Story by Kathy McPherson
If you think the interests that grab a teenager’s attention in high school don’t really have an impact, Brendan Bradley ’01 may change your mind.
“Going literally back to my roots at Durham Academy, my introduction to the entertainment industry as a business — not just as a hobby or as a passion — was the entrepreneurial, self-generative spirit of you've got to make your own career,” said Bradley, a California-based actor, writer, producer and director.
During Bradley’s junior year at DA, renovations to Kenan Auditorium meant the Upper School’s fall play was canceled. Not to be foiled, Bradley licensed the script for Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, secured a theatre and put on a play.
“And that, honestly, is what probably got me into NYU [he is an honors graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts], and probably what got me my early opportunities in New York City, was literally being one of the only people that were willing to try and willing to fail at producing their own work.”
Bradley has continued to make his way by thinking outside the box. Faced with a pandemic that has darkened theatres across much of the world, he tapped into his entrepreneurial talent to imagine and design Future Stages, a 3D virtual theatre-going experience that uses computer code, is fully equipped for a producer to mount a show, welcomes an audience (complete with a concession stand!) and then invites them backstage after the performance.
Bradley talked about his work, and specifically about Future Stages, on Sept. 2 as the inaugural speaker in a virtual Master Class series for the new Upper School Theatre Company.
“Brendan's technology potentially adds a possibility where you can have a live aspect and you and some of your friends can gather in a virtual space to take in a performance,” said Upper School theatre teacher James Bohanek. “He's utilizing technology that's out there to show what's possible. We [the Upper School Theatre Company] are going to just play around, see what we can do and hopefully get Brendan back in to help us implement it as we can.”
Actors have to be self-starters, Bohanek said: “You have to be entrepreneurial, you have to make your own work. That was true to a certain extent when I was a professional actor, but it's more true now. There's a wider range of content that can be shown, but you have to create a lot of the content yourself.”
The new Theatre Company is a student-led extracurricular theatre program that is producing a series of smaller theatrical projects throughout the school year, since the traditional fall play and winter musical performances cannot be held.
“Instead of thinking of themselves as, I'm somebody who does tech or I'm somebody who acts, now students may be trying lots of different things,” Bohanek said. “Because if you want to make projects, you have to develop lots of different skills and you have to be able to organize it, you have to be able to create it. You have to be able to develop it. You have to be able to deliver it. You do all of these things.”
That do-it-all spirit traveled with Bradley when he moved to the West Coast in 2008 during a writer’s strike. The strike resulted in a “new media epidemic, where I made my first Web series, which is what introduced me to YouTube culture, introduced me to television, film, everything. I accidentally started going to meet-ups at bars where all of these early YouTubers, who later became famous YouTubers, were literally borrowing equipment from each other. They were literally saying can we film in your garage? Oh, who's got this microphone? It was a swap meet of creativity. My creative journey has always been surrounded by self-generative, self-starting people.”
Faced with the restrictions of COVID-19, Bradley thinks it will be two years before the entertainment industry can resume. “There's just no functional way we can Band-Aid it. … That means we're staring at yet another moment where we just have to say, OK, how do we adapt? What else can we do? And what that has always led me to is a relationship with technology because I am an elder millennial that has slowly, basically gotten a larger and larger toolbox, starting from no Internet, to being obsessed with the Internet, to building a career on the Internet.”
Bradley spent six months in conversations with event producers “who are used to producing in a venue, in a physicalized space, their issues with the technology and me then being this kind of bridge or go-between. … The technology has not met this moment, but I think that if we can duct tape enough of this together, we can start actually saving people's jobs, which at the end of the day for me is the important part. Do I think that a set designer who's been using 3D software should be transitioning full time to 3D modeling? No. But if that person could put food on the table for the next two years while we weather this storm using the skills that they already have, then I'm all in, let's do that. And that's basically the summation of what I think is the pre-, during- and post-COVID trajectory for the sandbox I'm currently playing in.”
The pandemic has also had a huge impact on Bradley, who had four films that were set to be shown at film festivals this year. “One of them is a film I actually directed and wrote. It's an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth set in a virtual reality video game company. It's a modernization and I used an Xbox Kinect, just an old Xbox, to track skeletal and facial data of my actors to turn them into VR characters. I'm in the middle of post-production on that.”
Some entertainment professionals have written off 2020 and are taking time away, but that’s not Bradley’s M.O. “I've basically gone, what are the things that I can explore that no one would ever pay me to explore? If I'm not gonna get paid anyway, what can I basically be doing that might lead towards a paycheck or a career or a sustainable industry on the other side of it?”
Bradley spent three years as the spokesperson for Staples and was the familiar “Staples guy” wearing a red shirt in commercials. Far from being innovative, “it was one of those weird commercial jobs that doesn't exist anymore. The idea that you would be the face of a brand is like a concept from the ’90s. I got very lucky that I got to do that, and it was a hoot.”
The Staples gig also brought financial resources and access that allowed Bradley to quietly do things that were part of his ethic and value system. “I had always kind of wanted to influence what I see as being a 21st century approach to fine arts education rather than a 20th century. I think that a lot of ways the jobs of tomorrow in the arts haven't been invented yet. We've got to be teaching students as soon as possible that media literacy and that kind of interest and collaboration with new emerging technology.”
It was that spirit of exploration that led him back to NYU and The Brendan Bradley Integrative Technology Lab.
“I approached NYU about a grant that I basically tethered to student-driven initiatives that had to be cross-departmental because so much of fine arts education is siloed. The dance community never talks to the film community, never talks to the drama community. I basically made them talk to each other and out of that, it evolved from a grant into a lab and it's now actually part of the curriculum. I used that grant into kind of shaping it as a lab, which was like an incubator. And then I actually got to help design the curriculum to make that part of the program.”
Upper School theatre teacher James Bohanek is adopting the same approach with a Master Class series that connects DA students with theatre professionals.
“Because of the isolation and need to socially distance, the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged people to connect to each other more often through platforms like Zoom. Although these platforms cannot replace in-person meetings, they do allow for collaboration across great distances. Case in point — the first two presenters [of the Master Class series] both live in Los Angeles. Brendan Bradley and Charlie Grandy were able to meet with our students and colleagues without leaving their home offices. The technology affords our students opportunities to work with professionals that previously might have seemed logistically and economically unfeasible.
“Moreover, I think this Master Class series has the potential to diversify the voices that teach and inspire our students,” he continued in an email to DA faculty and staff. “The Upper School Theater Company is committed to engaging with artists and professionals whose voices and stories have been historically marginalized. As statements such as “We See You White American Theater” make plain, Black, Indigenous and People of Color artists and professionals are demanding action. We can do our part by featuring Black, POC, LGBTQ+ and female artists and professionals in the series.”