by Stephanie Powell
“I don’t want to see that you can cry on cue—I just want to know that you can look like a person checking into a fucking hotel.” Ann Brebner laughs as she describes the gravest mistake nascent actors commit during auditions.
To label Brebner an instrumental force in Marin’s film and theater scene is to undermine the breadth of her work. Soft-spoken with a warm New Zealand accent and a backing of innumerable accomplishments, it’s hard to avoid hanging onto each word Brebner delivers.
On a Monday afternoon in early November Brebner agrees to meet for tea and, after selecting a noncaffeinated option, we sit in front of the fire and she asks, “So what are we talking about today?”
Fair enough. Perhaps we are talking about Ann’s first entirely original play Dead Girl— she dropped the “The” from its title that very morning—or maybe her provincial and illustrious work at San Francisco’s Brebner Agency as a casting agent, where she commanded the local movie scene in the early ’60s and ’70s. Or we could have gathered to talk about her influential role in the acquisition and reopening, in 1999, of the historic art-deco era Rafael Theater—now known as the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center—where the popular Mill Valley Film Festival takes place. Maybe the topic of discussion is her 1961 contribution to the local theater scene with the establishment of the Marin Shakespeare Festival (planting the seeds of the Marin Shakespeare Company). But, really, the reason I’m sipping warm tea with the modest Ann on a chilly fall afternoon is to discuss all of the aforementioned milestones and more, that led to her recently being named the recipient of the Pacific Sun‘s Heroes of Marin Art and Culture Award. Clearly, she’s an overqualified recipient.
So how is it that a native New Zealander—who studied theater at the prestigious Old Vic in London—settles in Marin? We have her spontaneity to thank for that—and maybe her intuition, which she credits when deciding how to select the next step in any situation. And, of course, love.
Ann fell in love at the Old Vic with one of her professors, John Brebner, who had just spent a year studying at Stanford and had fallen in love with Sausalito during his time in the states. In 1952 they moved to Marin. “I knew no one in the country at all except for one man to whom I’d been married for a week!” Brebner recalls.
Risk-taking is something that’s worked for her and Marin’s art and culture has certainly swelled thanks to her decision to call Marin home. With a stream of credits behind her, don’t expect Brebner to slow down anytime soon. To the concerned folks who question her pace of work and ask when she’ll find the time to retire she replies, “Huh? Why?”
Yes, there is still more Brebner hopes to tackle. She is currently writing her second entirely original play—which, like Dead Girl, stems from a dream she had. The four-generational play’s current working title is Shoes (that’s subject to change she stresses). As for roles, Brebner’s tried them all. From screenwriting, directing and acting (she was the lead in an adaptation of The Curious Savage) to casting George Lucas’ first two films, discovering Danny Glover and earning a degree in abnormal psychology—there are few creative hats which Brebner hasn’t donned. So what does she like best?
“I think I like directing best,” Brebner muses. “Well, for one thing I know how to do it!”
Brebner enjoys the ability to create “a circumstance and feeling” for each individual audience. “Performances are repeated, but they are each slightly different because of the audience,” Brebner explains. “Their pressure points are different and their hearts have been assaulted by different things.”
And she’s responsible for bringing a whole lot more of those feelings to Marin audiences through the medium of film with the CFI’s purchase of the Rafael Theater, now an independent film mecca for the avid movie buff.
“It is very much the image that Mark [Fishkin] and I had,” Brebner says. “[The Rafael Film Center] is very much fulfilling that, and one of the best things for me is to sit there and hear people say, ‘This is our theater or this is my theater.’ And the other big thing about it is: It is easier to fund a film than it is to get it shown in a theater,” Ann explains.
“There are a hell of a lot of good films out there that are not being shown,” she says, pointing out that one of the hardest things for a burgeoning filmmaker is to find a venue for their work. “And we wanted to create a place where emerging filmmakers could get their work shown under ideal conditions. And that’s part of the program. It has now taken on its own life, and it is ours.”
Brebner celebrated her 90th birthday this August at Skywalker Ranch. With more than 180 guests in attendance, Brebner described the occasion as an event that was “one of a kind, one I will never, ever forget every detail of.” As she stares into the distance hugging her mug for warmth, her reflections are nearly tangible.
“It’s been a really interesting life. And the interesting thing about 90 is—somebody asked me what it felt like—and I didn’t answer, I said, ‘I have no idea what it feels like,'” Brebner explains. “But when I wrote to George [Lucas] saying thank you I said, ‘it feels sort of like kindergarten—you have no idea what the fuck is going to happen—none…'”
Brebner laughs and adds, “I mean you may die tomorrow, [or] you may be writing five more plays—and what encourages this is a secret of all creative work, which is being present in the moment because it may be all we have.
“It’s sort of intriguing—it’s very freeing. I don’t feel bound by anything much at all. And I’m lucky I continue to do what I want to do.”
• Brebner is a senior peer counselor in the HOPE Program. Each week she visits clients who have fallen through the cracks or with no family left.
• The first film she cast was George Seaton’s The Pleasure of His Company starring Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds and Tab Hunter.
• Brebner received her acceptance letter for the Old Vic in London and to medical school on the same day. She chose the Old Vic, disappointing her father.
• Brebner is getting ready to start directing Riverbride, which came out of the AlterTheater’s writers’ lab. It will open at the end of January.
• The Brebner Agency cast hits like Bullit, Harold and Maude, THX-1138 and American Grafitti.
• Brebner helped sway the City of San Rafael to sell the Rafael Theater to the California Film Institute for $1.