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Jack's Next Stage


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Almost from the moment in 1981 when Jack O’Brien became artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, those aware of his reputation, ability and ambition began asking him when he was going to leave. Well, it’s 21 years later and, fortunately for San Diego and its ballooning theatrical reputation, he hasn’t left. Yet although he cherishes the city and his organization (now the Globe Theatres), his departure and its date could hinge on our civic leaders’ vision and capabilities.

O’Brien believes he’s developed the Globe about as far as he can, given present circumstances. But he has a grand dream for the next level that, if realized, will make the city a world mecca for theatergoers and a national leader in the arts.

“What I’d like to do,” he says during an animated interview in Chateau Brien, his charming Mission Hills home, “is turn this into a Glyndebourne [England’s world-renowned opera festival site], a place designed as a round table for major American theater people to make an investment.” The Globe, he envisions, would be “a destination camp of superior quality where, at any given time, at least four other major artists are sitting at the table with me making policy.”

O’Brien says he’s made this proposal to “everybody,” then lists names including producer Hal Prince, director Mike Nichols and choreographer Graciela Daniela: “In, say, 2004, would you come and join me for three years, or two years, at X amount of money, for which you would give me three pieces of work—the hot commercial property you’re now refining, and we’ll launch it here; one major classical piece; and one that we, your colleagues, think you should do or something you’ve always wanted to do and no one’s ever let you. And every one of them has said, ‘When do you want me?’

“There are directors in this country every bit as good as I am, but few that are better—and I’m the best host. I cook, and I’m comfortable with lots of egos. I love other people’s work, and I love other people to succeed. I’m completely secure.”

The cost, O’Brien knows, is daunting. “I’m talking about a lot of money. We have a $3 million endowment. We need between $30 and $50 million right now to even take this seriously, and the board has approved it and wants to go after it. They know what I want.

“Mike Nichols came out for a board meeting and stood with me and spoke eloquently of the necessity to do this—that there’s no place designated where American theater people can go and do their best work. And then we decide whether you all should come to San Diego to see the work. Or whether we’ll send it on the road. Or we’ll take it into a commercial engagement. Or take it to London and forget the rest of the country. Or shoot it for television. We’re all very conversant in these matters.

“Where else is this going to happen? It’s not going to happen in New York, because The New York Times wouldn’t allow it. It won’t happen in Los Angeles, because L.A. isn’t live theater, basically. San Francisco’s a closed shop.

“We could claim a territorial imperative that is ours by right, from 65 years of continuity, that would rival anyone’s in the world. And our proximity to Los Angeles and the talent base is there. I have an easier time casting people in San Diego from Los Angeles than they do for theater, because there, it represents nothing more than an audition for another film. But when they come here, they’re treated seriously and they’re taken seriously and they’re produced beautifully. They know that.

“People say, ‘But unfortunately, this is a bad time.’ Is it? I think this is exactly the time when somebody with fire in his belly should get up and say, ‘Let’s create something out on the water. Let’s show everybody that we have something more than a sports franchise and a zoo.’”
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