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Late bloomer on centre stage

He started out in the chorus line but today there's hardly a job in theatre Stephen Pike hasn't done, writes Ron Cerabona.

Stephen Pike was, by his own admission, a late bloomer. It comes as a bit of a surprise, so prominent a part of the Canberra theatrical scene has he been for more than three decades as an actor, director, theatre administrator and producer. Pike was, however, nearly put off performing forever by a teacher in school who mocked his ''high, pure'' singing voice.

''My mother used to say I sang before I talked,'' he says.

''I didn't see much theatre but my family had a huge collection of musical theatre records.''

He grew up listening to Mario Lanza and Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, and sang in a church choir, but after that school incident he shied away from performing for years.

But he's made up for lost time since then in a big way.

Born in Sydney, Pike moved to Canberra in 1964 at the age of nine. After finishing school, he studied science at TAFE and worked as a biological research technician at the Australian National University. He also ran boarding kennels with his mother for a decade on a 16-hectare block.


He once delivered four puppies in the car while his mother was driving. He also remembers delivering a calf. Perhaps there's a metaphor in all that for what was to come in bringing productions to life, sometimes under trying circumstances.

But the performer in Pike would not be silenced. One night at a party in 1978 someone heard him singing and the then president of Tempo Theatre, Charles Oliver, invited him to join the chorus of a production of Calamity Jane.

''I didn't go until I got invited and it was a fluke I kept going,'' he says.

Calamity Jane was being bumped out and auditions were being held in the foyer for Canberra Repertory Society's production of Godspell. Pike tried out and was cast as John the Baptist.

And other shows followed in quick succession for various Canberra companies, including Oh, What A Lovely War! and Jesus Christ Superstar, to name just a couple. Performing highlights included Hair, which made him many long-time friends, and two productions of Les Miserables. In one of them, his portrayal of Jean Valjean won him a 1996 Canberra Area Theatre Award. He's received many awards since then, especially for his work as a director.

Now the performing bug was unleashed, it was insatiable: he did some late-night after-show singing at Mario's cabaret in the city. He decided with a friend who worked in a restaurant to buy a place. He ran the Bellows in Kippax for eight years as an upmarket restaurant-cabaret, and then next door a more casual family-oriented place called Hippo's.

In 1990 he consolidated the two into Tarzan's Theatre Restaurant, which ran until 1999 and won three Canberra Area Theatre Awards as best theatre restaurant.

''The thing I loved most about it was seeing the customers laugh out loud, combined with working with some of the most talented people in town,'' he says.

It also started him off as a director, leading to his first main stage production, at the ANU Arts Centre in 1997, Aspects of the Musical.

Several factors including a change in venue led to Tarzan's decline and in 1999 Pike became business manager of Canberra Repertory Society, occasionally acting and directing too. He says he learned a lot there and is proud that the subscriber base and box office increased markedly during his time. And he praises Rep's place in the theatre community.

''Rep has been an incredibly strong and valuable training ground for people,'' he says.

He formed a theatre company with Canberra actor, playwright and director Duncan Ley which produced well-received original plays by Ley including The Burning and In Cold Light, as well as Reginald Rose's 12 Angry Men.

After leaving Rep and spending some time running a garden business, Pike became the program director of the new Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre in 2007, a position he's held since. His long experience in theatre was a big help in giving him a sense of what would sell and it is becoming more and more successful, establishing itself, as he intended, as a ''boutique'' theatre with its own niche: local and touring productions aimed at a popular market, rather than focusing on edgier modern fare (the Street) or big main stage shows (the Canberra Theatre Centre).

''I've learned to do what people like,'' he says. Not that he claims infallibility in judging audience tastes: he thought the play Embers, about the Victorian bushfires, would be cathartic for people after Canberra's own fiery devastation and programmed it in 2009, but it turned out they didn't want to revisit such an experience.

''Perhaps it was too early,'' he says.

Pike says people want an emotional experience from theatre - to laugh, to cry, to think a little bit, to have something to which they can relate.

''With Tuesdays with Morrie you could hear people crying out loud,'' he says.

''It was an extremely popular play around the country when it toured.''

And even darker material can appeal, if it's the right kind: the tragic musical Blood Brothers, which Pike directed, was a big success, enjoying a return season - again, Pike says, because it made an emotional impact. In 2011 that production received a Special Mention in the Manning Clark House and was described as a ''deeply moving and masterfully executed piece of theatre''.

Pike says he wonders what might have been different had he received encouragement rather than ridicule at school.

''Sydney director Rodney Delaney said to me, 'You're a great nurturer of talent'. I never stopped to consider myself that way before.''

But on reflection, he concedes there's truth there: he's worked with and developed a lot of performers of various levels of age, experience and skill and is thrilled to see people he's worked with go on to bigger things - like Ben Kindon and Pete Ricardo, both in his hit 2012 production of Hair, who are both going to tertiary performance courses this year.

Hair, Pike says, was a show that was aimed squarely at nostalgic baby boomers, a big part of the theatre-going audience.

And director Adam Maher, now based in London, credits Pike with inspiring him to make his own directorial debut in Canberra, which led him to an international career in theatre and opera.

Pike says he sees himself as ''a stepping stone'' for people like this. And he can deal with the insecurities of performers as well as guiding them.

''If people are nervous before a show, I tell them, 'I've got to worry about all of you and be nervous for everyone.' ''

Not that this empathy, or admiration for the region's talent - which he says is particularly impressive given the size of the population - means he has low standards: Pike is critical of aspects of local amateur theatre.

In the past, he says, people would commit to one show at a time; now, rehearsing one or even two shows while performing in another is common. But that's a product of enthusiasm and the proliferation of companies, and he understands that's how it is now.

Also, too often, he says, ''mediocre has become the new standard of excellence in Canberra'', although he adds there have been some very impressive shows recently including Supa's War of the Worlds and Everyman Theatre's Rent.

''Personally I am always striving to have a cast improve their skill base and realise their potential with each show I direct. In the main we have community theatre companies producing the local work but there should always be a desire for it to be more than just fun. After all, we are charging the public to see what we produce,'' he says.

He's been a CAT Awards judge for 15 years as well as judging the Canberra One-Act Play Festival twice and the Riverside Plaza Star Search for the past four years: other ways to help mould and recognise talent.

Another comment that really meant a lot to Pike was when fellow CAT judge David Whitbread said: ''You're the best three-minute director in Australia.''

Directing the CAT Awards Gala Night means working quickly and efficiently with numerous regional theatre groups, most of whose work he's never seen, to combine their different acts into a one-performance show that same night. It's a very particular talent to possess.

Pike says his mother has been a great source of inspiration throughout his life ''but used to always remind me to keep striving for the best because 'you may be a rooster today but you could be a feather duster tomorrow.' ''

With a busy 2013 ahead - already lined up are another season at the Q to administer, another CAT Awards night and productions of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change and Return to the Forbidden Planet to direct - it doesn't seem like Pike will be losing his feathers any time soon.