Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 1995
Okay everybody, Sing! “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday Old Glo-o-o-o-o-be…” Officially a senior citizen, the Globe turns sixty this year. And Executive Producer Craig Noel turns 90. And Artistic Director Jack O’Brien just celebrated his 25th year with the company.
The Globe is a bit battle-scarred, but unbowed.
The original theater, a replica of its Shakespearean namesake, was built as a temporary structure for the California Exposition of 1935, and it was slated for demolition the next year. But once those theatrical seeds were sown, nothing could uproot them. A group of supportive citizens saved the edifice. But the Globe was put to the test twice more, when arsonists razed the building in 1978, and another fire destroyed the Festival Stage in 1984.
Noel came on board in 1939, and has since directed more than 210 plays. His vision for the Globe resulted in the establishment of the Shakespeare Festival in the ’40s, expansion to two theaters in the ’50s, Globe Educational Tours in the ’70s, and Teatro Meta and addition of a third theater in the ’80s.
It was Noel who saw the potential in O’Brien. “He’s the most amazing man in the world,” says O’Brien. “Craig saw something in me that I couldn’t see. I’m a song-and-dance man, a musical comedy baby. He had me doing Shakespeare.” O’Brien was invited to direct “Much Ado About Nothing” in 1975, and the lush romantic comedy is his choice for the 1995 season opener (January 14-February 26).
This production is based on his earlier one, but set in 19th century Spain. Why not thirteenth century Italy, as Shakespeare intended? “Kenny Branagh already did that,” says O’Brien, referring to the recent film. “You can’t just update this piece, because it’s intrinsically a Catholic play. The major issues are morality, virginity and family pride. The period must bespeak honor, or it wouldn’t work.” There will be Spanish classical guitar throughout — — the first time the Globe has had live instrumentation in a non-musical show.
In the leading roles of Beatrice and Benedick, those linguistic gymnasts, O’Brien has cast two of his respected Associate Artists, Katherine McGrath and Richard Easton. “Yes,” he admits, “they’re probably a little, shall we say, ripe, for these parts. But why not just pour it on? This is an idyllic cast. You have to just sit back and let it roll over you….” For the first time, O’Brien has cast one of his recent USD/Old Globe MFA graduates, Maurice Mendoza, for an Actors’ Equity debut.
Noel will direct the Globe’s second offering, the West Coast premiere of “Time of My Life” (March 11-April 23). First produced in England in 1993, the cunning comedy is the prolific Ayckbourn’s 44th play, and the eighth to be mounted at the Globe. O’Brien calls Noel “the best interpreter of Ayckbourn in America today.”
Meanwhile, in the wake of Des McAnuff’s departure from the artistic director’s chair at the La Jolla Playhouse, does O’Brien plan to leave or, like Noel, grow old with the theater? “I would never abandon this theater or leave San Diego,” he asserts, “but a person can dominate a theater and destroy it, like a vine that chokes back vegetation. I want to always be able to come back and work here, but not always be running the Globe.”
Has he felt constrained by his fairly old, fairly conservative audience? First, he says, the audience has gotten 15-20 years younger in the past two decades. The average age is now about 50, and it remains the largest subscription audience in the country (about 40,000 strong). “We don’t have an adversarial position,” says O’Brien. “I feel we have a partnership. I don’t insult them or talk down to them, but I love to challenge them. They may not always like the piece (David Mamet’s “Oleanna” was particularly controversial), but they always get a high-quality production. It’s the percentage and quality of work they’re betting on, and we deliver more often than not.”
An almost-eternal optimist, O’Brien does have a darker side. He’s “tired of the Globe being portrayed by the press as this gray lady in the park. They don’t acknowledge our new plays, multicultural programs, and the young actors we’ve developed.” He’s also “very worried about the state of regional theater, dwindling federal funding, and ensuring its survival into the next century. I’ll keep administering CPR to this art form till the ambulance comes.”
Looking forward is better than looking back. 1994 was a dreadful year for the Globe, with the murder of a budding young MFA acting student, the untimely death of veteran public relations man Bill Eaton, and the departure of Derek Hurd, Globe controller for 17 years. “It was the worst year I can ever remember,” sighs O’Brien. “I’m looking forward to the anniversary year and putting that one behind us.”
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.