Bert LaBonte would have to be one of the most down-to-earth actors out there. Most in demand. Most relaxed. Ironic? Well, maybe that’s just it. For now, at least, he doesn’t have to worry about work. He’s had a steady stream of it for the last eight years. In fact, he found himself needing to take extended time off at the start of this year in order to recharge. An actor out of work by choice? What a revelation.
As I sit in Melbourne Theatre Company’s cafeteria waiting to meet Bert LaBonte, I glance around the room to see actors heating their lunch in the microwave, programming staff chatting at tables, and Robyn Nevin taking a moment out of rehearsal to check her phone.
When LaBonte arrives, he’s casually dressed and completely at ease. Perhaps it’s his Dandenong upbringing? Perhaps it’s the fact that he studied acting at a regional university? Or maybe it’s the daily commute from Geelong listening to sports radio? Whatever it is, Bert’s the man.
This week’s Washington season of David Williamson’s Rupert marks MTC’s first international tour. When we chatted the cast were still in the final stages of rehearsal, LaBonte confirming they were ready and raring to go. “The show is straight back into the groove. We’re just faffing about really. They’ve given us two weeks [rehearsal] because we have zero time when we get to Washington.”
Though LaBonte has lived and toured in the UK, this MTC tour will be his first time performing in the US. After the Washington season, he plans to head to New York with his wife Amanda – a trip that has been a long time coming. “We were going to go on the way home from the UK when September 11 happened. Instead we came back, got married and had kids.”
With Nan and Pa watching his two young boys, LaBonte is thrilled to be able to share this experience with his wife. “I can’t wait. We are pumped. It’s going to be an experience of a lifetime!”
LaBonte’s character roles date back to primary school when he played Fagin in a production of Oliver. “I was the funny guy at school. I was in all the sporting teams but doing theatre as well. Acting was a bit of a pipe dream.”
On completing high school, LaBonte took a step towards making his dream a reality. “I was seventeen when I auditioned for all the acting courses. I didn’t really have any concept of, ‘I should go to VCA or NIDA or WAAPA’. I was so far removed that I didn’t know what the great courses were. I thought, ‘whoever takes me’. Ballarat accepted me and it was the best three years. Had I gone to VCA it would have been a very different experience. It was awesome being in the country.”
With so many offers being thrown his way, LaBonte says selecting work has to be about consistency. Does he find it hard to turn gigs down? “Not anymore. Once you get over the fear, you’re okay with it. Space is sometimes a really good thing. The last few years have been amazing, but there is always that fear that things are going to dry up. I don’t panic about it anymore. The less I panic, the more things just work out. It’s a weird way to live, but I don’t let it knot my stomach.”
In keeping with his demanding schedule, LaBonte recently managed to find time to appear in a performance of Musical Theatre composer Matthew Robinson’s Atlantis – In Concert at Chapel off Chapel. Having worked together years ago on a production of Pippin, Robinson simply called LaBonte to see if he would be interested in joining a cast that was brimming with Aussie showbiz names.
Successfully pulling off a semi-staged reading of an epic story with demanding musical arrangements is no easy task. Still, it’s no surprise that Robinson and his team managed to create something impressive in a very limited amount of time. LaBonte says, “He sent us the material with links to the songs. We each had an hour with him (twice) then a day together with the cast … then we were on! There were really no rehearsals at all. It was pretty intense. Everyone seemed really calm but we were all freaking out underneath!”
Due to popular demand, a second show was added at Chapel off Chapel. LaBonte was pleased to have the opportunity to perform the material twice. “The second one was more relaxed because we knew what was coming. For the first one, we walked out going, ‘Okay, here we go!’ We didn’t want to stuff it up! It’s such a tightly written score that you really can’t drop a beat. Matt has done an amazing job. The music gets stuck in your head. I’m still singing it, and that doesn’t happen with me.”
The response from the two sold-out performances of ATLANTIS – In Concert was overwhelmingly positive. Though the story was condensed in places and the action narrated, audiences were treated to a meaty taste of what the show could be if given the opportunity to be staged. LaBonte believes Robinson is going about the whole thing the right way. “He’s a very talented writer and his music is fantastic. He’s driven and determined enough to make things happen. To his credit, he’s just gone for it. I think it’s going to fly.”
Though he has worked extensively in musical theatre, LaBonte admits he is not a trained singer. Does he warm up? He tilts his head and draws out his response. “Yeeeeah. Little bit. I’m getting older, so I stretch a lot and do a vocal warm up. For plays I find it more important, which sounds ridiculous, but I find it more stressful on my voice doing a play. It’s all about the instrument. I definitely have my own style – it’s all about conservation of energy and not getting too worked up. If you get too in your head, you shoot yourself in the foot.”
Though he is respectful of every actor’s process, he finds that separating performance and reality are important for him. “I will literally be talking about the football scores right up until I walk on stage. I don’t begrudge anyone their process – whatever works for you.”
As we chat and laugh, I decide that LaBonte has it all worked out – he’s playful, relaxed and refreshingly honest. “I take my work very seriously, but I don’t take life too seriously. There are times when the room should be fun. We’re entertainers, essentially. Even when you’ve got a dark storyline, it should be fun to explore that darkness. We’re so lucky to do this for a living.”
Oh. It’s a jolly interview with you, Bert.
Rupert opens as part of the World Stages: International Theater Festival