Jack O’Brien is Nimble, Quick, and Celebrating a Life in the Theater

The three-time Tony Award winner shares his thoughts on directing for the stage, forming an acting company, and William Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy.

Jack O’Brien is a half-hour late calling for our phone interview, and when he finally does, it’s with a prolonged, profuse, and incredibly theatrical apology. It’s not surprising that a gentleman of theater like O’Brien would lose track of time. Along with recovering from recent triple-bypass surgery (“I’m sure it’s going to be fine, which is the miraculous thing about those”), he spent the day auditioning actors for his upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth — starring Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff — and interviewing a “flashy actor” (read: big star) who he wants to be part of his cast.

O’Brien is one of the busier stage directors working these days. Last season he directed two plays — Theresa Rebeck’s Dead Accounts and Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance. In between (and before, and during), he found time to write Jack Be Nimble, a memoir of his experiences working with Ellis Raab, the legendary impresario behind the long-defunct APA-Phoenix Repertory Company, and the many actors who plied their trade with the group, including Rosemary Harris, Richard Easton, Eva Le Gallienne, and Helen Hayes.

The experience changed O’Brien’s life. In this interview, we discuss how.

Jack O'Brien
Jack O’Brien
(© David Gordon)

I’m looking forward to your Macbeth at Lincoln Center Theater.
I think it’s going to be spectacular. It’s a completely original approach to the play. I’m doing it basically like a nightmare, and it’s not really in any period. I’m really trying to extract the text and make things actually happen out of the text. You don’t really see something until it’s mentioned. There are these actors coming down, and Duncan says, “This castle hath a pleasant seat,” and the set starts gliding into place. In the cauldron, instead of throwing dead bodies, the witches hurl these beautiful scraps of paper with “eye of toad” written on them, but as they fall into the cauldron, they become real.

That sounds very interesting.
And there’s more of that shit! [laughs] I think it’s a play about addiction — addiction to power, addiction to ego, addiction to one’s self, hubris, and even drugs. In that respect, it’s powerfully contemporary, even though this won’t feel like a contemporary reading.

So onto the subject at hand, your new memoir, Jack Be Nimble. Tell me why you wrote it.
Nobody remembers Ellis [Raab] and nobody talks about that. There was a review in the paper a year or so ago in which one of the Times guys lamented that there hadn’t been any great repertory companies, and even Rosemary [Harris] wrote in and said, “What are you talking about?” Those people, like Richard Easton, and Patricia Conolly, and Nicky Martin said, “You have to write the book,” because I was holding the cards all those times. I tried very much to write it about Ellis; that’s what I wanted to do. I’m not a theater historian. I thought, “If I couldn’t write it from a personal point of view, I couldn’t make it sing.”

It actually works very well. It feels like you’re in the room with them during rehearsal.
That’s what I was hoping to do. I was also trying to figure out if you can write about a company that’s not just a list of “And then we did this, and then we did that.”

And the anecdotes you have. I was particularly taken by the fact that you had [noted Broadway wig designer] Paul Huntley design you a toupee.
It’s still in the basement if you want it! [laughs]

Is it feasible to form a repertory company today?
It would take a lot of money. Somebody would have to be in love with it besides us, the theater ants. Somebody would have to say “Damn it, this is not only worth funding, but it’s worth passion.” I think those of us who’ve touched it over the years realize the value and how incredibly exciting it would be for us to do it. I’m at the point in my life where I’ve done enough of all this work. I spent twenty-five years out in San Diego [as artistic director of The Old Globe] raising money…It’s absolutely not the fun part.

Which contemporary actors would be your choice for leading man and leading lady if you were to build a rep company today?
That’s a hard one. The most important word is “company.” I was talking to somebody this afternoon and was saying that they were constructed so you play Hamlet tonight and I play Macbeth tomorrow, and I play something to support you and you play something to support me. The workload was spread around. You can’t build it on one person down. The perfect example is The Coast of Utopia. For a year, I basically had my own company, and they all bit at the same time. Billy [Crudup] and Ethan [Hawke], Richard [Easton] and Jennifer [Ehle], all at the same moment, said “Yes, we’ll do this,” and when word got out, it spread like wildfire. Nobody knew it was going to be a success; it wasn’t that much of a success in London.

One thing I have to say about all of your shows is that all of your actors look like they want to be there and are enjoying doing the work.
The single most important thing that I feel responsible for is that the company cherishes the work.

How do you make a cast a true “company?”
I’m not sure I can distill that in a bite that would make sense. The book you read is how I learned to do that. It’s about mutual respect, inclusion, attention to detail, making everybody part of the same experience. It’s a bonding thing.

Are you worried that Macbeth is oversaturated these days?
No. First of all, not everyone is going to see them all. It’s like saying Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is being conducted by three different people in town. It’s going to be a different event. They’re symphonic ideas. They don’t belong to one interpreter.

What are you most proud of in your career?
Has anybody been luckier with a range as much as I? When you realize that the uncut Porgy and Bess started me off, that I’d have the opportunity to do a ton of Stoppard, Hairspray, that I’m able to do Il trittico at the Met — how do I top that? The remarkable thing about my life is having been trained in a company psychology. I have a company attitude about my work. I don’t like to do just one thing; I like to do a lot of things. I did a Hamlet for Campbell Scott that remains in my life. I did a wonderful Twelfth Night, my last show at the Old Globe, which I’ll never forget. I did an Our Town in San Diego in the seventies with amateurs that I can tear up just thinking about. The work itself is the same thing. It’s just the scene that changes.

Which of your productions do you think didn’t get a fair shake?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve been luckier than most. [pause] I have to say, I’m fascinated by the vitriol that was poured on Dead Accounts, which the audience really liked. They really enjoyed it. And it was funny. And Norbert [Leo Butz] was titanic, and it was just swept off the table. You think to yourself, “Could I have been that wrong?” I don’t think it was a rude noise made in public. We’re such all-or-nothing people. When I first came to New York, you could go to a play like that and see a performance like Norbert’s, or Jayne Houdyshell’s, or Judy Greer’s, and say “Oh, that was delightful.” We’ve missed a middle range of talent and experience by wanting juggernaut hits. And that’s because it’s so expensive. If that play cost twenty-two bucks, everyone might have touted it. But if it cost $122 and put up against Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [which was playing across the street]? They might want to see that.