His name has been synonymous with quality theatre for over 30 years, but has he still got what it takes?
As soon as we are seated at the buzzing yum cha hideaway, The Red Emperor, Chris Bradtke is noticeably on guard. He glances repeatedly at the recording device I’ve placed in front of him and as such, he chooses his words carefully. He apologises for not having the time to vet our last interview, several years ago now, but makes it clear, he won’t make the same mistake again. He’s not aggressive about it, more apologetic for letting himself slip somewhere along the line. He briefly recounts assertions made in the last interview, comments that I considered compliments at the time. His memory is like a steel trap and nothing escapes him. As far as journalists go, I’d always considered myself to be less Hinch, more Oprah, but clearly I’d hit on a nerve at some point. I think the offending comment may have been when I referred to him as the master of the period piece, a suggestion that he felt was perhaps too a little judgmental on his talent overall.
There’s no doubt that this theatre stalwart has gathered an impressive body of work and he’s got more than a few awards on his mantle. If there’s a big new show opening in community theatre, his name is more often than not attached to it. He’s a feather in the cap for many companies and they are only too happy to brag about their “multi award winning” talent, perhaps none more so boastful than the rising star of the Vic Am scene, Old Scotch Music and Drama Club (OSMaD). You’d think he’d be somewhat comfortable about his stature in the industry, but when faced with the question, he’s anything but. He sighs as he looks into his yum cha bowl “I feel the pressure all the time. I try my best to put that out of my mind, but I do feel that certain doubt as to whether this thing I’ve been sweating over is going to, in reality, be just really bad. Every show, I think “this is it… this is that bad moment. Sure there are shows that I’ve winced over at some point and I’ve never let that go. I don’t think that as a director and a self critic you can just let those mistakes go. You learn from them. ”
While he may have an impressive creative mind, he’s a diplomat first and foremost. As the conversation progresses, it becomes apparent that he’s just as skillful managing people, as he is managing on stage action as he is the behind the scenes drama. “It’s up to you (as a director) to control the on stage movement and get the text right, sure, but it’s really about being in control of the whole production and being almost a step head of people, so they are not going ahead and doing their own thing. People are generally well intentioned, but to get everyone working cohesively, you must ensure that they are working to the tune that the director has set. “
So why leave the relatively safe confines of CLOC to join this comparably new company? Bradtke is quick to respond. “Well it is difficult, more so in terms of the fact that people tend to associate the company OSMAD, with the school – Scotch College, but it’s actually an open company, meaning that anyone is free to join, not just ex students. The other thing to contend with is that most people tend to associate schools with children, young kids, but they are working hard to try and change that image.
The theatre is lovely, seating around 450 to 480 people with a beautiful rake, it’s superbly equipped, backstage is fantastic and it has lots of fly lines. It’s definitely an attraction. That Hawthorn/Camberwell area is a fantastic demographic for theatre audiences. ” He continues, “working with each company brings its own challenges. When you go in to work with a big company, you know that you are going to work in with its infrastructure and personally, I don’t try to fight that. I think it’s a plus, if you can harness it and use it to your advantage. As a director, strength of character at some point becomes very important. If you have a vision and you know where you are going and the other people around you aren’t necessarily on that journey and they are really doing it because of the “mechanics” of what happens, then I think the director has to be strong in some way, not to force, but to find a way to ensure that the vision has been carried through. You can’t just walk in and say “this is how it’s going to be” and “it shouldn’t be that way”. You are harnessing people’s abilities and you are directing that ability, not simply dictating it. ”
Sweeney Todd is well known to theatre people all over the world and let’s face it, it’s a production that tends to take on a similar look and feel in most versions. In true Bradtke fashion, always humble, never boastful, he responds “I’d like to think that we are taking a very fresh approach to Sweeney. I'm joined on the production team with the amazingly talented Ben Hudson as MD and I do have to say that I think Lee Threadgold is a superb Sweeney. He’s really lived up to the huge potential of the role and has a huge presence about him and he’s a marvelous actor. There have been versions of Sweeney that have been superbly sung, but somehow don’t have the drama that an actor/singer like Lee will bring to it. The company is very enthusiastic about presenting this work. I think it’s a challenge for them. The set, designed by Brenton Staples is ambitious indeed and has a strong industrial feel to it. Without the comfort of massive production facilities to carry out the vision, it’s going to be a mammoth task for Old Scotch to execute the technical requirements of the show. It’s something that CLOC and Whitehorse were able to do, as they have a long history as to how they can build things, but this is a company that’s very new on the scene. So, there are challenges, but it’s got a lot going for it. ”
“With most Sondheim I see, I can see the actors working extremely hard to come to terms with lyric and intervals and the performance value is lost sometimes, as they are so focused on getting it right, that they lose the drama of the piece somewhere along the way. That reality, that perception is something that’s very evident in rehearsals, but we need to get it to the stage beyond just remembering things and get it to the stage where we can forget about remembering things, the technical, pitch etc and just get on and perform it. It’s not 42nd Street or Hello Dolly, where the show jumps to performance level quickly, you can’t just pull a show together like this overnight. ”
We segue to the topic of Sunset Boulevard, the 2012 production he’s scheduled to direct for the formidable theatre force, CLOC. The conversation takes a much more serious tone. Clearly, this is a show that Chris is taking very seriously. “There are shows that are on a director’s list and this is one that’s been on mine for a very long time. As far as Lloyd Webber goes, it’s one of his best. I love the drama and CLOC have the resources and the know how to execute it very well. ”
Based on some unsubstantiated rumours I’d heard in a foyer somewhere, I posed the question as to whether or not there was an international man hunt staged for legendary leading lady Liz Dark to play the role of Norma Desmond. Bradtke erupts in a fit of laughter. “One learns as a director, never to pre cast. You just don’t know when those people come along to audition and you haven’t seen them for a while and you think… hmmm” He’s of course alluding to the fact that he thinks they’ve perhaps slipped a rung or two on the talent ladder, but ever the diplomat, he refuses to finish the sentence. “As you know, we have a depth of musical theatre talent in this state. There are a lot of people around who could do it. Big roles like that in a high profile production, often attract good people. I think there will be stiff competition for that. I rarely ask people along for auditions because it can backfire. What has to be totally legitimate is the fact that you’ve considered everybody, the way they present, and I mean, I try to put people’s pasts out of my mind. Not to say that you forget that they have the ability to sustain a role or have the runs on the board. That helps if they deliver an audition that isn’t up to the performance standard that you know they are capable of. ” He laughs “You just never know when a person has peaked in their audition do you?”
Show business has changed a lot over the past 30 years and Bradtke has seen it all. When asked what it’s like working with the younger generation of up and comers, he lights up. “Working with younger actors of this era, they take a different approach to the style of directing that some of us are used to. They don’t necessarily want to just be told “stand here and do this”, they want a director to equip them with the tools to allow them to discover it for themselves. There’s much more co operation than there ever was. I think the old idea of autocracy gets people to “do the right thing” [rings true], but it doesn’t allow them to bring much craft. Sometimes the actor can’t be where the director is and can’t see what the director sees. Or in fact what the director wants. For example, I don’t want that particular person to pull focus at that particular point, by walking and standing to draw attention to themselves, but the actor, seeing only their track, may not understand that. Although it’s not cinematic, a director can direct focus to a degree. It’s up to the director to make sure that they stay within the right frame and can, if not see, at least appreciate the whole picture. ”
One can’t have amassed such a body of work over so many years, without having a few battle scars, but Bradtke seems relatively unscathed. Cool, calm and collected as always, he’s got nothing but compliments for everyone he’s ever worked with. He glances a few times at the recording device to ask if it’s still on before answering here and there, so perhaps there’s more to the story than he’s letting on, but he’s more than willing to share the one moment that stands out in his mind as one that was truly a dark moment in his career. “We had a potentially life threatening issue arise when we were staging Barnum. Rod, who was playing Barnum was engaged in a flying fox effect, which ran from one side of the stage to the other. There was some mix up with the signal and he was right on the gantry, very high on the gantry. He was supposed to fly down onto the stage, but the rope supporting him was supposed to be tied on, but it wasn’t and he just fell straight down. Fortunately, there was some sort of tension in the rope, so his fall was broken somewhat, but he pretty much fell straight down from a great height. That was the final dress, but he hurt himself big time. He was very bruised and very shaken, but to his credit, he still went on opening night.”
Even after all these years, Bradtke’s passion and enthusiasm to better himself and push his limits is apparent. “I don’t know why I’m still so passionate about what I do. Perhaps it’s because there are just so many good people out there that I’m keen to work with. I’ve done some wonderful shows and have been given opportunities I would never have gotten as a professional director. I mean, how many Hal Prince’s and Trevor Nunn’s are there in the world? And in a way, I really feel very lucky, because we really get to recreate them in a way. If I was given the opportunity to stage the first Australian production of Les Miserables for example, I would have to effectively recreate what was already there. Sure, you are allowed some scope for creativity, but they are quite packaged in a way. I feel lucky to be able to be so creative. “
If an unwavering commitment to the finished product and an infectious enthusiasm, coupled with a genuine interest in people is what makes a truly great director, then without doubt, Bradtke is one of the true legends of our time. Sweeney Todd promises to be a new, fresh and polished production, crafted by a master… of the period piece.