Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 2005
When Craig Noel first laid eyes on the Old Globe Theatre, it was just a temporary structure, erected for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. He was a 20 year-old camera-rental clerk, and he’d sneak away from his job to catch the condensed Shakespeare mini-plays performed in the replica of Shakespeare’s Old Globe. Once he saw it, he never left.
Noel made his acting debut at the theater in 1937, and became the permanent director three years later. In his 68 years at the Globe, he’s directed over 225 productions. In 1949, he established the world-renowned summer Shakespeare Festival. Now the Globe is celebrating its 70th anniversary, just in time for Noel’s 90th birthday.
The Summer Shakespeare Festival was revived last year, after a 20-year hiatus, and it returns this season with three of the shows that played that first year, back in 1935: The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth and A Winter’s Tale. As at the outset, the work will be performed in repertory, by a resident acting company. The Globe will also present the West coast premiere of Ron Hutchinson’s comedy, Moonlight and Magnolias, for which Noel will serve as Production Supervisor.
He feels a special affinity for the play, which goes behind the scenes at the creation of “Gone with the Wind.” In practically his only professional venture outside San Diego, Noel served a brief stint as apprentice director at 20th Century Fox (1941) and directed the first screen-tests of Marilyn Monroe and Shelley Winters. “I was very aware of the crazed search for a star,” he says, “which is what this play is all about.”
After he went off to war, Noel came back to his hometown for good. He shepherded the Globe from a community theater to a three-theater, Tony Award-winning center of national renown. Once the theater started expanding, Noel realized he couldn’t do all the directing himself. Jack O’Brien was first hired to direct in 1969, and spent years, on and off, bringing Shakespeare to the Globe stage, before he was named artistic director in 1981 (“The best thing I ever did,” says Noel). O’Brien’s about to celebrate his 25th year at the Globe; coincidentally, his first production here was A Comedy of Errors.
He still maintains that Noel, who spent decades nurturing new talent and introducing new dramatic voices to San Diego, was unique among artistic directors.
“He wanted good work, not total control,” O’Brien says of the man who’s been celebrated as a local Living Treasure. “He had the temerity to invite really high-power people in; that started the revolution of cross-pollination. People came here because of Craig. He was welcoming, wise, and since things always move West in this country, this became one of the next oases of culture.
“I wanted the nation to come here,” continues two-time Tony Award-winner O’Brien,” to substantiate the notion that those of us who work outside Broadway are not country cousins. Here at the Globe, we do pure, classical, text-driven work that respects the play. That’s what Craig established and that’s what we still do.”
Having these two men together in the same room is to feel the surge of creative energy that has driven San Diego theater since its inception. Both are quick to laugh, and very funny. Both have a strong feeling about the importance of theater — in general, and for local audiences.
“When I came here,” says O’Brien, “the community already had 35 years of a theatergoing habit. Nobody wanders into the theater, you know. You have to be taken in. And if you have that habit, nothing else will appeal to you in quite the same way. So there was this bedrock, in a beach community, of serious theatergoers who knew what good theater was.
During my tenure, regional theater came of age. And I’ve been a –very mouthy – part of it. I’ve used my very good fortune to be a proselytizer for the value of the work we’re doing.”
“The national regional theater movement,” Noel goes on, “and the National Endowment for the Arts, all started during the Kennedy years. That’s when the whole reversal started. We always did Broadway reruns, 2-3 years after they were in New York. Then suddenly, the regional theaters were creating shows that were attractive, and those were being taken into New York. And Jack supplied the needs of New York with what he was doing here.”
Most recently, O’Brien took The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels from San Diego premieres to Broadway. His international reputation has solidified the Globe’s place on the theater map.
“Craig,” says Jack, “is the only one of the original pioneers still standing — let alone being funny. His tenacity has powered this theater. His insistence that ‘attention must be paid’ – to text, to the smallest detail of the facility, the bathrooms, even the deportment outside the theater.”
No one knows or remembers that better than Marion Ross, the actress (best known for “Happy Days” and “Brooklyn Bridge”) who attended San Diego State College, and got her theater and Hollywood breaks through Craig Noel more than 50 years ago.
“One time,” Ross reminisces, “he looked up at the theater and said the lightbulbs needed changing. I said, ‘This is really your home,’ and he replied, ‘It’s my religion.’ He loves the city, not just the theater.”
For the Globe anniversary celebration (Open House, June 18), Ross will serve as Mistress of Ceremonies, in the role of Queen Elizabeth. She’ll also be on hand for the 90th birthday party on August 25, when a bronze bust of Noel will be unveiled at the theater. .
Noel has never officially retired; he maintains an office at the Globe, and remains an active theatergoer.
“I’m so happy to see all the new and small theaters,” he says. “They’re so exciting. They have the energy and excitement of youth, of doing it for the first time. I love theater of all kinds. But I’m critical. People say, ‘Don’t ask Craig what he thinks, because he’ll tell you!’”
He has his aches and pains, and he’s losing his peripheral vision to macular degeneration (“I see everything in soft focus now”). But he remains relentlessly upbeat.
“I come from a background of optimism,” he says. “But what depresses and angers me is the unfairness of all the wealth and all the poverty in the world. I don’t believe in a two-class society… And I’m not too happy with the theater trying to compete with Disney and the movies, with these big extravaganzas. You go to hear a play. The appreciation is the poetic use of langue, or language to try and change your view on something.”
When asked what advice he’d give to budding theatermakers, he doesn’t hesitate. “The best thing an actor can have is wealthy parents,” he says with a laugh. And as for directors, “Be careful that you don’t destroy the innate difference in people. Sometimes the whole cast sounds just like the director. It’s the different rhythms that make the play sing. I think of a play as a musical score.”
“When I came here,” says O’Brien modestly, “I saw a blueprint that seemed ripe for expansion. I didn’t invent anything here. I worked with the several spaces of humane — not rock-concert — size that maintain the intimate nature of theater, that can impact the human heart. That’s what Craig set out, and that’s what we’re still committed to.”
“My whole purpose,” says Noel, “from beginning to end, was to have a good theater and to make San Diego a good theater town. I think I’ve fulfilled that mission.”
[The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale run in repertory, outdoors at the Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, from June 19-October 2. Moonlight and Magnolias plays July 16-August 14 in the Old Globe Theatre].
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.