THE “Big River” juggernaut has dried up, and so has a generous multimillion-dollar federal grant. Why not jump ship?
That’s a perception Bill O’Brien, who’s leaving the post of managing director and producer of North Hollywood’s Deaf West Theatre to become the first director of theater and musical theater for the National Endowment for the Arts, wants to set straight.
“There’s certainly the potential for people to naturally assume I’m leaving Deaf West because I have to,” said O’Brien, a tall, smiling man with sandy hair who still looks boyish at 43. “I was not at all looking to make any kind of a move. I was deeply involved in a number of things with Deaf West, including government relations efforts” to help restore funding, he said. “To leave, I thought, would feel like turning the channel in the middle of double overtime.”
Ed Waterstreet, Deaf West’s artistic director, hired O’Brien in 1999, just months before a grant from the Department of Education kicked in, to the tune of $4 million over five years. Like the leaders of other deaf theater companies around the country, Waterstreet has had to do some belt-tightening since last year, when the grant ended. Still, he persuaded O’Brien to take the NEA position.
“To go from Deaf West to the NEA -- that’s an honor for us,” Waterstreet said through an interpreter. “It’s bittersweet; it will be hard to find somebody to fill his shoes. He was like my ears out there.”
Indeed, O’Brien was instrumental in raising the profile of Deaf West locally and nationally. The first show he produced there was an award-winning deaf-and-hearing version of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In 2000, he brought in director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun to helm the company’s biggest gamble yet, a seemingly oxymoronic hybrid: a “deaf musical.” Deaf West’s production of “Oliver!,” which mixed signing and singing actors, garnered local awards and critical acclaim.
The company was ready for the next step: a musical adaptation that could travel. Calhoun directed “Big River,” the 1985 Roger Miller musical based on “The Adventures of Huck Finn,” at Deaf West’s tiny North Hollywood space in 2001, with O’Brien as a guitar-picking Mark Twain. The company hoped to attract touring partners and ended up landing two doozies as co-producers: L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, where the show transferred in 2003, and New York’s Roundabout Theatre, where it ran later that year.
O’Brien calls the convergence of factors that made “Big River” such a success “kind of the perfect storm.” Thematically, the original story of a racial divide was only enhanced by the added layer of a deaf-hearing gulf -- an element that the show’s original producer, Jujamcyn Theaters’ Rocco Landesman, appreciated and encouraged.
“It probably wouldn’t have been possible if we weren’t working out of this 99-seat environment, where you’re able to commit to doing it at this small level, and you can see what you have,” O’Brien said. As the show grew, O’Brien stepped out of the cast and stepped up his producing role, eventually helping to raise the $1.5 million needed to take the show to New York.
But as significant as “Big River’s” Broadway run was, a tour stop at Washington, D.C.'s Ford’s Theatre might have been even more important to the fortunes of the company (not to mention O’Brien, who happened to step back into the Twain narrator role there).
“Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa saw ‘Big River’ there,” Waterstreet recalled. “And even [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist saw it there, came backstage and gave us this hearty embrace. I’m hopeful we did have some impact on the powers that be.”
While Deaf West patiently works on its public and private contacts to restore previous funding levels, its newest project wouldn’t be possible without its higher national profile: “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” is an original deaf-and-hearing musical by Rachel Sheinkin (Broadway’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) and the band GrooveLily. Directed by Calhoun, it opens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre next spring. Helping the show take shape: a $60,000 grant from the NEA.
Setting the stage
O’BRIEN’S first jobs out of drama school gave an eerily accurate preview of his career trajectory. Competing in the 1985 Irene Ryan acting competition, a rite of passage for many fledgling thespians, the native Iowan won a scholarship and received two offers: to go on a national tour as Romeo in “Romeo & Juliet” and to work as a performer and musician for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
He chose the Shakespeare gig and later toured as the lead of “The Will Rogers Follies” and “The Buddy Holly Story.” But the National Technical Institute also lured him into its fold as an actor and musician for the company’s touring productions, which fused sign language, speech and music for deaf and hearing audiences. This complete immersion in a foreign culture quickly taught him more than sign language and respect for the deaf experience. Touring in a van and performing with sign language-fluent performers also “allowed me to put myself in the shoes of what it would be like for a typical deaf person when they walk into a bank or a restaurant,” he said. “The sense I got was that there was a conspiracy of information I wasn’t allowed to share.”
That hard-won empathy obviously served him well at Deaf West. But in his new position at the NEA, O’Brien’s years as an actor in touring musicals and classics is likely to be even more relevant. Among his main responsibilities will be to manage endowment initiatives that bring Shakespeare and American classics, musicals as well as straight plays, to underserved communities nationwide.
“The thing that impressed me about Bill is that he’d worked in every aspect of theater and had success at it,” said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. “One of the problems we have in the theater right now is that most programs focus on one part of it at a time rather than seeing it as a complex ecosystem where a change in one area affects every other area.”
O’Brien’s emergence from a place other than New York was also a big plus.
“I’m particularly delighted to bring someone from the Los Angeles theater scene, which I consider one of the finest in the English-speaking world, to the NEA,” Gioia said. “Not that I have anything but respect for the New York scene, but it’s only one of many dramatic centers.”
THOUGH the NEA’s funding has quietly increased under the Bush administration, some skeptics view the theater programs under Gioia’s chairmanship, with their emphasis on preserving classics by dead playwrights, as overly safe.
“I see nothing wrong with preserving the masterpieces of the past, and I would question the judgment of anyone who did see something wrong with that,” Gioia responded. “The important thing to note about our Shakespeare program is that we added it without cutting a single grant from our basic programs. The NEA still has a huge theater program, both in spoken and musical theater. We supported 135 world premieres last year.”
In his new capacity heading the endowment’s theater programs, O’Brien said he’ll be expected to propose new initiatives as well. But his first mandate, he said, is “to go there and listen for a while.” He’s committed to two years at the post, and though he’s moving his family from L.A., he can’t bring himself to sell his home in Highland Park.
“I love my neighborhood,” O’Brien said of the sleepy northeast L.A. borough where he’s shared a home with his wife, Amy, and son Callahan. Another son from a previous marriage will start at UCLA in the fall. The move to Washington is also likely to put O’Brien’s sporadic film and TV acting career on hold -- a bit ironic, since his biggest credit was a memorable recurring role on “The West Wing” as a sign language interpreter.
What finally sold him on the NEA, he said, was the same sort of potential that gave him his greatest thrills at Deaf West.
“I knew going in I wouldn’t have that hands-on producerial satisfaction I’ve been getting,” O’Brien admitted of his new post. “But I started to realize that some of the deeper satisfaction I was getting at Deaf West was in figuring out how to build infrastructure -- how to build a road where all the deaf and hearing artists and audiences can come together.” He came to see that the task of building and sustaining an audience, as much as creating and supporting individual theaters and productions, “is kind of what NEA is about. What I’ve gotten to know, through Deaf West’s partnership with the NEA, is that they have a staff that’s very committed to the kinds of things we’ve been doing.”
O’Brien may keep his former company in his heart, but he was careful to point out, “Deaf West deserves to get NEA grants, and they can deliver these programs like no one else can. But there is a very transparent process about how these things are going to be awarded, and great pains are undertaken to make sure the process is fair. I don’t imagine I could affect that in any way.”
In any case, he’s not worried about his former company as it hunkers down on Lankershim Boulevard and prepares to rebuild. “Ed’s not at all afraid of the future,” said O’Brien. “He’s driving the bus, and I was lucky enough to ride shotgun for a while.”