AT 74, director Jack O’Brien is a walking repository of theater history of the latter half of the 20th century, having worked with some of the brightest lights of the American stage, including John Houseman (a father figure), Eva Le Gallienne (notorious for her lesbian love affairs), Helen Hayes (“by definition a trouper”), designer Rouben Ter-Arutunian, Rosemary Harris and husband (the flamboyant, bibulous bisexual actor-director Ellis Rabb, who served as O’Brien’s febrile mentor), eventually directing him in Pygmalion.
O’Brien’s new memoir, Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of An Unintentional Director (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), will be an indispensable resource for theater aficionados and students, a behind-the-scenes account of the growth and mundane mechanics of the repertory and regional theater movement. Most entertainingly, the book is packed with anecdotes about the backstage interactions of the brilliant, devoted company—a surrogate extended family, and all that that implies. O’Brien is proud to think of himself as “the living link, through Eva Le Gallienne, to the Moscow Arts Theater and [Alla] Nazimova.”
O’Brien originally aimed to become a writer and composer of musicals. In 1957, while at the University of Michigan, he won an award for “best collegiate musical” for Land Ho!, with a whimsical book about Christopher Columbus arriving in America smuggling a cargo of women on his ship. In time, O’Brien became involved in the formation of the Association of Producing Artists (APA), a touring rep group founded by Ellis Rabb, who functioned as artistic director and actor, with a base in Ann Arbor. Over time, O’Brien, as Rabb’s faithful assistant and “his inevitable Sherpa,” became gradually absorbed into the company. But it wasn’t until 1969, at age 28, that he directed a successful production of A Comedy of Errors and found his true métier.
O’Brien went on to serve as artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theater for 25 years. He’s won Tony awards for directing the musical Hairspray and Tom Stoppard’s nine-hour trilogy, Coast of Utopia. He even tackled the operatic stage, directing critically acclaimed productions of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at Radio City Music Hall (Tony Award) and Puccini’s Il Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera. More recently, O’Brien directed The Nance, a smash-hit play by Douglas Carter Beane currently on Broadway, starring Nathan Lane as a closeted gay burlesque comic in 1930’s New York, who stumbles into a romance with a younger man.
I met with Jack O’Brien at the office of O’Brien’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to conduct this interview.