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On to higher billing

Moving from Deaf West to the NEA, Bill O'Brien will wield influence on a national stage. Will it raise L.A.'s profile too?

July 30, 2006|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

THE "Big River" juggernaut has dried up, and so has a generous multimillion-dollar federal grant. Why not jump ship?

That's a perception Bill O'Brien, who's leaving the post of managing director and producer of North Hollywood's Deaf West Theatre to become the first director of theater and musical theater for the National Endowment for the Arts, wants to set straight.

"There's certainly the potential for people to naturally assume I'm leaving Deaf West because I have to," said O'Brien, a tall, smiling man with sandy hair who still looks boyish at 43. "I was not at all looking to make any kind of a move. I was deeply involved in a number of things with Deaf West, including government relations efforts" to help restore funding, he said. "To leave, I thought, would feel like turning the channel in the middle of double overtime."

Ed Waterstreet, Deaf West's artistic director, hired O'Brien in 1999, just months before a grant from the Department of Education kicked in, to the tune of $4 million over five years. Like the leaders of other deaf theater companies around the country, Waterstreet has had to do some belt-tightening since last year, when the grant ended. Still, he persuaded O'Brien to take the NEA position.

"To go from Deaf West to the NEA -- that's an honor for us," Waterstreet said through an interpreter. "It's bittersweet; it will be hard to find somebody to fill his shoes. He was like my ears out there."

Indeed, O'Brien was instrumental in raising the profile of Deaf West locally and nationally. The first show he produced there was an award-winning deaf-and-hearing version of "A Streetcar Named Desire." In 2000, he brought in director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun to helm the company's biggest gamble yet, a seemingly oxymoronic hybrid: a "deaf musical." Deaf West's production of "Oliver!," which mixed signing and singing actors, garnered local awards and critical acclaim.

The company was ready for the next step: a musical adaptation that could travel. Calhoun directed "Big River," the 1985 Roger Miller musical based on "The Adventures of Huck Finn," at Deaf West's tiny North Hollywood space in 2001, with O'Brien as a guitar-picking Mark Twain. The company hoped to attract touring partners and ended up landing two doozies as co-producers: L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, where the show transferred in 2003, and New York's Roundabout Theatre, where it ran later that year.

O'Brien calls the convergence of factors that made "Big River" such a success "kind of the perfect storm." Thematically, the original story of a racial divide was only enhanced by the added layer of a deaf-hearing gulf -- an element that the show's original producer, Jujamcyn Theaters' Rocco Landesman, appreciated and encouraged.

"It probably wouldn't have been possible if we weren't working out of this 99-seat environment, where you're able to commit to doing it at this small level, and you can see what you have," O'Brien said. As the show grew, O'Brien stepped out of the cast and stepped up his producing role, eventually helping to raise the $1.5 million needed to take the show to New York.

But as significant as "Big River's" Broadway run was, a tour stop at Washington, D.C.'s Ford's Theatre might have been even more important to the fortunes of the company (not to mention O'Brien, who happened to step back into the Twain narrator role there).

"Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa saw 'Big River' there," Waterstreet recalled. "And even [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist saw it there, came backstage and gave us this hearty embrace. I'm hopeful we did have some impact on the powers that be."

While Deaf West patiently works on its public and private contacts to restore previous funding levels, its newest project wouldn't be possible without its higher national profile: "Sleeping Beauty Wakes" is an original deaf-and-hearing musical by Rachel Sheinkin (Broadway's "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") and the band GrooveLily. Directed by Calhoun, it opens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre next spring. Helping the show take shape: a $60,000 grant from the NEA.


Setting the stage

O'BRIEN'S first jobs out of drama school gave an eerily accurate preview of his career trajectory. Competing in the 1985 Irene Ryan acting competition, a rite of passage for many fledgling thespians, the native Iowan won a scholarship and received two offers: to go on a national tour as Romeo in "Romeo & Juliet" and to work as a performer and musician for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

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