Dennis Britten – A Sailor’s Log

First few years – I had no idea during my first year at Portland State as a musical composition major what a pull the sea would have on my life. After that year, I left my home in Oregon for San Francisco to live in a city on the ocean. Always wanting music to be my life, I went to work for Sherman Clay Music Company where I learned of the Lamplighters of San Francisco a theatre company destined to become the oldest resident Gilbert and Sullivan company in the U.S. I joined the company where along with performing other shows, I became a member of the crew on the H.M.S. Pinafore. What a ride! It was my first role, Bill Bobstay, the carpenter’s mate. I had been officially bit by the G&S bug and Pinafore seemed to be what launched me full steam ahead into a life of theatre.

Next twenty or so – After living a number of years in the Bay Area, signing the first professional Actors Equity contract and doing a couple of stock seasons, it seemed that the sailor was ready to sail on, at least to continue an educationA Sailor's log. So I boarded the Swedish ship, the Kungsholm in New York bound for the Royal Conservatory in Stockholm. Trouble was I had passed through New York and the sirens that call to sailors on the rocks called to me. It was not long after that I yielded and moved to New York. I was buffeted back and forth on the Atlantic between it and Europe for more than 20 years singing musical theatre and opera, all the time yearning for a family like I had known with the Lamplighters and performing Gilbert and Sullivan.

Again it was H.M.S. Pinafore that was the pinnacle performance and the one that changed things. I had become a member of The Light Opera of Manhattan which, among other shows, performed Gilbert and Sullivan. But this time it was not the chorus but the sailor that the lass loved, the tenor, Ralph and that pinnacle performance was with the Naumberg Symphony in Central Park to an audience of thousands and broadcast on the radio.

Next thirty or so – A sailor, always being at sea, very often has no family and so it was with this one. But that did not mean one was not longed for. So it became the plan to finish the education that would allow me to form a family like the one that had lived with me since my early sailing days with the Lamplighters. I went back to school in NY and soon became a professor of theatre at Arizona State, way too far from the sea. In spite of that Phoenix Showspace Theatre, PSST! was formed and specialized in condensed versions of Gilbert and Sullivan where, as a seasoned sailor at this point, I was relegated to the role of the Admiral. No more romantic leads. But guiding a ship through desert sand was not my dream and Portland needed a resident Gilbert and Sullivan repertory theatre as much as I needed a theatre family. I was also to the age that I wanted other young actors to experience the kind of family that nurtured me when I was young. So Dairyville Players, now Light Opera of Portland was formed.

I can’t believe 60 years of theatre have sailed by so quickly and been so much fun. It’s full circle, back on the stage where I sang my first solo in seventh grade. Not only will this most likely be the last time this old sailor boards the H.M.S. Pinafore as its Admiral, it is also the first time as the Admiral of the complete version. Although as director of LOoP, it may be difficult to stick to my desk and never go to sea after having been the ruler of the Queen’s Navy, I think, this performance may be the last for me. We’ll sea.

Dennis Britten