Thursday, October 4, 2012

Why Broadway Needs the Independent Theater Community - Brad Burgess on the NYLit Fund

"I see this project revolutionizing arts funding in this country and being the tip of an iceberg that will improve our entire country's culture."
-Brad Burgess
Actor, Advocate

How did you get involved with the League of Independent Theater Fund?

John Clancy emailed me about a month ago to ask me about some things I had said at the Players Club several years ago, when I first addressed the independent theater community after Judith Malina spoke about crisis management (at the last minute, in place of her good friend Olympia Dukakis, who is also very supportive of all of this stuff, and just a great advocate for theatre in this city and country and world wherever she is).

Tell us about your major/minor league model for theater funding.

 Those of us not on Broadway, do not necessarily want to go to Broadway. We can do and say things outside Broadways confines. However, like sports, the people on Broadway are developed outside of Broadway, so just like the majors need the minors, Broadway needs us, even though some of us don't really intend on being there. There are too many examples to name from the Living Theatre, La Mama and TNC alone, that it's pretty clear this is the case. Just read Martin Sheen's story of how he got his Equity Card, right on their website.

How can we make this mutually beneficial relationship happen?

It is going to happen for the above reason alone. If not immediately, Broadway will see how absolutely cheap an idea this is, compared to what we really could be asking for, once you really understand the answer to the above question. Otherwise, other cities that support the arts will do stuff like this first, and NYC will have to do it later. But, there are too many smart people for that not to happen here pretty quickly, I think. Judith Malina and Edward Albee said so...what else do you need to know? They know best.

What is your background as a theater artist?

I'm gonna give you the whole story, hard to separate it out in any way.

I started theatre in high school in response to my early retirement as a ball player, ha! I looked at my chances at 5 foot nothing and 100 pounds as a freshman and realized my time had come to try something else, as I could no longer be excellent in sports, and in fact, stood probably to get hurt if I continued to participate, haha.

My favorite teacher in high school, and my first mentor, Mr. Tom Murphy, was the head of the drama club. I loved performance because of sports, and rehearsals were like practice. He suggested I try it. It was a natural fit but I was not sold permanently on it for a while.

I was president of the debate club for a while. I wasn't going to do theatre in college and was a psychology, education and literature major at Hampshire College.

Someone I knew told me her sister was stage managing a play at Smith College and they needed guys. So I went and auditioned and got a part in Mother Courage as Swiss Cheese, loved it, but was focused on school, so that was that.

Then, I got a call to go to a callback for an audition I hadn't even attended, at Smith, so I felt obligated to go and the director offered me this part on the spot based on Mother Courage, and gave such a speech, I couldn't say no. It was Alan in Equus (before Radcliff) and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

After that, which was just a huge success beyond what I ever imagined - first time male nudity had been presented at a Smith College mainstage production in its 100 year history but I thought I would be a musician, and was not sold on the whole thing. I was at least convinced I wanted to be an artist of some sort.

Then, before I was to go on tour with a band, I got a call from someone saying a theater in Key West needed an Alan, and they were recommending me, and before I knew it, I had the part and was leaving college in the middle of my sophomore year, to go be paid to act in Key West. I was doing another part at Smith, and also received this incredible recommendation from a Russian director Venyemin Smekov, who gave me the courage to just go for it, kind of, "wow, if this guy, who has worked all over the world thinks this, I have to go to Key West and try this out with adults."

After Key West invited me back to do The Graduate, someone mysterious named Harvey Rockman, from Key West, called me and started to connect me to people in New York. Driving to NYC and Long Island to meet with important producers, famous actors etc. The one connection that stuck was Sondra Lee, an amazing acting coach. The first thing she ever said to me, when I walked into class before I even made it around to the stage to look her in the face, was "I hear you are doing The Graduate, I remember coaching Dustin before he did the role and..." I was into it.

I studied with Sondra for a year hard, and we hit it off. Then, browsing Craigslist I found, amidst the 90% porn auditions, something called The Brig. Then I read Judith's essay on The Brig. It blew my mind. I knew I had to be in this play and in this company (that I had never heard of). I went to the auditions, busted my ass in those extremely physical and psychological trials and tryouts, and I new I was going to get it.

We opened The Living Theatre on Clinton Street, won two Obies for the production, then took it to L.A. to the same critical praise. Came back from L.A. to sleep on the risers at the theatre, and a week later Hanon had a stroke, I was in the back of an ambulance with Judith, and he was dead one month later, just as we were about to move him to physical therapy and rehabilitation.

I have lived and worked with Judith for almost exactly 4 years since, and all that that comes with is the entirety of my theatrical experience.

What can the average Joe/sephina do to help?

Attend more theatre. Get more cultured. Challenge their personal standards and opintions and become involved in the arts, which are a necessary part of life. In fact, with better arts and culture, including education, every other industry stands to improve from smarter, enlightened individuals.

Brad Burgess is the executive producer and associate artistic director at The Living Theatre.  Since 2008 he has taken care of Judith Malina and been her assistant, student, collaborator and friend. Shake your money maker here for more information.

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