Breathe, the story of one man’s journey to live beyond the odds, comes to the University of Florida’s (UF) Squitieri Studio Theatre, located in the West Wing of the Phillips Center in Gainesville, Florida, January 16-17, 2016. Breathe is about Brennen Reeves who just wanted to be normal. The only problem: the fatal lung disease, cystic fibrosis. The only solution: a double lung transplant. Hilarious and heartbreaking, this solo show presented by UF’s College of the Arts and College of Public Health and Health Professions will leave audiences moved and inspired. Tyler McLennan caught up with Reeves before the performance to learn more about Brennen's story and what one word describes the play.
Tyler: When were you diagnosed with cystic fibrosis?
Brennen: My diagnosis came when I was eight weeks old. I was five when I first started to understand that I wasn’t as “normal” as my brother who is two and a half years older than me. I didn't really understand what cystic fibrosis was.
Tyler: What did you feel in that moment when you realized you were different from other kids?
Brennen: Well, I was away in the hospital a lot growing up and I was normal to the kids I was surrounded by who also had cystic fibrosis or other ailments. I didn't realize the fatal part of the disease until I was probably 10-13 after my friends were passing away from this disease. It was something real. It wasn't just an ailment anymore—it’s a life that can be taken from you.
Tyler: Did your outlook on life change after that moment?
Brennen: Not really. I had a moment about two and half years ago when I started writing my show (Breathe) where I sat down with my co-creator, David Lee Nelson, and I said something along the lines of, “I now have a different perspective of life,” and I was talking about that and he kind of stopped me in a friendly way and said something along the lines of, “You don’t think of everyday like your last?” It kind of stunned me that he was approaching my life as if he was living it. He said, “You don't live everyday like your last; you just live every day.” I don't look at life as if I could die any second. It’s in the back of my mind, but I just live my life like a normal 24 year old does every day. I’m alive, let’s just live today, let's just make today happen. I try to spend every day living instead of worrying about dying.
Tyler: You mentioned being in and out of the hospital as a child growing up. How did this impact your childhood when it came to things like school or playing sports?
Brennen: Where I grew up, sports were huge. My mom played college basketball, my dad could have played college football and my brother got a football scholarship. All we did was play sports. I played baseball and every sport other than football because it wasn’t an option at that point. As I grew older my lungs were deteriorating and I got sicker. So, at a young age I could play sports. When it came to my junior year of high school, I realized sports might not be the route for me. My lungs were so bad that I couldn’t do the things my brother and his friends were doing. Sports were definitely a challenge in my later years, so that’s when I picked up acting. School was the same. I went to school, but as I got older I would be absent for two or three weeks at a time to go to the hospital or because I was at home sick.
Tyler: Tell me more about your start in theatre.
Brennen: My junior year of high school I was playing baseball but it got to a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. Then, there was this musical at my high school, Pippin. I remember watching it and being like, “This looks fun; this looks like something I can do.” So, my senior year of high school was my first year in theatre, and I was cast as the lead in Footloose and did a few other small parts. Then, I came to college with a theatre scholarship from my high school and that drove me to the avenue of entertainment.
Tyler: Breathe is a one-man show. Why did you decide on a one-man show?
Brennen: I had a solo performance class my senior year of college that was taught by David Lee Nelson who is now my co-creator and director. Growing up, I loved comedy, so I took the class. I found it interesting because I had never thought of theatre as a one-man kind of thing. In the class you had to write down 10 things in your life that meant the most to you, and I wrote down not making the seventh grade basketball team, getting a lung transplant and things like that. Then, I glanced over it and realized--me being such a private person--that if you didn’t know me you would never know I had this altered life. So, the next day in class we picked things we wanted to write about and David looked at me and told me, “I want you to write about your lung transplant.” My first thought was, “All right, no,” but I did. Other people are writing about how they like Natalie Merchant and how they went to seventh grade boarding school and I’m writing about this sorrowful life I have. I brought in my material to David and I was crying in class—everyone was crying. It was so embarrassing. It was hard, but I kept writing about it. Eventually, it started evolving into this one-man show that is now known as Breathe.
Breathe is almost like a stand-up act because I love stand-up comedy, but it also has this theatrical element where it brings you into the life of a character, which is myself. David and I talked about the possibility of this work being a TV show, movie or play, but in its time it could only be what is known as a one-man show. Now that we have a story in the works we can go different avenues with it. I'm also currently writing a book about my life that is somewhat of a sequel or addition to Breathe. I hope to have it published within the next year and a half.
Tyler: What challenges did you face creating Breathe?
Brennen: Writing Breathe was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Sitting down, thinking and exhausting my emotions just to get the thoughts and the words I needed down was draining and horrible, but very rewarding in the end. The rollercoaster ride that Breathe gives the audience is very emotional, but very challenging as well.
A lot of one-man shows are developed with other people, and David was the best person to have on my side. He started as a professor, then he became my co-creator, and now he’s one of my mentors and great friends. If it wasn’t for David, this show probably wouldn’t have evolved. My family, friends, teachers and doctors have been there for me through it all--they are my surrounding cast and the reason I am where I am today.
Tyler: What is the one word you would use to describe Breathe?
Tyler: What has this journey meant to you?
Brennen: Sometimes no is the easiest thing to say, but I felt like Breathe had a journey already. If you ask David, he thinks the same thing. This was meant to happen from the very beginning, and all it takes is a short word like “yes” to make something magical and very special. I think David was brought into my life for a reason, and I would hope he’d feel the same about me. Sometimes the oddest things happen for the best possible reasons. And this was by far the most fulfilling opportunity I’ve ever had in my career.
To learn more about Breathe and to purchase tickets, visit www.performingarts.ufl.edu.