08 Aug 2016by PW Client
TRY AGAIN. FAIL AGAIN. FAIL BETTER.*
Persistence. That’s the entry level skill needed to build and maintain an acting career that spans more than 40 years. Media Super member Don Bridges has done it, and will continue to do it while there are still audiences captivated by screen and stage.
Don learned his craft on the job. It was instilled in him early to persevere in the face of stumbles. Hard work and doggedness can often be misinterpreted as luck. Being talented is a bonus.
You may not know his name, but you’ll recognise Don. He has slipped in and out of Australian film, television and theatre as one of our finest exponents of character acting – a skill acquired early as a journeyman in children’s theatre in Tasmania.
Acting by numbers
‘Some of us are fortunate to get the right encouragement at the right time. I moved to Tasmania as a thirteen-year-old and was inspired to take up acting by an unlikely mentor – my maths teacher. He and my English teacher encouraged me to take on the school play and then on to amateur drama in Launceston.
‘They caught me at a time when I was a bit of a fish out of water – the new kid at the school, not much of a sporty guy, looking for somewhere to belong. The arts was, and continues to be, a haven for kids like me.
‘Even now I see it when I go to Swan Hill to teach master classes at the Fairfax Festival, where kids are bussed in from across the state for a week immersed in the dramatic arts. Only recently, I had one of the students tell me that she never thought she ‘fitted in’ anywhere, until she discovered acting – her tribe.’
Don went to London immediately after school, and spent two years in the West End acquiring skills that would last a lifetime. Working as a stage manager allowed him to spy on great actors at work. Not the least of which were the Carry On London cast and The Two Ronnies.
‘Of course you could also go to the best theatres in the world and see the greats at work, live master classes from people like Ingrid Bergman.’
He also worked with the children’s theatre company Unicorn, and even today he still sees some of the ‘seriously good’ character actors he met there turning up on television in contemporary British dramas.
When he returned to Australia, he found work with a theatre-in-education company in Tasmania that went on to become the much-feted Salamanca Theatre.
‘When there, we toured a couple of shows, one of which was about trade unionism entitled I’ll be in on that which we even took to England and Wales. It was full of songs and poems and passion about unionism – starting with the Tolpuddle Martyrs and ending with Bob Hawke while he was still ACTU President.’
Don got his first Actors Equity card while in London, and has been a union member ever since.
‘Unfortunately, membership numbers have withered in recent years. So few now realise the benefits of a collective’s support. I recall one incensed member putting won-by-our-union stickers over all the amenities fought for and won over time, but now regarded as commonplace, their origin lost.’
It’s Melbourne on the phone
Melbourne beckoned, and a long and fruitful relationship with the prestigious Melbourne Theatre Company [MTC], began. It was also at that time that Don began his flirtation with television. In those days long-running series such as The Sullivans were a great source of work for character actors.
‘Because there were fewer of us around, we would get multiple jobs on the one show, often playing different characters. In The Flying Doctors, I played a shearer, the town chemist and a goldminer!’
Through the eighties and onwards, television provided plenty of meals for Don, and he was up for whatever came his way. And television series have been kind to Don – not the least of which were the 10 years he transformed into Big Kev Rebecchi for Neighbours.
‘I remember doing a bit with Col’n Carpenter in which I played a postman, the scratched and bloodied victim of a berserk cat – anything for a laugh, especially in front of a live audience.’
Film too has been a happy hunting ground for this versatile player. His celluloid sojourn began in the late 70s, included such cult greats as Romper Stomper and continues until the present day. Last year, as his character ‘Angel’ in the film Long Way Down, he was nominated for best actor at the London International Film Festival.
‘There is no longer the support from the networks for local work. They are more inclined to take on a ‘reality’ piece than invest in Australian writing and acting talent.’
A sobering moment for Don came, as a member of the Victorian Actors Benevolent Trust when he discovered how many well-known actors needed support in later life.
‘In America, actors are looked after with residuals – payments that result from repeat screenings of old series. Here, we see constant reruns of old series and, unfortunately, the only beneficiaries are the networks who show them. While that has changed in recent times, it doesn’t help the people who worked in those very early shows.’
Will work for hope
Don doesn’t allow much grass to grow under his feet. Between stints of work, much of his time is taken up doing pro bono work and acting in pitches for new films. He immerses himself in odd jobs, such as his gig as a fake patient to help train young medicos in anger management, his crowd-funded turn as a troll running about the wintry Southern Alps of New Zealand in little more than a loin cloth and a substantial beard, and directing the acting for a one-off performance of the opera Pagliacci.
Don teaches, he mentors and last year he even went to San Francisco to sing in a musical Call Me Miss Birdseye – a biography of America’s first lady of musical comedy, singer/actress Ethel Merman. Of course he sings.
Just work hard
Don Bridges’ unrelenting optimism has armed him well to survive and thrive in one of the planet’s most uncertain callings.
‘I’ve always said to younger actors that you need luck and perseverance in equal measure. When you get off your backside and hustle, work comes from it. Just by being around other people in the industry, you run into those who create the work. They see you and you become front of mind. That’s when you get the work. If you sit at home and wait for the phone to ring, nothing will happen.’
Don doesn’t wait for the phone to ring.
* Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho