San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. Where Americans play Shakespeare with Elizabethan passion
Peacocks call in the gathering twilight and the tall palm and eucalyptus trees assume magical colors. The lush gardens of San Diego's Balboa Park provide the perfect setting for an outdoor production of Shakespeare's ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' at the Old Globe Theatre, and artistic director Jack O'Brien has capitalized on this resource to create a ``Dream'' both magical and human. Using resources at hand and playing Shakespeare with an uncommon vitality and freshness have become hallmarks of the Old Globe Theatre -- celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1984 the Old Globe received a special Tony Award for outstanding achievement by a regional theater. Jon Voight, Christopher Reeve, Barry Bostwick, Sada Thompson, Patrick Duffy, and Daniel J. Travanti are among the performers who have appeared here, and over the years the theater has established a tradition of performing Shakespeare by using the best in American acting technique instead of trying to mimic the British.
``American actors have the energy and vitality that English actors sometimes lack,'' says Craig Noel, executive producer of the Old Globe and a member of the company almost since its inception. ``Where this continent is today is where England was during Elizabethan times -- it was new fields to conquer -- discovery.
``English productions are sometimes so dull. When you come here, you think, `These are the kind of men that Hotspur and Henry V were . . . this is the red-blooded Englishmen. . . .' All that vitality is terribly important to Shakespeare.''
British actor-director Norman Welsh, who appeared in Olivier's original ``Richard III'' in England and is now head of the theater program at the University of California at Los Angeles, shares this view. ``The North American English is closer to Shakespeare's English than is present-day British speech,'' he says. ``The work at Ashland [the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.] and the Old Globe is sometimes exotic, but it is at all times exciting.''
The dynamic techniques of the Globe's American approach to Shakespeare have worked for comedy as well, according to Los Angeles-based actor-director Brendan Dillon, formerly of Dublin's renowned Abbey Theatre. ``The British approach to Shakespeare is pragmatic and works very well, but it often lacks passion,'' he says. ``And in Shakespeare, you have got to have the passion. But I have seen fine productions on both sides of the Atlantic, where actors combine the best elements of both approaches. This als o works for comedy. A few years ago, I saw a production of Wycherly's `The Country Wife' at the Old Globe that combined Restoration acting technique with a sense of realism which I liked very much.''
The focus of the Old Globe remains Shakespeare, however, and this theater -- along with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, also celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year -- paved the way for other festivals across the country and inadvertently created an American brand of classical theater.
``What the Old Globe and Ashland did -- slowly but surely, was to raise cultural standards,'' Mr. Noel says. ``We gave actors classical training and experience. Regardless of what you say about our work -- good, bad, or indifferent -- there is no doubt that actors in this country are playing and acting Shakespeare better because of these two organizations.''
American actors have been playing Shakespeare with a difference at the Old Globe since 1935, when Thomas Wood Stevens of Chicago's Goodman Theatre designed a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre as part of the California Pacific International Exposition. When the exposition closed and the playhouse was threatened with demolition, citizens of San Diego joined with a group of actors and the Works Projects Administration to raise $40,000 to turn the Globe into a permanent fixture of Balboa Park and begin