Two score and seven years ago, Jack O’Brien and I were fraternity brothers at The University of Michigan. Even as callow youths, all of the brothers were aware that Jack was an uncommon talent in our midst. He had an amazing ability to sit down at the fraternity’s beat-up old piano and with no effort—and no sheet music—play and sing an endless stream of Broadway show tunes. Delt house Saturday nights were always parties to remember. As those boozy evenings went on—and things got a little more romantic—the cry would go up: “Hey, has anybody seen Jack? My date wants to hear Blue Moon…”
Jack went on to an astoundingly successful career in the theater—directing plays, musicals, and even opera. In 2003, he won the Tony Award for “Best Direction of a Musical” for his direction of Hairspray. And on this past June 10th, he took the stage at the 2007 Tony Award telecast—and claimed the Tony for “Best Director of a Play.” When accepting his award for The Coast of Utopia, Jack had, in my slightly biased opinion, the best quote of the evening. Brandishing his shiny new Tony he proclaimed in ringing tones : ''Now let's have no more nonsense about the state of the American theater.”
By the end of the night, a total of seven Tony Awards had been won by The Coast of Utopia—a record for the most Tony Awards ever given to a play. But calling it a play doesn’t begin to hint at the complexity and challenges that “Coast” presented. A trilogy written by Tom Stoppard, it is three separate plays that portray a group of Russian intellectuals during the revolutionary turmoil of the 19th Century. Audiences remained riveted as, on three separate evenings, they followed the characters journeying across a wide sweep of history—moving from Russia, to France, to England.
This powerful, ambitious trilogy certainly represents a Big Idea in the world of theater. And—since my blog’s title also includes the word “Picturing”—I had a keen interest in how Jack had visualized this Big Idea.
In a review of the trilogy’s first play, "Voyage," Ben Brantley, theater critic for The New York Times, compared it to the initial production he had seen in London four years earlier. His review included this observation: “Mr. Stoppard, Mr. O’Brien and the genius set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask have refitted and streamlined the play in ways that both quicken pace and enhance clarity. And not to sound shallow when the subject is so deep, but did I mention that it all looks absolutely ravishing?” (Italics added.)
Several weeks later, Brantley reviewed the second part, “Shipwreck.” He wrote that the play “…is directed by Jack O’Brien with the same seductive vividness he brought to the trilogy’s first part...” (Italics added.)
Brantley—who I’m willing to bet is a visual wonk himself—also reviewed part three, “Salvage.” His review began with two extraordinary picture-making sentences: “What an ungodly mess. What a heavenly spectacle.” (Once again, italics added.)
Hmmm… “looks absolutely ravishing”… “seductive vividness”… “ungodly mess” and “heavenly spectacle.” Since these were all colorful, visual references, I figured I’d better call my fraternity brother and get the scoop. I reached him in late June, after he’d returned from a brief vacation in Spain.
JOHN: Let’s start here, Jack. The first time you read a script for a new play, do you think about it visually?
JACK: The process is visual but it doesn’t begin visual. I think of it much more as an emotional thing, so I want to do pieces that move me—pieces that touch me personally, and create some visceral response. After all, I’m a storyteller and my medium is people. So as opposed to a sculptor looking at a slab of marble or a painter looking at a canvas, the thing that excites me—or will trigger something—is my ability to communicate a particular story by explaining my feelings to the people who will have to interpret it.
It strikes me that directing a big, wide-spectrum play must be a little like herding cats?
The whole idea of directing a play or an opera or a musical is to try to get everyone there, independently, to tell the same story in exactly the way you would have told it yourself. And you can’t do that except by convincing the actors that what they’re doing is their own idea. Theater is for all intents and purposes an act of faith—the actors must actually believe in the moment and then, by their conviction, they make the audience believe it too.
Take me back to when you first saw Tom Stoppard’s script for The Coast of Utopia—did you read it with a growing sense of excitement?
No… no… on the contrary! I didn’t understand it at all. In 2003, Tom sent me the first play, only the first of the three. Since it was a trilogy, I was both intrigued and intimidated. But frankly I wasn’t that excited about it—it was going to take too much work.
What changed your mind?
To begin with, I went to see an initial performance of “Coast” at the National Theater in London.
When you watched it did you begin to have preconceptions of how you would direct it?
No—I was totally mystified. And when it was over, I didn’t think I could do it. As a matter of fact—I didn’t want to do it. I felt it was a very complicated, very ambitious piece and that it was not for me.
Was Tom Stoppard assuming you would direct the American production?
Bob Crowley and I had collaborated on two previous pieces of Tom’s and so it was sort of assumed that we would be doing it. And Tom was still working on the script. So over the next three years I spent a lot of time being with Tom, and discussing the plays, and listening to him.
What is your creative relationship with Tom? As you discuss things, does he take creative input from you?
(LAUGHING) To begin with, I’m a University of Michigan graduate—and he’s Tom Stoppard. But mostly I’m with him as a student and I need to know more. And so I’m questioning: “I don’t understand this? Why is this in here?” And he tells me. Little by little, we talk more about what it should be and how he wants to make it clearer. Eventually we’re coming together. He might say:
“I need to do more work on this.”
“I think I did this better once.”
“I think I can make this clearer.”
But through all these conversations, I still didn’t know how to do it.
What was the overall timeline?
I went into rehearsal almost exactly four years after I saw the show in London. During the first three years, Tom and I would find each other at various places around the world. For those three years we would talk and I would be trying to clear my brain and figure out what this was? Then there was one year of actual creative work—of actually preparing it.
How does that happen in the theater?
It begins by trying to convince all these designers to work together. The play was so big, nobody could do the project on their own—they didn’t have the time. But they decided it would be a lot of fun to collaborate. I like a lot of people—and a lot of egos—around me. That doesn’t intimidate me, it turns me on.
Do you always use collaboration when directing a show?
The amazing thing about the theater is it uses the most amount of collaboration of any of the performing arts. It takes a combination of talented people to convince the audience that what they’re seeing on stage is happening at the very moment they’re seeing it. And to create that illusion, the play ultimately must look like it’s one person’s vision—even though it is clearly the “visions” of about 13 people.
So there were 13 collaborators?
Yes, I convinced these enormously talented people to work together, including the composer, the set designers, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the vocal arranger, the stage manager, and the people who handled wigs, props, and speech authority for dialects. And they were all looking forward to it. Then, when we were one week away from our first meetings, they started saying: “Don’t expect US to come up with it! YOU better tell us something that turns us on!” And they laughed because they knew that this was going to be impossible.
At that point did you have a vision—a picture—something to turn them on?
I didn’t have an idea in my head—not one.
What are the elements of visualizing—or picturing—a show?
There are four questions I ask myself:
First, in what space is this show taking place?
Second, what are the actors wearing?
Third, what time of day is it?
Fourth, is there any music?
Those are very visual questions. Except for “Is there any music?"
Actually, you can think of that question as visual because the show might need music if we’re moving from one location to another.
Let’s get back to your amused collaborators who insisted that you turn them on. Were you able to come up with something?
This is what I said to them at those first meetings:
“Okay here it is. There are three plays.
The first one takes place on a dome that is in fact a field of blue flowers. And only at the end of first act do you understand that you’re not looking at a dome with blue flowers on it but you’re looking at a painted Russian Easter egg.
Number two. The second play takes place in black and upstage you see a giant Fabrege egg. And slowly that egg comes downstage until it’s in front of the audience and then it splits and is in fact the apartment that is being rented in Paris. All of this is suspended about 8 to 10 feet in the air. And when the revolution happens the egg cracks in two and the rest of the scenery is red or bathed in red light and the characters don’t notice it. They look across—and act across—the void but they don’t notice that it’s broken.
And the third play? It takes place entirely in—and of—eggshells.”
Those are stunning pictures. How did they react?
They were gobsmacked. They loved it! They roared, they laughed, and John… (PAUSE FOR EFFECT) …we didn’t use any of those ideas.
Good story, huh?
(CONTINUING) But, y’see, what it did it was prove to them I was completely audacious and brave. And it proved to them that I was way out of box and that they should not be careful.
Thank you Jack. You’ve given me a powerful picture of how a very big idea came to life.
(END OF INTERVIEW)
In conclusion, Dear Blog Reader, let me recommend that if you ever get a chance to see one of Jack O’Brien’s breathtaking stage productions, don’t miss it. Because there’s a very good chance you’ll be—gobsmacked.