In Broadway director Jack O’Brien’s new book, he shares tools of the trade ... and some dish
If you were to create a master class on directing for the theater, your textbook would have to be Jack O’Brien’s “Jack in the Box or How to Goddamn Direct.” A follow-up to his 2013 memoir “Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director,” the new book — to be released Nov. 15 — finds O’Brien sharing the tools of his trade that he himself has honed over decades in the theater but also what he’s learned from friends and mentors. Among them: George Abbott. Ellis Rabb. Mike Nichols. Tom Stoppard.
“Jack in the Box” is populated by other theater luminaries with whom O’Brien has worked or crossed paths, such as Neil Simon and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Each story is told with O’Brien’s best candor, wit and intuition for making good theater, the kind that’s won him three Tony Awards, five Drama Desk awards and acclaim as one of the best in the business.
“I have no mystery,” he said of his achieving longstanding success as a director. “I’m not really sure how it happened. I know I’m good. I must be good, because I’m still doing it.”
Literally. He’s directing a new country-music-flavored musical comedy, “Shucked,” for Salt Lake City-based Pioneer Theatre Company at this writing, with hopes high for an eventual Broadway engagement.
San Diegans, of course, know Jack O’Brien from his long tenure (1982 to 2007) as artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre. His directing credits at the Globe date back far further than that: a production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” in 1969.
Globe founding director Craig Noel is not prominent in “Jack in the Box,” but O’Brien, in a Zoom interview from his Norwich, Conn., home, made it clear that Noel was more than prominent in his learning how to direct.
“One of the unsung glories of the Globe was Craig’s directorial touch,” he said. “It was never flashy. He wasn’t really good at all at doing big dramatic strokes. But his integrity and his sensitivity illuminated one script after another.”
When O’Brien became artistic director at the Globe, he recalled that Noel “taught me basically about humility. He taught me not to take issue or exception. Gently just hold center and it’ll all work out. It was the most useful and the last lesson I got from an external source.”
O’Brien considers Ellis Rabb, founder of the Association of Producing Arts (APA), his principal mentor. “At the end of the ‘60s,” he recounted both in the book and the interview, “Ellis had a classically trained repertory company touring with residencies in Los Angeles, New York, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Toronto. In that group were people like Will Geer, Nancy Marchand, Chris Walken. Extraordinary people came under his power.
“I think I was dry tinder in the middle of Michigan then, and he lit a fire in me. I did anything I could to be there and see somebody who was so reckless in their creativity. Passionate and dramatic. Ellis was sheer theater. I miss seeing that kind of dangerous vision.”
The chapter titles of “Jack in the Box” hint at the revelations and surprises that are to come inside them, starting with the rhetorical “What Is It You Actually Do?” Of directing and directors, O’Brien says, “We’re not a guild and not a profession. When you think about glass blowing, when you think about pastry chefs, that’s where we are. Depending on how you collide in your life with people whose essence speaks to you will determine how it all works out.”
His “collision” with Mike Nichols exemplifies this.
“Mike had maybe the best overview of anybody I’d ever known,” O’Brien reflected. “By that, I mean the long shot. He could see everything intellectually in the long shot. (In a theater) most of us get a case of ‘up-closeness.’ We’re so involved with result that we’re not looking at the atmosphere. To be a significant director in theater you are by your focus helping the audience know how to edit your work.”
Fittingly the chapter on Nichols is titled “I Like Mike.” Zooming from Connecticut, O’Brien proudly displayed the campaign-style button with Nichols’ face on it that said the same thing.
Theater lovers will enjoy the dozens of anecdotes in “Jack in the Box” and O’Brien’s experiences — some engaging and educational, others infuriating — with the likes of Jerry Lewis and Lloyd Webber, and his recollection of directing two distinctly different Falstaffs: John Goodman at the Old Globe in 1995 and Kevin Kline in 2003 at Lincoln Center.
Through it all, the still very much working director is just now discovering why he’s made it and how: “In the last 10 or 12 years of my life, I kept thinking, ‘What is it I do that people are responding to? There probably isn’t anyone in my generation who has had wider choices of material than I have, and they’re not necessarily the same things. I figured it out recently. There’s one thing I know — when I read a script, if I either laugh or cry, it’s mine.”
“Jack in the Box or How to Goddamn Direct” by Jack O’Brien (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022; 272 pages)
Coddon is a freelance writer.
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