READING, PA- Sitting in his Shillington kitchen, recounting his life as an actor, director and theater educator, Richard Bradbury doesn’t hesitate to pinpoint the time when the door opened for him.
As a student at Northwest Junior High School, Bradbury, 57, a self-described “shy and backward kid,” found one place where he could be happy, in Sandra Sittler’s music class.
“I loved music, and I loved to sing,” he said. “Ms. Sittler was such a terrific and positive presence. I don’t think I was a traditional learner, so I loved having the music component available. That was my motivator.”
When he left to start Reading High School, he was anxious about the change, and upset about losing the music class and his teacher. He signed up for the a cappella choir, and was astonished to find Sittler leading it the first day. She had moved up.
He was content to sing in the choir, but when he was a junior, the school was putting on the musical “Guys and Dolls,” and needed more guys.
Sittler approached him and said, “I think you should do this.”
Bradbury protested that he had no stage experience, but Sittler insisted, “Do this: You’ll have a great time.”
“She changed my life,” he said. “It put me on a different path.”
Working under the show’s director, Terry Reedy, Bradbury, who was in the ensemble, had the time of his life.
“I found my tribe,” he said.
Reedy cast him in a small speaking role in “Mame” during his senior year, and took a bunch of students, including Bradbury, to New York City to see “Chicago” with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach.
As Bradbury talked about these experiences, his face lit up like a teenager’s, revealing just a glimpse of what he must have felt having that door opened for him; delight mixed with awe.
After graduating in 1978, he was cast again by Reedy, this time as one of the main characters in the musical “Shenandoah” at Genesius Theatre. There he had a chance to work with local actors he had admired from afar: William Sanders, Larry Fecho, John Gancar and others.
He also played the role of Motel in “Fiddler on the Roof” for a youth theater, the first time he sang alone onstage.
“I was terrified, and the beard didn’t allow me to open my mouth all the way or it would pop off,” he said.
But his mother and grandmother heard him sing for the first time, and were amazed. His mother, Janice Sherman, and grandparents, who raised him on Hudson Street, were always supportive, he said.
Thinking a career in theater wasn’t possible, Bradbury moved to Orlando, Fla., to begin business school with an emphasis on the travel industry at the Southeastern Academy of Travel and Tourism. But he found the courses dull, and moved back to Reading.
Working full time at C.H. Dill Travel Bureau, writing domestic tickets all day, he lived to do theater at night.
“The people I connected with were there; people who spoke my language,” he said.
“Jane (Simmon Miller) and Michael (O’Flaherty) created something extraordinary in Genesius,” he said. “It was a wonderful environment, especially if you were a young gay man. It was very safe; I felt very accepted. The theater was created for young people, so there was a lot of growing up and boundary-pushing, finding yourself.
“During the AIDS epidemic, this gave me a focus and a group of friends; it was a haven. A lot of people were spared, I think, because of Genesius.
(He did lose his first and second boyfriends to AIDS.)
“It was the best training I received,” he said. “Michael and Bill and John were incredible people who really cared and were very supportive and encouraging. Genesius taught how to work quickly and learn quickly, because there were so many shows. When a show opened on a Friday, auditions for the next show were held that Sunday.”
Among the roles Bradbury played were Jesus in “Godspell,” the Gentleman Caller in “The Glass Menagerie” and Henrik in “A Little Night Music.”
Gancar, who directed him in “Babes in Arms,” the first show he did after returning from Florida, became his partner and, three years ago, his husband.
“I don’t think I’d be the person I am without John,” Bradbury said. “He opened this door for me that I didn’t know existed, and I ran through it.”
When Gancar, who was also working with the Albright College Dinner Theatre, encouraged him to audition for shows there, he encountered the late director Lynn Morrow for the first time.
“She was formidable,” Bradbury said.
Morrow noticed his talent and worked with him individually to improve his acting techniques, which he perceived as her being unhappy with his work.
At one point, she told him he needed to go to acting school.
“Because I’m so bad?” he asked.
“No, because you have potential,” she said.
“She set the next part of my life in motion,” Bradbury said. “I decided to go back to school.”
In 1986, he enrolled in the theater department of Penn State University, spending the first year at Penn State Berks taking his first acting classes with the late Betty Lou McLean.
“I adored her,” he said. “She let me bring scenes to the table that I wanted to work on.”
One of those was a scene from Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” about the AIDS epidemic; the next year he was cast in that play at Penn State’s main campus – the only sophomore among graduate students.
Because the Penn State program at that time taught only plays (not musicals), another door opened for Bradbury, and on the other side of this one was a banquet that has continued to feed him throughout his life.
He was introduced to Shakespeare and other classic works, as well as a large helping of the best of 20th century drama. The competition for roles was intense, and there was plenty of stress, but it was exhilarating, he said, and the quality of the program was high.
“I learned, among many other things, the power in stillness and in silence, and to take your time,” he said.
The pinnacle was being cast as Jean-Paul Marat in Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade,” in an avant-garde production directed by John Neville-Andrews, former producing artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.
During the summers, Bradbury worked as a paid actor in Penn State’s Center Stage summer musicals, working with actors, directors and choreographers from New York City and earning Equity points.
One summer, however, he and Gancar went to London through Penn State Abroad to study acting and theater at King’s College in Southwark. During that time they gorged on 43 productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and some West End theaters.
After graduating in 1990, he and Gancar, who had earned his master’s degree in directing from Penn State at the same time, decided to move to Seattle, where their mentors had suggested they could have theater careers without starvation (as opposed to New York City).
“We loved it,” Bradbury said. “It was an amazing city with an amazing theater community. It had the third-largest Equity base in the U.S. after New York and Chicago. There were so many actors. They had a great fringe scene.
“The theater going on was outrageous and risky and daring.”
Best of all, he said, he was no longer type-cast as a poet or “good guy”; instead, he started getting darker parts. And anyone who has seen him play Roy Cohn in “Angels in America” at the Ephrata Performing Arts Company in 2013, or Ben in “The Little Foxes” during the Fall Festival of the Arts in October 2016, can attest to the fact that he can do dark.
Bradbury got steady work the whole six years they stayed in Seattle, in various theaters and in touring companies. He and Gancar, with four partners, started the AHA! Theatre there, with two performing spaces, where they produced new and rarely seen works.
After Gancar’s father passed away suddenly, they decided to come back East, and settled in the Washington, D.C., area, where they bought a tiny house. And yet another door opened for Bradbury when he became involved with the Bethesda Academy of the Performing Arts in Maryland (now Imagination Stage, one of the “Big Five” children’s theater companies in the U.S.).
He started as office manager; when he left in 2007 he was producing director, and had originated roles in two new children’s musicals: Joan Cushing’s “Miss Nelson Is Missing” and “Miss Nelson Has a Field Day.” Cushing wrote him a song called “Imagination” for the latter.
He was also in the original cast of Judith Viorst’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-good, Very Bad Day” at the Kennedy Center.
By 2007, Bradbury and Gancar decided to move back to the Reading area, where they still have family.
Fortune smiled on Bradbury in the form of the Olivet Boys and Girls Clubs, which hired him as their core director of the arts. For 10 years, he has worked with Reading children, some of them growing up in his old neighborhood, introducing them to the world of theater that he has loved nearly all his life.
“At Imagination Stage, we developed our own pedagogy based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences,” he said. “Theater and the arts are a perfect vehicle for education; they touch on all of the intelligences. You can teach virtually any subject, including math and science, using the arts. And theater gives you lifelong skills like confidence, creative problem-solving, working in a group, thinking about something bigger than just yourself.
“My agenda when I walk into Olivet is to crack the door open for the kids in our city and show them there are endless opportunities out there.”
Living in his pleasant home with Gancar and their dog and cat; doing theater when possible; being among friends and family; teaching theater at Reading Area Community College; doing the important work with kids he’s come to love over the past 25 years, Bradbury says he’s a happy man.
“I’m in the absolute best situation right now,” he said. “It’s been an incredible ride, such a journey, and I’m so thankful for all of it.”
Courtesy of: http://www.readingeagle.com/weekend/article/portrait-of-the-artist-richard-Bradbury