by Christine Cayer
How many people can say that from the age of 7 they knew what they wanted to do with their life? Browning Sterner can. After attending the NJ Renaissance Festival at 7 with his parents, “I knew that I wanted to go into theater,” Browning says.
Fast forward 19 years. Browning is preparing for the fourth show that he has stage-managed for the theater at the Allens Lane Art Center in West Mt. Airy. Opening Jan. 16 was “Best of Enemies” by Mark St. Germain, directed by Nancy Krieder.
Having a resident stage manager is something new for Allens Lane. Browning stage-managed last season’s “When She Danced” as a volunteer. Craig Stover, director of the Center, then invited Browning to join the Allens Lane team. “I wanted the consistency of a resident stage manager,” Stover said. “Each show has a different director, and for some it is their first time directing at Allens Lane.”
Getting here has had its share of challenges for Browning, who is named after a distant uncle. (“My family recycles names,” he says with a laugh.) But he takes everything in stride, albeit with an uneven gait. You see, Browning Sterner has athetoid cerebral palsy “CP,” a movement disorder which causes abnormal muscle tone, which in turn causes bone deformities.
At 13 months of age, Browning had a stroke. It’s not clear whether the stroke caused the CP, but he was diagnosed with it shortly afterwards. The stroke left Browning legally blind, but he recovered his sight six months later. “Now I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t need glasses”, he jokes. He’s had two derotational osteotomies, major surgeries that involved breaking a hip and pelvis, correctly aligning the bones and being in a body cast for months. At 19, he had tendons transferred on his right leg to further improve his walking. Despite all of this, Browning graduated from Temple U. in 2012 as a theater major with a history minor.
Now 26, Browning’s ready, boyish smile and affable manner bely the fact that although he can walk unassisted, he can’t stand up for extended periods of time and can’t drive. He sometimes has problems with balance. There’s no denying that CP has affected Browning’s career path. Realistic about his limitations, he picks theater opportunities accordingly.
Browning enjoys acting but sees more opportunities for him in film, with its short “takes” and “where you can sort of create your own character.” Browning was an extra in the TV pilot for “How to Get Away with Murder.” Improvisation is another avenue that Browning is exploring. He is taking “Improv 101” with Philly Improv. After two more classes, he will be able to audition for a place in the troupe.
Browning took a stage-managing class at Temple and gained some experience there. “The stage manager is the first one to arrive at the theater and the last one to leave,” explained Browning. “My job is to enforce what the director wants done.” Browning attends rehearsals and keeps a log for the director of what worked and what didn’t.
Nancy Krieder, director of the upcoming “Best of Enemies,” said, “It’s great to have another set of eyes and ears at the rehearsals.” Browning plans for anything that could go wrong. “I even know where the first aid kit is, just in case,” he said. Once the actors are “off book,” he feeds them lines should they need a cue during rehearsal. During the run of the show, Browning gives feedback to the actors when the director is not in attendance.
At Temple, after some classes in technical design, he managed lights and sound for school productions for two years. After college, Browning was the assistant lighting designer for “Gideon’s Knot” at Philadelphia’s Interact Theater and got some additional lighting experience at Stagecrafters in Chestnut Hill.
Up in the booth with the lighting and sound boards is where Browning is “most at home.” The booth at Allens Lane is accessed by a nearly vertical set of metal steps with serrated edges. During rehearsals and leading up to showtime, Browning may have to navigate these rather intimidating steps many times. He laughingly says, “I’ve fallen down them [the steps] a few times, but I bounce back quickly!”
Mike Lucek does most of the lighting design for Allens Lane, but Browning is in the booth for tech rehearsals and during the run. In the booth, “sometimes I get hungry because I can smell the food that people are eating down in the theater!” (Patrons are invited to bring food and beverages to enjoy during Allens Lane shows.)
“Allens Lane is great for networking and gaining experience,” Browning said. “With each show, I meet new people.” It’s been a great ride so far. This season’s directors concur that Browning is a pleasure to work with. As Noelle Nettl, director of this season’s “Table Manners,” said, “Allens Lane is lucky to have Browning Sterner.”
“Best of Enemies” runs through Jan. 31 in the theater at Allens Lane Art Center. Based on a true story, it is about the unlikely alliance of a civil rights activist and a KKK leader. Tickets are $20 with reservations. Patrons are invited to bring in food and beverages (BYOB) to enjoy before the show. For tickets, visit allenslane.org or call 215-248-0546.
Christine Cayer, a resident of Glenside, is a long-time Allens Lane Art Center theater subscriber.