"My dad was Lear," says Tom Bradac, who is stepping down after this summer as artistic director of Orange County's lone troupe dedicated to classical work, Shakespeare Orange County in Garden Grove. "Just full of rage. I'd get yelled at if I hurt myself. I think that's why I was so shy as a child."
Yet that shyness blossomed when Bradac was exposed to the works of the Bard in a high-school English class, and then decided to try out for a role in a production of Macbeth as a junior. He landed the lead, and even though his first performance was a blur, he "realized at that time that this is what I was going to do," he recalls. "It was the first thing I ever discovered by myself. I completely got it, that [acting] was more than showing off in front of people; it was an art form, and I could express myself in ways I couldn't in any other way."
That led Bradac to Cal State Long Beach, where, ironically, he didn't act in any Shakespeare productions. It was the late 1960s, and the experimental works of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud were on everyone's radar. After graduating with a master's degree in theater, he taught high-school theater for five years before scraping together what savings he had and producing summer stock in Pennsylvania, mounting fare a far cry from heady classic or experimental stuff, such as The Sound of Music. Though the material he was producing wasn't exactly artistically challenging, the experience of running a seasonal troupe was prepping him for the gig he landed in 1979, producer at the city of Garden Grove's new arts complex, which included the 158-seat indoor Gem Theater and the soon-to-be-opened, 550-seat Festival Amphitheatre.
Twelfth Night at Garden Grove Festival Amphitheatre, 12762 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 744-7016; www.shakespeareoc.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8:15 p.m. Through Aug. 3. Also, Macbeth, Aug. 15-Aug. 31. $33-$35; pay-what-you-will, every Thurs.
"I just stumbled into the job," he says. "I saw the city had posted a job opening, and I thought it was just for a glorified stage manager. But it turned out that I was the only person who applied who had ever run a theater, so I got the job."
That was the first step toward the Grove Shakespeare Festival, a professional troupe Bradac ran for 12 years before resigning (under duress) in the summer of 1991 due to philosophical differences with the board. That decision proved near-disastrous for the city, as the new operator wound up in a $400,000 hole, according to Bradac, and suspended operations in 1993. Meanwhile, Bradac, now teaching theater at Chapman University, had started a new company, Shakespeare Orange County (SOC), which opened in late 1991. He produced shows in the university's Waltmar Theater for 12 years before being asked to return to Garden Grove in 2004. Upon his return, he realized the amphitheater, which had been closed for five years, was a mess. "There was garbage 2 feet deep, the lighting fixtures has been left out and were all rusted inside," he says.
The transplanted SOC cleaned up the amphitheater, something Bradac counts as one of his major accomplishments, since it basically preserved the space. Another victory of sorts came in 2006, when the city was thinking of tearing down the Gem. Bradac produced A Child's Christmas In Wales, and its success showed the city "that the space was still viable," he says. It is now occupied by One More Productions.
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Bradac is stepping down as producer (though he still plans on directing and perhaps even getting back onstage), but SOC will continue. The theater is firmly in the black, he says, and he's handing the reins to longtime SOC actor John Walcutt, who has 73 film and TV credits on his résumé. "It's just time," says Bradac, who turns 66 on July 30. "Emotionally, it's hard, but intellectually, I just know it's the right decision. We've been here 10 years now, and that's a nice, round number, and I'm not leaving a theater that is in disarray."
Bradac is directing both shows this summer, including Twelfth Night and his finale as artistic director, Macbeth, which brings things full circle, as that was the play that ignited his lifelong passion. (Oh, and this Shakespeare expert has a one-word answer for whether a man named William Shakespeare really wrote all those plays: "Absolutely.") If there has been a through line to all of Bradac's Shakespeare work, it's consistency. He is a purist in that he doesn't believe in conceptualizing the Bard's works to make them more relevant to modern sensibilities, nor does he think Shakespeare should be treated with the formal reverence that plagues so many bad productions.
"Remember, Shakespeare was someone who wrote plays that were performed in playhouses and his actors were called players," he says. People tend to forget how earthy and grounded in genuine human emotion Shakespeare's plays are, something Bradac has spent most of his adult life getting across.
"Shakespeare didn't write subtext," he adds. "Everything he's saying is in the words, and by approaching him with honesty and finding your truth in the character, you merely reinforce the depth of his art and how outrageous, sexy and contentious it still remains today."