SAN DIEGO — Theatergoers mostly see only the end result of an artistic director's labors--the plays on stage. What does a theater's chief artistic visionary really do to earn his keep?
Flamboyant, stylish, energetic, witty and articulate bordering on glib, Jack O'Brien plays many roles as the Old Globe Theatre's artistic director. Besides planning seasons and choosing many of the theater's actors, directors and designers, he is collaborator, coach, mentor and at times father figure to the scores of creative people who work at the Globe. To lift the curtain for a peek behind the scenes, O'Brien was accompanied by a reporter on a recent work day.
The day is Wednesday, July 23. It is the height of the Old Globe's season; more than 200 people are on the payroll. Six of seven summer festival shows are up and running on four stages ("Pump Boys and Dinettes" is playing at the San Diego State Mainstage Theatre).
This Wednesday is just two days before the world premiere of Steven Metcalfe's "Emily," a play about a young woman trying to decide if she has the courage to love. The day provides a chance to catch O'Brien in several roles.
Conferences. Time, 11:05. Place. O'Brien's office. O'Brien hits the Globe administrative offices in Balboa Park and is inundated with greetings, hugs and a wave of briefings caught on the fly.
Globe Managing Director Tom Hall steps in from his adjoining office and updates O'Brien on the progress of a possible Globe collaboration with a well-known Broadway creative team as executive assistant Lynn Marvis hands O'Brien a handful of phone messages. Most are from New York or Houston, where O'Brien will restage his 1976 Houston Grand Opera production of "Porgy and Bess" for a national tour.
O'Brien and Hall discuss the pros and cons of working with the New York team.
O'Brien will direct Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" for a fall "American Playhouse" air date, and calls are pending. O'Brien gives Marvis his New York schedule and asks her to tell "All My Sons" producer Michael Grandman and Lindsay Law, American Playhouse executive producer, to arrange a meeting with Arthur Miller. Daytime is preferable--"we should see theater in the evening," O'Brien says.
Then there are plans for an August trip to Glyndebourne Theater Festival in England. The Brits have staged "Porgy," and John DeMain, conductor of O'Brien's "Porgy," wants him to see the production.
Audition. Time, 11:40. Place, Rehearsal Hall A. An actress is being auditioned. O'Brien, Globe Executive Producer Craig Noel, and associate directors David Hay and Robert Berlinger troop through the building to the cavernous hall where the actress waits. O'Brien breaks the actress's tension with a joke about the press.
She performs a scene as Queen Margaret from "Henry VI," (Part 3, Act I), a scene from "Stage Door" and sings a song. The audition goes well. "That was the most won-derful audition. Very good. \o7 Very \f7 good," O'Brien says. They thank her, then head back to the office. The associate directors have made written notes.
Lunch. 12 to 1. O'Brien doesn't want the press along for lunch. He needs the hour to talk with an actor who has a problem.
Director's notes. Time, 1:06 p.m. Place. Rehearsal Hall A. The 13 "Emily" cast members are seated in a circle on chairs.
O'Brien has a reputation as an actors' actor, a director who understands actors, who has a way of building an ensemble, of making everyone in the cast feel important.
After some preliminary jokes, O'Brien gets down to business with, "In the immortal words of my deceased grandmother, 'bleep it.' "
One of several notes for Madolyn Smith, who has the title role:
"Madolyn, you've got real pay dirt in 'there aren't enough . . . men to go around.' Really lay it out for them. It's amazing what's going on in this. Just be aware that it is vindication for a lot of what goes on. It's as if suddenly you get a power rush of 'Right on, honey' (from the audience)."
"How can I do it more?" Smith asks.
"Just lay it out for me. Just more authority, just meet those boys right there in the volleyball court and \o7 bat \f7 it right back at 'em. Just have a good time, that's all. It's nothing intentionally you're not doing. Just enjoy it."
O'Brien gives actor Larry Drake a note on his scene as Emily's drunk co-worker who starts coming on to her:
"Larry, I think what I'm asking for there that I haven't gotten is that as you begin to go into your litany to her, you should accelerate, so that each thing batted away, goes forward, batted away, goes forward, so that actually it builds in rhythm toward the end: So OK, don't sleep with me, marry me. Well, then such and such . . . . (The scene) tends to be pulling apart and going down as opposed to him whipping his little sled of huskies through this blizzard in front of him."