Thomas F. Bradac's and Daniel Bryan Cartmell's paths have intersected on and off Orange County stages for 20 years now.
They have inspired applause together as actors and directors; on one memorable occasion they were cussed out together in the middle of a performance.
When Bradac had his most traumatic professional crisis, his sudden ouster in 1991 as director of the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove, Cartmell was there as a friend, helping him keep his equilibrium.
And Bradac was an understanding presence as Cartmell went through his professional crisis, brought on by the demands of perhaps the theater's most daunting role, King Lear.
The creative partnership continues with Shakespeare Orange County's current production of "The Tempest." Bradac, the company's founder and artistic director, is directing; Cartmell, a core member of the troupe since its inception in 1992, stars as Prospero, the scholar and magician who is Shakespeare's alter ego in this valedictory, farewell-to-the-theater play that was the Bard's last work.
During a recent rehearsal backstage at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, Bradac looked like the world's most relaxed director, leaning back and resting a sandaled foot on a chair while Cartmell and Elizabeth Taheri as Miranda acted out the father-daughter heart-to-heart in the play's second scene.
Bradac chuckled once to himself as the tall, husky Cartmell, barefoot, clad in a wizard's robe and wielding a wand the size of a bazooka, held forth confidently in a resonant baritone. With the scene over, director and star nodded in recognition that it worked just fine.
Bradac says he is relying on Cartmell's instincts and experience. Though a highly credentialed Shakespearean--the president-elect of the Shakespeare Theatre Assn. of America--he has never directed "The Tempest." And this will be Cartmell's fourth go at Prospero--his third time playing the role since 1997.
"I'm learning the play. It's to my benefit to gain insight from somebody like Dan, who has lived it in several incarnations," said Bradac, who at 52 is two years older than his fellow Cal State Long Beach alumnus.
"This is a real collaboration," demurred Cartmell, who had doffed his multicolored robe and was seated next to Bradac in the rehearsal room. "It's not me teaching him the play. It's us exploring a new version together."
Cartmell says there is no way to reproduce a previous performance, even in a role as familiar to him as Prospero. Lines come out differently because they are spoken in exchanges with a new set of actors. And touches like the video backdrops Bradac is experimenting with in this "Tempest" keep things fresh.
Bradac, who grew up primarily in South Gate in Los Angeles County, and Cartmell, from Garden Grove, followed parallel paths early in their careers.
They didn't know each other as theater majors at Long Beach State--Bradac had finished the program before Cartmell entered it. But both willingly took on post-collegiate apprenticeships that they say were crucial to what they do today.
Bradac walked away from a job as drama teacher at Newport Harbor High School--actress Kelly McGillis and Mark Rucker, a staff director at South Coast Repertory, were among his students--and built a theater company from nothing in a place he had never been before.
The owners of a resort in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania wanted somebody to open a theater as an added attraction. Bradac saw their ad in a theater magazine and got the job. He rounded up a crew of a dozen other actors from Los Angeles and created the Hollywood Theater Ensemble.
It lasted 4 1/2 years. It wasn't the classic and cutting-edge stuff Bradac was most interested in--"I'd been doing Brecht and Artaud, all the really heavy alternative theater, plays in downtown L.A. I couldn't bring my mother to. And here I was, doing fluff up in the Poconos."
In return, "I learned practically everything I was going to use. I feel it was my PhD, actually. If we didn't know how to do something, we had to learn it very quickly." Among other things, Bradac learned that acting would be secondary for him, and building theater companies would be his calling.
The Poconos gig ended in 1978--Bradac makes a point of noting that the resort went out of business, not the theater. Back in Orange County and teaching part time at Orange Coast College, he learned that Garden Grove was looking for somebody to run a restored movie house, the Gem, as a live theater.
Bradac had to build an audience from scratch. Among his decisions as manager-producer was to let the janitors go so their salaries could be diverted toward stipends for the actors. "I would rather sweep floors and clean toilets myself and have money to pay the actors," he said.
The chance to earn a bit of money is what brought Cartmell to the Gem in its second season, 1980, for roles in "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Much Ado About Nothing."