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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Spring Awak­en­ing Dis­graced

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

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