Realism Plays a Role

The son and grandson of preachers, Benjamin Brownson ’06 knows the power of story. To inspire. To convict. To explore differences. To build bridges and create community.

He set his sights on the Chicago theatre scene after graduating from Northwestern and earning a master’s degree in the humanities from the University of Chicago. The Windy City is home to around 250 theatre companies, so Brownson had plenty to choose from and no desire to start his own. But after gaining experience at several different companies, the chance to produce a show with a colleague in 2012 changed his mind—and Broken Nose Theatre was born.

Named for author Nelson Algren’s quote about loving Chicago for its realness and imperfections, Broken Nose Theatre is committed to shining a spotlight on reality with all its brokenness. The company’s mission is to stage plays that cultivate empathy, spark conversation and amplify underrepresented voices.

Broken Nose is also committed to economic accessibility. “If all you can afford is the change in your pocket, then that’s what your ticket costs,” says Brownson. On the other hand, if you can pay more than the suggested ticket price, then you have that option as well. And a surprising number do pay more, helping make Broken Nose’s pay-what-you-can model financially sustainable.

Six years after setting the stage for Broken Nose Theatre, Brownson stepped onto another stage to accept the League of Chicago Theatres’ 2018 Emerging Theatre Award on behalf of the company he founded. The year before, Broken Nose’s production of At the Table, which Brownson produced and acted in, had won numerous awards, including coveted Jeff Awards for best production and best ensemble.

Brownson set aside the speech he’d hastily written on the back of his invitation. Instead, he spoke from his heart: “At a time when we are more divided than ever, there is a way that story speaks to us that all of the facts, stats, data, arguments and social media posts can’t quite get at.

“We do theatre because we think it’s the greatest cultivator of empathy we possess. Our hope is that in exercising that empathy muscle, our audiences can go out into their communities and have a little more understanding and love for those they come into contact with.”