An excerpt from Jack in the Box can be found here.
Apparently even a master director and Tony winner can harbor doubts about what he does and how it’s done. “I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that directing doesn’t quite qualify as a regular profession,” writes Jack O’Brien. No wonder his juicy memoir and ambivalent how-to manual, Jack in the Box: Or, How to Goddamn Direct, gets off to a shaky start.
O’Brien concedes, “This book is giving me fits,” and “I feel as if I’m stalling.” His candor is admirable, but this reader grew tired of the procrastinating. The strangely annoyed subtitle, “How to Goddamn Direct,” bespeaks an impatience for craft and writing about it.
O’Brien’s learned that craft at the APA/Phoenix Repertory, at the feet of theatre royalty like John Houseman, Eva Le Gallienne, William Ball, and his singular mentor, actor-director Ellis Rabb. (It’s an education detailed in a previous memoir, Jack Be Nimble.) With that level of instruction, it’s easy to understand why he prizes observation of the best as the only way to learn to direct. But how do you know whether you’re on the right track? Instinct. How does he read a play? We never find out. How does a director conceptualize a production? It helps to have a brilliant designer like Bob Crowley, who can hand you a ground plan with little guidance.
Although the sections on the technical aspects of directing are abbreviated, there are valuable advisories and cautions. On table work: If a solid groundwork has been laid, a director is less likely to have to “invent” busy work for the actors when they get on their feet. On note sessions: Rather than just offering course corrections, they represent an opportunity to mold and inspire a company and “explore every possible nerve ending.” And in tech rehearsals, following the lead of stars like the Lunts, Helen Hayes, and Noël Coward, it doesn’t hurt to learn the names of the crew members by the second day. A surprising addition to the list is Jerry Lewis, who plays a significant role in Jack in the Box.
The importance of inspiration is often omitted from directing books, but O’Brien’s essay on the subject is, well, inspiring. In July 1984, in the middle of rehearsals for Othello at the Old Globe (where O’Brien was artistic director from 1981 to 2007), his costume designer, Lewis Brown, interrupts the proceedings and begs him to drive to Los Angeles to see a production at the Olympic Arts Festival. O’Brien dismisses him until Brown literally orders the director to go. Reluctantly, O’Brien gives the company a day to study so he can attend Giorgio Strehler’s production of The Tempest. “It’s gonna change your fucking life,” the designer insists. And it does!
With the thrill of a theatregoer experiencing magic for the first time, O’Brien paints an indelible portrait of the production, most notably the moment when Prospero renounces necromancy: He calls in Ariel one last time, and she appears above and behind him from the darkness. He unhooks her rigging, and the rope shoots up with an otherworldly whir. He quietly says to her: “E libera.” She turns tenderly to him and then to the audience, terrified at first, and then in wonder. And in a final magical twist, she runs up the aisle and out of the theatre—free. This impassioned account retrieved my own memory of that astonishing production. For O’Brien it was not only an inspiration but an opportunity for some serious soul-searching. What he thought was his best effort at the Old Globe “appeared to be mere kindergarten to the wealth of imagination” he witnessed in Los Angeles.
On the page as in life, O’Brien is an expert raconteur, and the engaging stories continue with an invitation from a New York producer to revive Damn Yankees at the Old Globe—where he’s artistic director—in preparation for a Broadway run. For a modern audience, O’Brien believes the sexist plot points and dialogue must be changed. And so he goes toe to toe with the 105-year-old book writer, director, and legendary script doctor George Abbott. After a first meeting at which no one is sure Abbott even understands the objections, the New York producer, Mitchell Maxwell, urges O’Brien to take a crack at rewriting 15 or 20 pages. O’Brien is despondent; he can’t believe for a moment that Abbott will agree to an alternative version written by someone else. Maxwell thinks he’ll get 80 percent of what he’s asked for, so O’Brien accepts the challenge, taking significant liberties with the text.
At a five-hour showdown meeting without a bathroom break, Abbott objects to virtually every altered word and comma. O’Brien doesn’t believe in Young Joe singing “Two Lost Souls”; it has to be Axelrod. Abbott counters that if he doesn’t believe it, he can’t direct it, and that’s that. The project is dead. But just as they get up from the table, O’Brien offers a compromise: Why not try out his revisions in San Diego and see if they work? If they don’t, they’ll restore the original version for Broadway. Abbott graciously accepts. Months later the production has a rapturous opening at the Old Globe. The next morning, with pen and paper in hand, O’Brien dutifully readies himself for notes. But Abbott, ever the pragmatist, waves him away, saying, “What does it matter what I say? They stood, didn’t they?”
Part Two of the Damn Yankees saga launches a parade of colorful tales populated by outsized egos and raging narcissists. They also attest to the author’s people management skills. When the question arises of who should replace Victor Garber as Applegate in the touring production, Maxwell offers Jerry Lewis. O’Brien is skeptical. Has the comedian ever done a straight play? Or been on Broadway?
At their first lunch meeting O’Brien enters a room full of people where Lewis is regaling the attendees with the adventures of his nine-year-old alter ego. At the end of lunch, needing to go back into a rehearsal but not having said a word, O’Brien asks the comedian one question: Do you intend to hire your own writers on this show? To his surprise, Lewis proclaims his love for every word of the play. That’s enough for O’Brien. And under his direction, Lewis turns out to be surprisingly dedicated, collaborative, and creative.
Running a regional theatre requires many hats, including a fireman’s, as well as the ability to stomach an endless game of whack-a-mole. It’s not surprising, then, that virtually every artistic director has multiple stories of the “one that got away.” O’Brien cites one such instance at the Old Globe, when he anchored a season with a revival of the rarely produced Carnival, topped off by an elaborate circus-like end of the year fundraiser. All was ready, even the floral arrangements designed by the women’s auxiliary. But at the 11th hour, disaster struck: The rights were withheld by the sister of the late librettist. It’s enough to make one immediately seek alternative employment.
Yet on the very day of that dark news, an envelope arrived with a return address marked “Sondheim.” Was it a new musical? No, but at this point “it could have been written in Finnish haiku, and the response would have been the same: We’ll do it!” A spoken word mystery, Getting Away With Murder was hardly a masterwork; it would later close on Broadway after 17 performances. But at the Globe, with a great design, an engaging lead performance by John Rubinstein, and an amusing coup de theatre, O’Brien and the theatre lived to fight another day. The board of directors was pleased, the gala was a resounding success, and the coffers were replenished. Having helmed the Old Globe for 25 years, O’Brien must have many more war stories than the ones he shares in these pages—perhaps a book of them.
In one of the most compelling chapters O’Brien addresses his failures. Most prominent among them was the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, a misbegotten sequel to Phantom of the Opera. Such a project would seduce most directors with designs on collecting royalties well into old age. O’Brien also fell victim to ego and the entreaties of a great friend and collaborator. After having turned down Lloyd Webber once, Bob Crowley couldn’t resist His Lordship’s pressure to design Love Never Dies, though there were warning signs everywhere. Crowley knew the scenario was weak. The revised script seemed like an improvement. And O’Brien got roped in because Crowley deemed him one of the few directors with whom he could endure the challenge.
It’s a wonderfully tell-all saga, and also a doleful but utterly invaluable tale of a wildly overprivileged bully far from the top of his game and the valiant efforts of a director and designer to keep the ship afloat. That O’Brien eventually stood up to His Lordship apparently made history in the annals of the Really Useful Group. Ultimately the director imparts a cardinal rule that could apply to any endeavor: If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you shouldn’t make the voyage.
The last quarter of Jack in the Box takes a turn to the highbrow. After an expert analysis of the two Falstaffs he directed, one Dionysian—John Goodman—and the other Apollonian—Kevin Kline—the author saves his most heartfelt writing for the relationship with Tom Stoppard. It begins with one that got away and came back again, thanks to the ministration of Stockard Channing. Though she was one to recommend O’Brien to Stoppard, she turns out to be otherwise engaged and hence can’t star in Hapgood. In educating O’Brien in quantum physics for the play’s premiere at Lincoln Center Theater, Stoppard is more than generous with his time. But when he sees the director’s staging of the end of the first act, he lowers the boom with brutal frankness. It’s a pattern that recurs with the other three Stoppard plays O’Brien directs: Whenever the director invents a conceptual framework for the work, Stoppard shoots it down with a howitzer. The way Sir Tom delivers the news stuns even him when he’s reminded later of his outbursts.
Yet O’Brien clearly grows in Stoppard’s estimation, becoming the playwright’s go-to director in America, and they become good friends. For his part O’Brien so admires Stoppard’s way of implanting “the most articulate version of what he wanted the production to reflect” that he wisely chooses to eliminate unifying concepts rather than confront the playwright. O’Brien comes to realize that Stoppard loves his words, and any misspoken vowel or visual that distracts from them by an iota causes outrage.
After attending in one sitting the massive trilogy The Coast of Utopia at the National Theatre, O’Brien and Crowley swear to themselves they will not try to produce flawed epic. What U.S. theatre would present it, anyway? But at a midnight supper, they find themselves unable to disappoint Stoppard. With Lincoln Center stepping into the breach, the “glorious monster” became a success d’estime and a major event of 2006. A feat of producing and perhaps O’Brien’s greatest directorial achievement, Utopia garnered Tony Awards for both director and designer.
As an anatomy of a playwright-director relationship, the Stoppard chapter is nonpareil, at times more penetrating and incisive than Hermione Lee’s recent biography. It will undoubtedly be a primary source for dissertations on Stoppard and his collaborators. The chronicle is also a testament to O’Brien’s eclectic career. Few American directors have been fêted for both easygoing entertainments (a Tony Award for Hairspray) and plays as heady and recondite as Hapgood and The Invention of Love.
The foundation of O’Brien’s achievement was clearly his years with APA/Phoenix, where he was exposed to a broad repertoire and a long list of talented actors and directors. Working extensively on Shakespeare also provided elemental training in the high and the low. No wonder he writes of directing: “Study it…in a classroom? I don’t think I get it.” If every fledgling director had his elemental background, there might be no need to teach directing.
Michael Bloom is former artistic director of Cleveland Play House and the author of Thinking Like A Director and the recently produced adaptation of Nathan the Wise.
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