Bringing his story to the stage has been a strange experience for playwright and Schenectady native Brian Sheldon.
“Custom Cuts,” a play inspired by Sheldon’s family that takes place in the Goose Hill neighborhood in which he he grew up, premieres Thursday at Albany Barn. Produced by Harbinger Theatre, it’s not the first premiere of Sheldon’s career — but it’s the most autobiographical, exploring his tumultuous relationship with his father.
“This is the first one that I’m reeling over,” Sheldon said. “It has to be because it’s based on my life.”
Sheldon, who is executive director of the Sand Lake Center for the Arts in Averill Park, grew up on Nott Street and attended Schenectady High School. There the 2001 graduate got hooked on theater with the Blue Roses Theatre Company, and even though he was a self-proclaimed terrible student, he thrived in that world.
“People say, ‘What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you?’ And, up until my wife and my son, it was theater,” Sheldon said.
He studied the art form at SUNY Schenectady County Community College and later at Russell Sage College in Troy, and remained involved in the local theater community. He’s written a few plays over the years and was urged by actor, friend and mentor David Bunce to explore more personal territory in his work.
“He’s always said the same thing, ‘You gotta write yourself. You have all these cool stories about your upbringing, where you grew up. … Once you write you, you’ll be able to build characters that are more dynamic.’ And I think he was right,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon worked on the play in earnest during the pandemic after starting it in a playwright group at Sand Lake Center for the Arts.
The story follows a father and son who live in a small Schenectady apartment. Danny, the father, struggles to sweep up the remnants of his failed salon business. Anthony, his son, is a full-time cosmetology student who is also working a full-time factory job. Danny, though loved by his clients, is abusive toward Anthony, and tensions between the two rise as Danny’s financial debts pile up.
Meanwhile, Anthony’s sister, Jo, wants to have both Danny and her stepfather, Al, walk her down the aisle at her wedding. But Danny’s pride gets in the way, and the divide between Al and Danny tests Anthony’s loyalty, opening the door to his personal and professional freedom.
“‘Custom Cuts’ is about learning who you are and having the courage to trust yourself,” Sheldon said.
The characters have fictional names and some of the details aren’t reflective of Sheldon’s life, but the core of the story remains true.
“The main character is based on me and a lot of these things in the play did happen. My father … he’s rough. He has been abusive, but some of that is heightened to further affect the story,” Sheldon said.
“This character [Danny] is extremely, in my opinion, bipolar. So he switches on a dime — he can be terribly loving one second and mind-numbingly abusive in the next. And then right after, he can go right back into a smile and sunshine. I think that’s what makes him dynamic, and it makes it a lot of fun for the actor to play,” Sheldon said.
Danny is played by Peter Delocis. He performs alongside Aaliyah Al-Fuhaid as Jo, Debby Bercier as Janet, Tyler Cardona as Anthony, Gabriel Fabian as Matt and Jason Stewart (Stone) as Al. The show is directed by Angela Ledtke.
When Harbinger, a local theater company known for presenting progressive premieres, first reached out to Ledtke about directing the play, she took time to pore through it before getting on board.
“I had to think about it, because on the surface it’s violent. But every person’s story deserves to be told, and I just felt like I could help tell the story in a way that serves our community,” Ledtke said.
She hopes the production draws younger audiences, especially those who might be struggling with managing trauma.
“What Brian was able to do and what I think we can all take a lesson from is using art to accept our pain, acknowledge it, grieve it, and then take action and do something about it, rather than letting it eat us alive,” Ledtke said. “I think kids these days, they just dive right into social media and they close themselves off from the real world. I hope his story encourages someone else to take a stand, stand up for themselves [and] to find their happiness by taking action.”
Hope is infused in the play’s ending, with Danny potentially heading toward a better path. That hopeful ending rings true for Sheldon. He speaks lovingly about his father and says their relationship has changed over the years.
“I understand that some people [who] have gone through the same upbringing as me make a choice to walk away from relationships and I tend not to do that. I tend to try to salvage it as much as possible,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon praised Ledtke for casting a diverse lineup of actors, many of whom come to Harbinger for the first time.
When The Gazette caught up with Sheldon, he’d seen a run-through of the production and noted that the cast made him realize the universality of his story.
“It opened my eyes to this is my story, this actually happened. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to every other demographic, socially, and racially, in our country,” Sheldon said.
He hopes audience members will leave willing to take a chance on themselves.
“We’re not going to Broadway with this production, but this is a big step. My hope is that people see it and just take a chance on themselves, do something that scares [them],” Sheldon said.
“Teachers at Schenectady High would tell you I was a terrible student. I was a nice kid but I had bad grades. I barely graduated high school and I’m a playwright and an executive for an arts center. And my hope is that people will see that [who] maybe come from my background and see something in themselves.”
WHEN: Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 30; 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Albany Barn, 56 2nd Ave., Albany
MORE INFO: See Harbinger Theatre’s Eventbrite
NOTE: There will be a free preview at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, with talkbacks on Friday and Sept. 29.