from it because of family stuff — discovering Welty and immersing myself in it was my way of coming home. I didn’t realize how deeply homesick I was, for just that appetite for talk for one. The image I always have is of those Southern ladies getting together at 8 a.m., fully dressed, nails done, lipstick on with a cigarette and a glass of Coca-Cola playing bridge. At 8 a.m.! Just listening to them talk. And Welty describes that too, when she was a little girl. She said she’d be sitting out on the porch, or sitting with her parents in the car on a Sunday drive and she would just say ‘Now talk!’ That is a deeply evocative thing for me. It’s something I need.
Photo credits, from top: Brenda Currin courtesy of Brenda Currin, Welty statue in Jackson and Welty Biennial logo.
Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South.