Matthew Alvin Brown’s Strategy for Lyric’s RoKademy

Apr 16, 2019

Matthew Alvin Brown in Lyric’s I AM MY OWN WIFE (left) & HELLO, DOLLY! (right) • Photos by KO Rinearson

If you regularly attend shows at Lyric, you’ll surely recognize Matthew Alvin Brown. An active member of Oklahoma’s theatre and music scene, Brown’s resume includes everything from the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife. This multi-hyphenate actor-director-singer-guitar player has one discipline that some may not be familiar with: teacher.

For years, Brown has helped budding teenage instrumentalists develop their rock music skills through The RoKademy Experiment, a unique component of the curriculum offered through the Thelma Gaylord Academy. Even though many students have now passed through the doors of the program, it’s still described as an “experiment” because of improvisational beginnings and the evolving nature of the initiative.

“Ten years ago, we just assembled these kids who auditioned at different skill levels. And then we came up with a show full of songs from preexisting bands, and put a plot to it and did a little jukebox musical. And that was the first experiment,” Brown explained. After a second session using the same format, the kids were ready for more. “They started to get a little more adventurous.”

Brown could tell that they were interested in other things, besides just playing music. He said the RoKademy students “were interested in every aspect of art, visual art, performing art, technical, mixing, recording, the sound, all of it. They were all interested in everything!”

That’s when Brown and Stephen Hilton, director of Lyric’s academy at the time, began playing around with new things to try the RoKademy program. These trials eventually led to the concept of performing an entire rock album at the end of each session. “I think once we started doing albums is kind of when it locked into the structure that we needed,” Brown offered. “It gives us a structure, but then frees us to do anything we want to within that.”

Young musicians who enroll in RoKademy will likely experience a level of collaboration that isn’t common elsewhere. “I let them know right off the bat, that it’s gonna be weird,” Brown said. “It’s going to seem like there’s no structure for a really long time. You’re going to feel lost and probably overwhelmed because it won’t make any sense. Because you’re going to see all these other kids that are sort of on this other planet speaking this other language, but I promise you’ll get it.

“If you just play… you will get it. I’ve seen so many young artists who are now grown adults being absolutely petrified to speak at all, and just because of RoKademy–they’ve told me this–because of the experience of being allowed to be weird and, and be crazy if you need to be crazy That experience helps them.”

Whether it’s producing an original RoKademy show inspired by a classic album, or dancing around the passerelle, Brown finds inspiration in one well-known lyric: Don’t dream it. Be it. This famous phrase appears toward the end of The Rocky Horror Show, a musical with which Brown is very familiar. He’s played Riff Raff once, Brad twice, directed an innovative side-show inspired production, and probably a lot of other capacities we didn’t have time to cover.

“I think Rocky Horror has saved a lot of people’s lives to tell you the truth. Rocky Horror can speak to some weird people, and it can make normal people have a night out and see what the real weird people are really diggin’,” Brown observed.

“Ultimately the ‘don’t dream it be it’ thing in [the floor show] is set to such a beautiful melody in such a silly show that I think you just have to take that seriously. It’s unfortunate when people knock it because I think it’s absolutely just silly, silly, fun, fun, silly, innocent titillating dum dum dum rock and roll rock and roll. And then at the end, you find out and that’s okay, man. If that’s your dream–do it.”

Brown has been an actor with Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma since 1993. He is also a founding member of rock collective, The Fellowship Students. His concept album Rainbow Around the Sun was recorded in 2006 and later adapted into a motion picture rock opera in 2008. In 2009, the movie was adapted into a live stage show, which had its world premiere at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

A lot has changed for Brown since the days of Rainbow Around the Sun. He said, “I’ve been free of alcohol for three years, four months and 15 days. And it’s improved my life immensely. I’m also vegan.” This shift was a surprise to me, because the last time we had lunch together, his backpack was full of Slim Jim’s and string cheese. I asked him for his top recommendation on vegan to-go food: “I normally like to go to Red Cup and just get a good old salad but any tofu scramble anywhere around here, Rodney, is going to be something I’m gonna like.”

After 26 years with Lyric Theatre, Brown’s been a part of who-knows-how-many projects. A few stand out as favorites, including Assassins and a recent addition to his resume. “Honestly, Hello, Dolly! Last summer was so good for my soul. There’s just something about that show. I love musicals. I think there is nothing wrong about Hello Dolly! at all. And I think that musical comedy when it’s done right is beautiful and it just thrills me.”

But his role as an educational rock star rests at the top of the heap: “I think RoKademy is my favorite gig. Because, in addition to giving the students a chance to be creative and unbridled–here’s a secret–it gives me that chance, too. Because it’s a job, but it’s not a job. Last night, we were playing, and I was playing guitar with the band. And I was like, ‘Man, this is my favorite band.’

‘It’s because when everyone is just locked in, you look around, every single one of these humans is dedicated to this moment, right now playing this complicated album. I was grateful for that. And I think that the gratitude is something that we need, as artists, because we spend a lot of our time looking for the next thing or being jealous of this thing that’s not maybe here in this town. So gratitude is always on the forefront. And I think we should always look at that. That’s healthy. So I think it’s good for my health.

– Rodney Brazil, writer & arts blogger

RoKademy Experiment Presents: The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
April 22nd at 8pm • April 23rd at 7pm & 9pm
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