ACTS OF DEVOTION
The stage is Mitchell Butel’s world and the acclaimed actor, director and teacher loves nothing better than biting off more than he can chew, writes Jane Albert
Midway through a conversation with Mitchell Butel the subject suddenly turns to death. More specifically, his death. To be clear, Butel is in robust health, so there is no impending funeral on the cards. Rather, the actor-director is explaining how the rush of live performance satiates him more than anything else. “Once I’m on stage I’m often the happiest I ever am,” he says. Which leads him to decide that if he could choose his place of death, it would be the stage. “Moliere died on stage, and if I could die on stage I would be a very happy man.” He quickly adds: “So long as I’d just got a big laugh.”
Butel is one of the nation’s hardest working, most diverse actors. He has performed with outfits ranging from Belvoir ( Angels in America), the Melbourne Theatre Company ( Piaf) and the Sydney Theatre Company ( The Republic of Myopia) to Opera Australia ( The Mikado) and independent companies ( A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). So it is gratifying to discover that offstage Butel makes for thoroughly entertaining company. During an hour in his presence, this adept mimic shifts seamlessly from petulant teen to high-camp theatrical performer and on to diva director.
Yet if his parents had had their say, Butel would have performed in an entirely different theatre: the courtroom. The 46-year-old had a working-class upbringing in the southeast Sydney suburb of Maroubra with his milkman turned contract cleaner dad, bookkeeper mum and two siblings. His parents supported him through casual classes at the Australian Theatre for Young People and the PACT Centre for Emerging Artists, but made it clear its purpose was purely recreational.
“I worked hard at school and thought law was what one did; you didn’t go into the arts back then,” Butel says. He looked up to his lawyer cousin Anthony Payne, recently appointed a Supreme Court judge, and decided to follow in his footsteps, enrolling in an arts-law degree at the University of NSW.
During university he continued performing with ATYP — the music theatre production Burger Brain with Toni Collette, Dan Wyllie and Felix Williamson and a creative team of Nick Enright, Dennis Watkins and John “Cha Cha” O’Connell was a particular highlight — and NUTS, the “wanky black T-shirt student theatre group” he joined, proved equally inspiring. But it wasn’t until friend and former director Yaron Lifschitz (now the artistic director of Circa) cast him in the Milan Kundera play Jacques and His Master that the penny dropped: “It was a funny but also very wise and beautiful play and I went, ‘ Oh, this feels completely like the right path to me now’.”
He promptly quit university, much to his parents’ alarm. “It was like the world had ended, for six months. I was working in a call centre and it was kinda hideous,” he recalls.
Then David Atkins took a punt on him and cast Butel in the musical Grease alongside Guy Pearce. Butel went on to perform eight shows a week for 15 months, during which he learned a great deal. It all threatened to end prematurely after Atkins suspended him from the show, not once but twice, for mucking up with fellow teenagers in the cast. Today Butel considers Atkins one of his most important teachers and has never forgotten the lesson he learned. “I remember David saying to me, ‘You’re pretty talented, buddy. You’ll be around for a while. When it’s your moment, go for gold, but when it’s not, shut the f..k up and stop moving.’ ”
Butel went on to do theatre, operetta, music theatre, cabaret, film, television and teaching. He may not have had full-time training but his method seems sound. He soaks up as much as he can from every rehearsal room and director, and has surrounded himself with teachers and mentors, among them Tony Sheldon, Peter Carroll and Pamela Rabe. “I’ve worked with Simon Stone, Marion Potts, Barrie Kosky, Neil Armfield, Simon Phillips. I’ve been very lucky,” he says.
He approaches acting in a studious fashion, reading voraciously about the theatre and theatre-makers, and his conversation is peppered with insightful gems such as “directing is ultimately about play” (British director Mark Rylance) or “a director’s primary function is to infect the cast with the disease of the production” (Broadway director Arthur Laurents).
Butel is also a meticulous reader of reviews and is able to recite, word for word, the worst ones he has received — including one in this newspaper where the reviewer noted: “I’ve seldom spent so empty a night in the theatre.” (“We all thought the show was a bit of a turkey,” Butel confides.)
Clearly his approach works: not only is he regularly getting the call-up, but numerous awards have come his way, including three Helpmann awards for best actor in a musical ( The Venetian Twins, Avenue Q and The Mikado) and two Green Room awards ( Hair and Piaf). It is curious to find, then, that his public profile isn’t stronger. Does it bother him? “Not really,” he says. “I like that I can go under the radar, and I like being able to play a diverse palette. If you become known for your one sweet note, I think you’re limited in terms of what you do. I’ve had my freaks and geeks days in my 20s and I’ve been able to jump from many different boxes. I love that I did a green zombie in Orpheus in the Underworld then a fast-talking intellectual Jewish homosexual in Angels in America.”
Butel has never had a career path per se — who does in the theatre world? — but says he is drawn to diversity and great writing.
“If I don’t consider something well-written I don’t want to be involved in it, which is financially stupid. But I don’t think I’m any good unless the writing is good to begin with. Disgraced is another example of me being a slut for good writing — the writing is electrically good,” he says of the Pulitzer prize-winning play that vari- ous theatre companies are performing. Butel stars in an MTC production scheduled to open in August.
More recently he has turned his hand to directing. Butel revived the American road musical Violet to great acclaim at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre in December before the show toured to Chapel Off Chapel in Melbourne to a similar reception. He is working with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, stage-directing Porgy and Bess in November, but his next directing gig sees him return to his stomping ground at ATYP to work with 17 teens and young adults in the rock musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s groundbreaking 1891 play Spring Awakening. ATYP’s 1984 production starring Nicole Kidman and Felix Williamson was seminal in Butel’s theatre awakening, dealing frankly as it did with issues of masturbation, abortion, sex and sexual assault.
“It blew my mind at the time, the sexual frankness of it,” he says. “But at its centre it’s a rite-of-passage story, that moment when you realise you need to live your own life and not have adults tell you what to do.” Butel’s production, which will be directed in the round, stars Thomasin Litchfield, who performed in a second ATYP production of the show in 1989.
Like teaching, Butel enjoys directing and aims to synthesise all the best bits he’s learned during his career. Above all else he likes to remind his students and cast that acting isn’t a vanity project. “Ultimately you’re in a service industry,” he says. “You’re not performing for yourself, you’re there to provide entertainment, provocation, enlightenment for the audience.”
Which isn’t to say he thinks he has all the answers. Butel admits he is anxious about directing Spring Awakening, but it seems nerves sit comfortably with him. “I feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew — again. But it’s exciting. When I’m terrified I think I do my best work, because I have to pull out every resource from every dark nook and cranny I have.”
is at the ATYP Studio Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney, from April 27 to May 14. The MTC’s production of is at the Arts Centre Melbourne from August 19 to October 1.
Mitchell Butel quit legal studies to perform on stage