Torben Brookman : Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point : Sydney, Australia
“You start to realise at a point in time that life is full of compromise; and it’s the choices that start to become interesting as you live your life, and it’s the level of importance on those different things that lead you”
An involvement in professional theatre would seem like an inevitability for the son of two successful theatre professionals but for Torben Brookman it was far from kismet. Growing up in a somewhat unusual circumstance on a 30 acre property in the Adelaide Hills that his parents had purchased with two other families with a view to creating a self-sustaining communal environment, his concerns were directed toward playing sport with the other farm-kids or exploring the endless rolling world immediately outside his front door. With his mother a playwright and father a producer and artistic director, he also watched his parents work both ends of the process and perceived a job in the creative arts as simply something his Mum and Dad did for a living.
“Whenever there was a touring company in Adelaide and Dad needed to find kids to fill in, inevitably me and my brothers were roped into those sorts of things – to be in shows as kids – and then part time work was front of house or box office or whatever…I kind of grew up thinking the theatre was great, and fun, and enjoyable, but not necessarily a job”
Initially attending a Steiner school in Mt Barker (South Australia) in his early years, he moved to a more rigid curriculum at Scotch College in downtown Adelaide and, with no specific leaning towards any profession as he neared the end of high school, he simply towed the line of expectation at the time and moved straight on to university. Initially starting an arts degree, Torben switched to a science degree in pharmacology and physiology; all the while still working part time in the arts to pay the bills. After having made the decision to complete an honours degree in exercise physiology, he had a few months break following the completion of his undergraduate studies and worked on the WOMADelaide Festival. The choice to simply pass the time between studying eventually presented an unexpected dilemma that would ultimately see a complete change in direction.
“I’d done three months of (WOMADelaide) work from Nov – January and I was either going to have to give it up and not see what happened, or defer my honours. And I thought it was sounding really interesting, so I deferred for a year and that was it…I’m still deferring and will remain so! That really lit the passion, being involved in that – I was a gopher kind of production assistant running around just thinking this was the coolest thing ever. Artists from around the world all together in a beautiful park..it was great. From then on it was bit by bit. There was never a five year plan, it was organic”
Following WOMADelaide, Torben followed his newfound interest in creative production with various jobs in the arts, including time with the Moomba festival in Melbourne, but inevitably took a year off to enjoy the New Zealand ski fields, indulging in some much overdue personal time. However, this was far more than a trip of blurry black diamond runs and fireside aprés-ski, as it allowed him time to clear his head, reassess his objectives and reset his goals.
“I should have taken a year off (before university) before I decided what I was going to do, but I never really thought that’s what you should do. I thought, what you do is you finish year 12 and then go straight to university and then you have an amazing career; they’re steps that I had pre-programmed in my head…”This is what you have to do”. I don’t know if my life would be different or not, but I think I needed to take a break from the structured trajectory, and that’s what the break down in Queenstown was about for me in a way. Not that it sent me off in a completely different direction or anything, but it was just time out from focussed direction”
Torben confirmed his passion for the theatre arts and returned to Australia to work on the mammoth New Years Eve celebrations in Sydney before taking a position with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Really Useful Group’. For the next five years, it would serve as the perfect breeding ground to hone his professional skills and indulge his creative thirst as he found himself traveling throughout Asia, Scandinavia and the Middle East with such well known shows as Phantom of the Opera and Cats (as an associate producer). And as he continued to explore his passion within the company he was slowly drafting plans to the next stage of his career.
“There was a new tour of Phantom coming up and I asked if I could step back a little bit, take up company management and go and live on the road with the company. My wife (Richelle) and I ended up getting married and going on the road together; me as company manager and her as deputy company manager. We lived in Shanghai for five months, Seoul for five months, Taipei five months, Singapore five months, Hong Kong five months, so got this great experience and knowledge of the various and very different cultures throughout Asia, and the different aspects of the arts and entertainment industry through those countries. It was really great grounding”
A side benefit to this Asian tour of The Phantom of the Opera was a period of downtime between each staging. It was the perfect environment in which to nurture a concept of his own and start to formulate a new venture; a startup production company that would bring together his professional expertise and creative vision in a concept to produce and tour various other works.
“It was an interesting tour because there were three month gaps between each different touring destination, so during those gaps we set up our own company, developed on the basis that: Phantom is brilliant, but we’re in this for the love of other work as well and we wanted to have other outlets for what we did. So our company enabled us to do that – that was Arts Asia Pacific. And the premise behind what we chose was that it had to be work where language wasn’t the major issue, as we wanted to tour work through the different places in Asia we’d been with Phantom. So we toured people like Philippe Genty…Slava’s Snowshow…some really different work”
Inevitably, Arts Asia Pacific would look to produce a show back at home in Australia resulting in the Australian Premiere of the Broadway hit, Avenue Q. It toured nationally for the following twelve months and proved to be both a rewarding and challenging experience that provided a key differentiation to his future approach.
“It was a massive undertaking and, looking back on it, we were a little naive. At the time it didn’t feel like we were, but we really just launched ourselves into this enormous project. We knew what we were doing but it was certainly the largest scale project we had been lead producer on. It was a huge challenge, and the response to the show was massive, but ultimately it didn’t meet the financial targets that we wanted it to. So there was a day of reckoning at the end that was a really valuable experience – costly – but valuable. Our industry is called “Show Business” for a reason; you still have to make the dollars and cents add up. There is a financial imperative and owning that I work in “commercial” theatre was important. This can’t just be putting stuff on for the love of it. You can put things on for artistic merit within a subsidised environment, and it’s so important to be able to do that – to be able to test new things – but that’s not the world that we run in. That was a valuable lesson, but I think we’ve remained very proud of that show and how it all came together”
Following the conclusion of Avenue Q, there was some professional soul searching which resulted in a break from the production company, and with the arrival of first daughter (Mietta), they moved back to Torben’s hometown of Adelaide to regroup and plan the next stage.
“I started doing some work with the Adelaide Festival and then the Adelaide Festival Centre and it was great for a period of time, producing for the Adelaide Festival then producing the Adelaide Cabaret Festival was fantastic. Then the opportunity with ATG came up and it was an amazing opportunity with a company that’s growing internationally, producing all the sorts of work that I’m interested in, and just has real ambition. I thought it was a good time to come back to Sydney and give that a go”
This role at ATG (Ambassador Theatre Group) sees him working with his former Really Useful Group mentor Tim McFarlane (who kick-started the Australian arm of ATG in 2012) providing scope to indulge in countless aspects of live theatre production, venue management, production and ticketing. Its parent company, based in the UK, started with one theatre in 1992 and now owns or manages 45 theatres across the around the world; a model Torben would like to see emulated here in Australia as it continues to provide the perfect storm for commercially viable theatre works.
Importantly, within the ATG production agenda is a goal to align with creatives and develop new works, which feeds directly into a passion of Torben’s. To see the next huge show to come from one place and one place only and, with the litany of talent on offer, it seems that it’s simply a matter of time before the right concept finds its way into his hands so he can nurture, develop, and see it take to the great stages all over the world.
“What I’d love to do is produce new work out of Australia that we can then take out and put it on a stage in the West End, or put it on a Broadway stage and have people go, “Wow, that’s amazing and it’s got a twist to it or a take to it that we haven’t seen before”. I’m not saying that it has to be completely novel or Australian in every way, but to have a slightly different sensibility that’s unique, a little bit different. I think it would be incredibly exciting to find that piece of work that we could do”
Finding the right show is definitely the first challenge, but with the wealth of expertise and understanding he brings to the table from a commercial perspective he can ensure that, when that happens, he’ll guard it safely with ATG to give it the best chance of achieving the heights of the great go-to productions. And it’s reassuring to know that there’s a guy in the trenches who’s passionate about developing great theatre for the benefit of the Australian industry and, in turn, all those associated with it.
“Ultimately if you control your own copyright or your own intellectual property, that at the end of the day is king really. If you can develop the “that” show, that half a percent chance of a show and that is the show that works, then that’s something you can look after for many years to come. Cameron Macintosh is a very good examples of that, with Les Misérables and others…Disney is another…Andrew Lloyd Webber is another. If you look at those really long-lived producers who remain really successful at the top end, the thing that they have in common is they control their own copyright. So whilst it’s incredibly challenging to try and get up a new piece of work, it’s something that’s really important for us for the long term. If you get that one in a million that works, and works really well, then that can be the backbone of a company for 20, 30, 40, 50 years…”
It’s an exciting aspiration that would provide the perfect project for this creative and commercially aware guy, feeding and testing his learned understanding to intelligently compromise; something he consciously does in various aspects of his life. Professionally, he’s a fundamentally creative guy with a passion for live theatre, but a wealth of understanding that recognises the need to a find balance to achieve success in the commercial arts; compromise. Personally, there’s no doubt that he’d love to share his childhood experiences in the Adelaide Hills with his own wife and daughter, but the reality is that – at this point in time – location is essential to success in his field; compromise.
But in terms of his passion for uncovering the next big show, there seems to be little compromise. He wants to find the next global theatrical success, he wants to work with the creator to ensure a successful development, he wants to do it within the structure of an existing organisation within ATG, and he wants it be branded internationally but homegrown. And given that, as adults, compromise is fundamentally the giving of one thing for the benefit of something or someone else, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s actually not a necessity, it’s a choice. And in the wonderful world he’s created for himself it’s an admirable one, that has incredibly positive fallout on all of those around him.
Torben is currently involved with the Australian production of Ghost the Musical – read more here
For more information about Ambassador Theatre Group, here’s the website