What do Guiding Light, Bye Bye Birdie, and Oleanna all have in common? Arlington-raised actor, director, and producer Ryan Brown, who is one-half of Sweet Apple Productions with Jennifer Bangs.
Brown and Bangs first met at Shackelford Junior High School, where Bangs played Kim and Brown played Hugo in the school musical about an Elvis-type singer who visits a small town — that's where the name Sweet Apple comes from. Coincidentally, Brown is also the son of best-selling romance and thriller author Sandra Brown, who still resides in Arlington.
"I had such a crush on him in school, but we were never really that close," confesses Bangs.
Ryan Brown went on to book featured roles in two soap operas, Guiding Light and The Young and The Restless, while Bangs wrote, produced, and performed in two successful solo shows and still hosts a podcast.
The pair reconnected in New York City during the pandemic, thanks to a Facebook friend suggestion, and began a production company producing music videos and filmed podcasts. In the last 18 months, both found themselves back in Dallas-Fort Worth and ready for a new challenge.
"We thought, 'why not continue this partnership and expand into theater?'" says Brown.
Their first production is David Mamet's Oleanna, which runs March 30-April 2 in Stage West's performance space in Fort Worth.
The 1992 two-character play is a power struggle between a college professor and one of his female students, who accuses him of sexual harassment. Brown plays the professor, and Bangs directs.
"I studied film and drama at OU in the early ‘90s, and OU did the show while he was there," says Brown. "It was a new play at the time and its script really spoke to me. But what impressed me almost as much as the show was the talkback after — I had never seen an audience have such a visceral reaction, or be so split down the middle about whose 'side' to take. I thought how I’d love to do this play, but it’s an old guy and college-age girl — 30 years later, I guess I've aged into the role."
At the time of Oleanna's debut, America was glued to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. Now, the #MeToo movement has gathered steam, Harvey Weinstein is in jail for sexual abuse, and former President Donald Trump is supposedly about to be indicted for his illegal payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
"It struck me as odd that Mamet, who just last year wrote a short story objecting to social media moderation of right-wing politicians like Donald Trump, decided to tackle a subject like this," says Brown. "And even more interesting, he didn't take a stance with this play. The ending doesn't declare who is right or wrong."
Bangs points out that Mamet has now banned talkbacks from his plays. To help audience members who may want their opinions to still be heard, the Sweet Apple website has a section titled "Which Side Did You Take?" that leads to a poll. (Interesting side note: A popular tagline for the play is "Whatever side you take, you're wrong.")
"On one hand he’s an artist creating something, and on the other hand he's censoring it," Bangs reflects. "We're all watching the same thing play out in real time, but it's fascinating how differently everyone sees it."
There are no immediate plans to announce a full season, but Brown and Bangs say they are already eyeing their next possible production.
"We're considering doing Children of a Lesser God, and would be really excited to work with the local deaf community and actors who sign," says Bangs.
"It's another play that's on my bucket list," says Brown. "What really pushed us to explore it was receiving a self-tape from a deaf actor who signed her audition for Oleanna. We've already been speaking to her about the possibility of working with us, and it's really something we want to explore."
Another reason to hold off on an official season is that the duo don't want Sweet Apple Productions to be limited to theater.
"We're presenting ourselves as an alternative production company," says Bangs. "When COVID hit, everything shut down but we did not. We want to continue making art no matter what."
Tickets for Oleanna range from $25-$35 and can be purchased here.
Photo courtesy of Sweet Apple Productions