How We Do What We Do: Mitchell Butel with Marika Aubrey
Marika Aubrey’s new feature series – How We Do What We Do – continues today on AussieTheatre.
Over a pre-show sushi-box, I meet old friend Mitchell Butel (then starring in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, whilst I was around the corner at The Princess Theatre, in South Pacific). We colleagues of the cabaret world (and members of a mutual fan club) chat about Mitchell’s long and very enviable career spanning TV, film, theatre and musicals, and muse upon how we do what we do.
Family Pantomimes & Steep Learning Curves
MA: First of all, tell me a little bit about how you started and what your training is…
MB: Oh wow…
MA: – because I don’t really know that about you…did you go to NIDA?
MB: Um…no. I’m untrained.
MB: Well, I did lots of shows for my family when I was young.
MA: That was your formal training!!
MB: Yeah, at Christmas time. My formal training was doing ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ with Jesus and Mary on card board stuck to rulers behind the lounges pushed together. So mini kind of puppetry.
MA: So when did you work out you could do that for money?!
MB: Much, much later.
MB: But I used to order my sister and my cousins around. I was a fascist. I was like, “NO!!! THE THREE WISE MEN DON’T COME IN UNTIL THE THIRD VERSE!!!” And then I did a lot of school concerts. Actually in one of those my sister and I sang ‘Away in a Manger’ at the Christmas mass. And I was Joseph and she was Mary, we were dressed in sheets and curtains and stuff and she was holding the baby Jesus. And there was a girl playing the guitar, and it was supposed to be in the key of D, and I started singing, really low – I was like 12 – and I was thinking ‘this sounds weird’. So in front of the whole congregation, at the vigil mass, I turn to the guitarist and start saying ‘it’s in the key of D!!…D!!!…. Fuckin’ D!!” in front of the whole crowd –
…And that’s where it began. Then I did some local theatre stuff, but I was good at school, and I thought, oh I should probably do law, cause I was quite conscientious, so I went to NSW Uni. I did an Arts Law degree.
MA: Did you fall in with the Drama Department kids?
MB: Big time. Well, initially drama wasn’t in my degree, I was doing economics. And I f***ing hated economics… I thought, ‘what am I doing?’ So I swapped to drama, and never looked back. But the drama school there, it’s called the ‘School of Theatre Studies’ so it’s more theoretical, and style, and history. Theatre studies was my major, but it was studying Greek Tragedy and Moliere and Racine, so it wasn’t acting.
MA: Were there productions?
MB: Occasionally yeah, but acting wasn’t a focus. I did Australian drama, Shakespeare and puppetry-
MA: That came in handy!
MB: Certainly did. I actually took it because I thought it would be a bludge, but Margaret Williams taught it, she was a fantastic teacher. I loved puppetry. It’s probably the favourite thing I did in my whole theatre degree. And incredibly intellectual too, about what is an actor, what is inanimate, make that a puppet…and I ended up doing a thesis on Jim Henson.
MB: Who I adored, so it did, as you say, come in handy later on (Mitchell would one day be cast as Princeton in the original Australian production of ‘Avenue Q’).
MA: So how did you then, make that jump into a professional show?
MB: Well I was doing a lot of shows at Uni too, I became President of the theatre society-
MA: Of course!
MB: I didn’t finish law, because I was working as a paralegal in a law firm-
MB: Yeah, while I was at Uni. And it kinda just didn’t interest me, that kind of law firm life. I mean, I loved criminal law, constitutional law, but all the rest was boring. So I saw the auditions for Grease with David Atkins, and I auditioned for that. I didn’t have an agent or anything. I would just see that they were auditioning and I’d scam my way in… I got in, and before that I couldn’t get an agent for love or money when I was at Uni. But because I got Grease–
MA: Suddenly, you were a bit more saleable?
MB: Yes. I got an agent because of that. And from that, I then through my agent, got an audition for New England Theatre Company for A Hard God, which I got. Grease got delayed, and A Hard God ended up being my professional debut. So my professional debut was at 10am on a Monday morning in Armidale. For a schools group. And I literally thought – I looked in the mirror that morning – and thought ‘I’ve made it’. This is brilliant. I’m doing what I want to do. That was great.
MA: Regional touring was my first big gig too, and I was in heaven the whole time. We would be in Taree and I was just loving life!
MA: And I’m sure people who’d been in big shows touring Australia thought I was an idiot.
MB: I had a great time. Then I got back and did The Fantasticks with Nancy Hayes for the Newtown Actor’s group. And Tony Sheldon and Tony Taylor were in it.
MA: Just a couple of people…
MB: Yeah, and they became incredible mentors to me. Grease ended up being back on. And I was on Grease for about 15 months which was a MASSIVE learning curve-
MA: Why such a massive learning curve?
MB: Just the rigours of doing 8 shows a week and being professional. David Atkins was a really hard task master – in a great way – and taught me so much. I mean, I got massively in trouble from him about 8 months into the tour. Guy Pearce was playing Danny Zuko, and went to London to do a panto for a few months, and Nick Giannopoulos took over. And we all started mucking up very badly – as young performers do. I was 18, the youngest person in the cast. David came into the audience unannounced, watched the show, and tore strips off all of us, me more than anyone. He said, ‘How DARE you f**k with my show??! You will be stood down from tonight’s performance. You will sit in your dressing room and read your script’. So then I snuck out to watch from the fly tower, got in trouble from the company manager and stood down for another performance. And I was like, ‘but my Aunty’s coming tomorrow!!” Too bad. I demanded a meeting with David. Had a meeting, and he said, ‘Look, you’re very talented. You’re very funny. You’re going to be around for a long time. So when it’s your moment on stage, go for gold. When it’s NOT your moment, shut the f**k up and stop moving’ – BEST ACTING ADVICE I’ve ever been given.
MA: That is the best story.
MB: It’s a great story, and you know, David and I have worked together several times since. We did Little Shop of Horrors and Saturday Night Fever. I love working with David.
Doing It All
MA: I think I’ve said this to you before, but you are in that small and prestigious club of people that are allowed – and I use that word ‘allowed’, quite deliberately – you’re allowed to move across genres in our little industry-
MB: Yeah, yeah…
MA: -and seemingly not ever be disadvantaged for it, or suffer from any stigma. Did you seek that diversity, or did that just fall your way?
MB: Well I was very lucky, in the sense that on tour with Grease I sub-let a house with a group of actors in the company-
MA: Save that allowance!
MB: Yeah, and Guy Pearce and I would share a kids bedroom, you know with the two single beds, so Guy and I became close friends, still are, and he was with Shanahans at the time, auditioning for Six Degrees of Separation at Sydney Theatre Company. And I said, ‘oh, can I have a read?’ and there was a role in there I knew I could do, playing one of the upper class bratty kids in it. And so I wrote a letter. That’s kinda how it began and kinda the same way I get jobs now. I wrote a letter to the then casting Director asking to audition for that role bla bla bla. I got an audition. And they said, ‘you don’t have to know it, just have a read…’ but I learnt the f**k out of it. I was so prepared. And I got a role in that. I remember getting a call from my agent saying I’d gotten in, and I was living back at home by then. My Mum was hanging some washing on the line, and I literally dropped the phone and started screaming – “OH MY GOD MUM I GOT THIS JOB! I’M WORKING FOR THE SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY!!!”. It was probably one of the most exciting phone calls of my life.
MB: That was a great experience too, working with Jacki Weaver, John O’May-
MA: I’m working with John at the moment!
MB: I know. Fabulous people. And it ran for 10 weeks or something, and we entered through the audience, but I didn’t enter until about an hour into the show, so I got to watch Jacki and John, Robert Alexander and Sue Walker perfect their craft, perfect their gags every night. I always say Jacki Weaver is one of my acting teachers too, because I watched her. It was great. I also should say that while I was at uni, I was at ATYP every weekend, working with Nick Enright, Rosalba Clemente… I had some great teachers there. And I did Burger Man, a bi-centennial musical with Toni Colette.
MB: I think because I managed to do a musical and a play right at the start, and initially switched back and forth between, so I was lucky it just rolled that way. And that kind of pattern has continued.
MA: And do you consciously now, as someone who is very established, do you consciously think ‘what are my options and try to mix it up?’
MB: Yeah I do. I mean, I love straight legitimate plays and I love musicals as well. I love film. I love TV. And it’s good to try to do all of them. But like anyone, you take what’s around.
MA: And how about how you approach those genres in different ways? And as someone who hasn’t formally trained is there a certain method you adhere to? Does it differ?
MB: I guess it doesn’t differ a lot for me. I always start with the text. What is the writer trying to say? What’s the style? And how do I best serve that?
MA: Not a lot of actors can do that. Sit so comfortably in those different styles.
MB: I guess…I mean Marika, you could. When I changed agents, I went with Shanahan’s and they asked me, ‘who do you want to be like?’ and I said Peter Carroll. And they told me later on, that is was one of the reasons they took me on…Because most people say they want to be Hugh Jackman or Nicole Kidman or something.
MA: That’s a really interesting thing for an agent to ask.
MB: Yeah… but people like Peter Carroll, Helen Buday or Greg Stone. People who can do it all – I really look up to that. And none of them are hugely ‘famous’-
MA: But they’re able to write ‘actor’ on their tax return every year.
MB: That’s right. Also, being famous or being on a reality show or whatever, none of that’s important to me. I like acting. I don’t really want to be famous. And I’m not. You know, when you’re a middle aged character actor, it’s not something that’s really a motivator. I’ve been incredibly lucky, but I also think it’s about fostering good relationships with people. It’s funny, in Melbourne I’ve noticed, I get cast as the funny campy friends.
MA: What? So, you have a different cast-ability in Melbourne versus Sydney?!
MB: I really do think so.
MB: Yeah yeah yeah. I’m considered to be much lighter in Melbourne than I am in Sydney. Because Barry Kosky saw me in Bordertown the TV series I did, I then got to work with him a lot which meant I was doing much heavier heavier stuff in Sydney. And Simon Stone too in the last couple of years, saw something in me when he saw a Malthouse show, thought I could do more than just bells and whistles, so Strange Interlude and Face to Face were very dark, kind of adult roles, rather than wakka wakka. And Marion Potts has been a big person too, who has cast me in different things.
MA: She directed me at drama school.
MB: Oh really?
MA: Yeah. I loved working with her.
MB: Yeah right. So being open to all that is possible, fostering good relationships with people who see you differently-
MA: Well, you are someone in the industry that EVERYONE speaks so highly of.
MB: Oh, that’s beautiful.
The Artist Prepares
MA: When did we first meet?
MB: I first saw you perform at ‘Showqueen’ (Sydney’s much loved weekly cabaret series) one night. That was the first time I met you.
MA: Oh right.
MB: Geoffrey Castles said, ‘I’m playing with Marika’, and I said, ‘Who’s Marika?’
MB: You did ‘Meadowlark’. And I was like…Oh, O.K!!! Right!
MA: But I do remember when we did then headline together at The Stephen Schwartz Concert (at The Adelaide Cabaret Festival), because it was not my finest hour-
MB: Oh me either!!! God, let’s not talk about it.
MA: Ok. But you wrote me a beautiful email that night, which I’ve kept, because you wrote about how, you know, you and I are going to be in this industry a long time, but that night was not our night, and that’s okay..
MB: A-huh, yes.
MA: It was such a massive comfort and lovely thing to receive from someone I was freaking out about even being alongside.
MB: Don’t even! And I f**ked up as royally as you did!!
MB: I was just so epically tired. That was a really good lesson for me. Don’t be tired for a gig.
MA: Yeah well, doing your own gigs is something altogether different.
MB: Yeah. I think the big thing is being ready for things. And Marika, you’re really good at this. Stuff like knowing your craft, knowing what boxes you fit into, working on your voice, your body, your technique. But the one thing that kills me about a lot of actors, particularly musical theatre actors, is that they don’t see stuff. They don’t. And I’m generalising, but some musical theatre actors rarely go see an STC or MTC play. And that goes both ways, with straight actors rarely seeing musicals.
MA: Musical theatre performers generally see the ‘big’ shows.
MB: Yeah, and I mean, that is the best way, see as much as possible, then you know what style Simon Stone has if you get to audition for him, or you know Marion Potts’ vibe on things, or if you’re going for something like Forum, you would’ve seen similar comedic pieces so you know that’s the style. But so many people will do class after class after class, which is important, but I think, ‘go and see some f**king theatre!’ Find someone you like watching and get involved in breaking down why they’re so good
MA: Yeah. Be aware of your own industry. The fishbowl you want to swim in.
MB: Go and learn. Get involved in breaking down why someone is so good.
MA: It always fascinates me though, and this is taking that idea and extending it further, that any artist – be they an actor/musician/painter or whatever – could lack an innate curiosity about life. That they can be so intense in one way, so in their own bubble, that they essentially don’t observe or see things or take in art –
MB: They don’t enrich themselves. I mean, I’m a bit of an idiot, I try and see EVERYTHING. I’m a bit of a nerd. And I don’t have kids, so I’ve got time to do all that.
MA: Yeah, when I chatted with Eddie Perfect, he said that’s the biggest thing that’s changed for him as an artist who is also a parent. The ability to see stuff.
Life is A Cabaret
MA: Um, so we started to talk about cabaret, and even artists who transcend ‘straight’ work to musical theatre… but cabaret is this whole other bliss and challenge-
MA: – Which is, in my opinion, one of the scariest, most confronting things things you can ever do as an artist-
MA: – And something that you have conquered, you made an album and all that sort of stuff, so talk to me a little bit about how that works for you when normally you’re in such a collaborative environment in a company versus being out there and holding something on your own. I mean, you’re inherently someone who is very affable on stage and able to spin a story really well. You in real life is so similar to the person we’re able to know on stage in the cabaret world, and I think everyone enjoys watching you for that reason.
MB: Aw, nice…
MA: Did you go into that world out of necessity or hunger to try it?
MB: I’d always thought about it. My first one was 2000, and I’d always sung in benefits and the odd things, but I’d always get incredibly nervous at any of those one-off concert nights. And I was thinking about doing one and a gentlemen named Joseph Uchitel, who ran ‘Cafe Nine’, a venue in Haymarket Sydney, rang and said ‘so-and-so has pulled out. I need someone in 4 weeks to do a cabaret spot’ for several weeks. And I thought, ‘oh four weeks isn’t enough time, no’…but he convinced me and I committed to it. And I’d worked with Darryl Wallis before. We were both Sondheim freaks, became good mates. So I got him onboard. I had a travel theme, it was called Mitchell Butel’s Excellent Adventure, and Darryl and I basically sang for three days, going through all different travel songs. We constructed this show, and because there was a deadline, I was just like, ‘ok. I have to do it’. And this was all pre-email as well, so I spent so much of my time ringing people to tell them about the show, to make sure I had an audience. You know, ‘oh hi there, I’m Mitchell, I met you in 1994 at my cousin’s wedding, would you like to come to my show. Let me take your credit card details…’
MB: I was very proactive about it, because I thought ‘this will kill me if I don’t have an audience’
MB: Anyway, come the night we first did it, I was SO shit scared-
MA: It’s terrible isn’t it?!
MB: Oh man! And I thought, ‘this is shit’. I was on stage singing and felt ‘this is awful’. I was singing, but in my head I was going ‘oh well. Gave it a go. So, you just do plays from now on. It’s ok’
MA: That is SO funny.
MB: But at the end of the show, I caught up with my friends in the audience, and they were like, ‘That was amazing! Great and beautiful and natural and warm…’ and so that got me thinking it might not have been as bad as I thought. And then over the course of the next four weeks, I had a ball, and it got better and better. I was always shit at looking people in the eye-
MA: Me too. I found that really hard at first.
MB: And now, I am SO grateful for that gift.
MB: Because now, I can be in an 18 seat theatre and look at people and I can think, ‘you can’t scare me, cause I’ve seen someone choosing to eat their dinner rather than listen to me sing’-
MA: So true! I’ve always felt that if I can do a one-woman show in a shit venue with an audience of ten, I can in fact do anything.
MB: Yeah, absolutely.
MA: If I can win over those ten people, and I know how to do that-
MB: – then the rest is easy. And also, if you fuck up, you realise it’s not the end of the world.
MA: You use it in your show.
MB: And particularly when you’ve been a perfectionist in your other work, cabaret is great for reminding you, it’s all fine.
MA: That’s really true.
The View From The Top
MA: What do you define as success in our industry? You’ve worked with pretty much all the main stage companies and I think a lot of other artists in our industry look at your career and think ‘if I have half the success of Mitchell, I’ll be thrilled’
MB: Um, that’s so nice. I am very conscious of how lucky I’ve been. I don’t mean to sound like my head is swollen.
MA: No, you don’t.
MB: But I mean, I am very grateful for the opportunities that have been given to me and all I ever wanted to do was to continue to work. Over the last 20 years I’ve had an office job part time as well which I have often returned to when I’m not acting, and that was the only way I got my mortgage.
I just want to continue to work. I mean we all want a big film. A Shine. Craig Ilott once said, ‘Geoffrey Rush is the worst thing to have happened to Australian actors because everyone now thinks they have until 46 to strike gold’.
MB: But I was thinking today, I am so lucky. To have jobs lined up. It’s amazing. And I don’t find it a grind, performing. I find rehearsals a grind sometimes, but you need to go through that process. I used to keep journals, and every project around week three, I’d write, ‘I hate myself. I can’t act. I’m a fraud’.
MA: So funny! Do you ever have that moment of ‘I need to quit?’
MB: To be honest, and not to sound egotistical, but I’ve never felt that. I just mean you have to back yourself. Because really, your partner or your family, sure… but if you don’t back yourself, ain’t no one else going to. Cause it’s hard. Which is not to say I haven’t doubted my work, or if I’m achieving, or if the director’s been happy with me – I’m still plagued with huge doubt and neurosis-
MA: Let’s be clear…!
MB: Let’s be clear! I think any good artist is, but I think inherently I have a belief in my ability. I know I can do it. I mean, I’m not a great dancer. I’m not the best singer. I’m not the best actor. But I’ve never doubted my ability. I know I can fucking do it. It’s just about whether I get the opportunities. And that’s not to say I can’t get better or improve or hone things. But there is a 7 year old in me, who performed in front of the mirror at home, who’s ready to take his Tony awards home… (laughter)