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Tom Bradac, a Pillar of Orange County Theater, Dies

Close up photo of Thomas Bradac wearing glasses and polo shirt.
Thomas Bradac. Photo courtesy of Chapman University

Thomas Bradac, a pillar of Orange County’s theater community for decades, has died. He was 76. Bradac was best known for his longtime championing of Shakespeare as the head of two local companies devoted to the playwright’s work.

“For those who worked with Tom in his Shakespearean companies, he was the guy who carried it all from beginning to end. That’s a tremendous achievement,” said John Walcutt, currently director of the El-Erian Family Acting Conservatory at the Orange County School of the Arts. Walcutt succeeded Bradac as director of Shakespeare Orange County and worked with him frequently over the years.

Walcutt said that unlike many actors, Bradac could be shy and reserved.“He was a tough guy to get to know. He wasn’t gregarious. He had a very small circle of friends that he was very devoted to. And he was a great dad. He was very devoted to his family.”

“Tom Bradac was a lover of Shakespeare who transformed that passion into a theater company devoted to his works, the Grove Shakespeare Festival,” said Richard Stein, president of Arts Orange County, who was managing director of Bradac’s Grove Shakespeare Festival from 1987 to 1990. “It attracted a loyal following and had a healthy subscriber base that came from throughout the region and developed a critical reputation for excellence. Many outstanding professional theater artists acted in, directed and designed productions there, who revered Tom for his unflagging devotion to producing Shakespeare’s works.” 

In a 2013 interview with The Orange County Register, Bradac talked about his long experience with Shakespeare. He recalled playing King Lear for the first time when he was only 31 years old.

“It was 1978, and I was on the part-time faculty at Orange Coast College. I was asked by the director if I was willing to play Lear. I said, ‘Sure!'” Bradac admitted then that he had no idea the amount of work that would be involved. But that challenging role changed his life. “It rekindled my desire to do Shakespeare. I knew then what I had to do.”

The idea made practical sense as well, Bradac reasoned.

“At the time, SCR was really the only game in town; the Laguna Playhouse was basically a commercial theater,” he told the Register. “There were some dinner theaters, but that was it in O.C. I thought, ‘It’s time for theater to expand here. I can’t just reproduce what SCR is doing.’ Shakespeare seemed to make the most sense.”

For more than 30 years, Bradac was a major producer of Shakespeare in Orange County, initially as the founding artistic director of Grove Shakespeare Festival, then running Shakespeare Orange County, another company he founded after leaving Grove Shakespeare.

Bradac’s career as a Shakespearean producer started in 1979 when the city of Garden Grove hired him to run a 172-seat former movie house, the Gem, that had recently been remade into a theater with a proscenium stage courtesy of a $1.2 million HUD grant. Bradac’s first Grove Shakespeare Festival was launched on the Gem’s minuscule stage: a production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

“The city wanted to change its image,” Bradac recalled. “That was the impulse behind the building of the theaters. In the interview process, I remember telling them, ‘I’m interested in this job if you allow me to take it as far as I can.'”

The following year, Bradac got more ambitious with the staging of two Shakespearean comedies, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Taming of the Shrew.” Over the ensuing seasons, Bradac’s festival drew some talented people: South Coast actor/director Kristoffer Tabori, designers Cliff Faulkner and Shigeru Yaji. 

But Bradac’s theater struggled with issues of vision, financing and city oversight, prompting him to resign under pressure mid-season in 1991. The company closed one season later.

Bradac’s career as an educator flourished at Chapman University, where he worked full-time as a professor of theater beginning in 1990. He founded Shakespeare Orange County in 1992 – a summer-season company intended as a training experience for his students, who got a chance to work and learn from professionals. In 2003 Bradac brought his company to another venue owned by Garden Grove, the Festival Amphitheatre. He retired from Shakespeare Orange County in 2013.

Unpromising beginnings

Bradac, a Southgate native, said his path to Shakespeare started by chance when he was in high school.

“I went to a private boys’ Catholic school, and I wasn’t having the greatest time,” he told the Register. “The only thing I understood was language and poetry; otherwise I wasn’t doing too well.”

But everything changed when Bradac was cast in a production of “The Merchant of Venice.” “That was my kickoff into Shakespeare. When I finally got to public school I played Macbeth. I seemed to have some kind of close relationship to (Shakespeare’s) writing.”

As a university student, though, Bradac turned away from the bard.

“In college, the closest I got to (performing Shakespeare) was working as a backstage dresser for ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ We were doing alternative theater and the European avant-garde – Brecht and Artaud.”

Bradac completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater at Cal State Long Beach before settling in Orange County in 1970. He worked at various theaters, including South Coast Repertory, and taught part-time.

At Chapman University, Bradac was a beloved teacher and served as chair of the Theater and Dance Department for many years. Among his many achievements and honors, he was a founding director of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international service organization dedicated to producing Shakespeare; he served as the organization's president. 

Bradac was also active as an actor throughout his career. Among his more memorable roles besides King Lear:  Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and Falstaff in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

A memorial service for Bradac has not yet been announced.


Richard Stein, who is quoted in this story, is member of the advisory board for Culture OC.


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