William O. Brasmer, who died Jan. 4, was the most challenging teacher I ever had. Bras (pronounced “Braz,” which he was called by anyone who knew him for 30 seconds) taught in the Theatre Department for 43 years, directed more than 150 plays, ran the Denison Summer Theatre (nine plays in ten weeks) for 11 years, and lectured for God knows how many thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of hours. There was never a dull moment in his classes. He mythically shot off a blank gun to see how we’d react, threw keys on the floor and demanded an actor make love to them, and regularly excoriated us for underusing our imaginations. He taught by provocation, by argument, sometimes by direct confrontation, challenging our comfortable received notions and daring us to exceed ourselves. If there had been a sign on his door, it would have featured a big red circle with the word “coddle” in it, and a big red diagonal line through the word. He treated us like adults in a tough world and was chintzy with praise. The only way you found out he liked what you’d done was when he didn’t say he hadn’t. And while some professors attempted to be a student’s best friend, Bras didn’t. I never knew of anyone invited to his house or to dinner.
But he was revered by those of us who sat at his often wobbly knee. And how he loved teaching and the literature of the theatre! He left the contemporary realists like O’Neill and Miller to others and instead made sure we got biannual doses of Shakespeare and Shaw, frequent Gilbert and Sullivan, the occasional impossible Greek, and merciless injections of the avant-garde. He introduced the campus to Beckett and Ionesco. He loved the out and out lunacy of An Italian Straw Hat, the cosmic tragedy of A Winter’s Tale, the big fat musicals of Broadway, and staged them all.
When I was an inexperienced freshman, he took the risk of casting me in the leading role in Shaw’s Too Good to be True, which had more lines than Hamlet (or seemed to), and then—here’s the important part—he stayed late night after night to ensure I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself. Two years later, he cast me as a king blinded offstage in Euripides’s Hecuba, and I struggled mightily. “How do you play blinded?” I asked, since the most painful thing that ever happened to me was a broken wrist.
C’mere,” he said roughly, and dragged me into the Ace Morgan bathroom, turned on the hot and cold water, and thrust my hand under the hot, then the cold, then the hot. “Yow!” I screamed, then calmed, screamed again, calmed again. “That’s what real pain is like, emotional or physical,” he said. “It strikes savagely, subsides for a moment, strikes again.” It was not only a vivid, acting lesson, it was a vivid life lesson.