New Face at the Old Globeby Pat Launer January 31, 2013
By Pat Launer
Come west, young man. And make your mark.
Well, you can’t really say Barry Edelstein hasn’t already made his mark. But that was in New York. Now he has a big San Diego playground where he can frolic as the new artistic director of the Old Globe.
I spoke to him on his third day on the job, so he wasn’t exactly settled in. But he was “excited and appreciative. The city has rolled out the red carpet,” he says. “It’s been overwhelming and touching and scary.”
Judging by his credentials and accomplishments, he’s got nothing to worry about.
Edelstein (pronounced EH-duhl-steen), was born in Paterson, N.J. He grew up in Fair Lawn, N.J., where he attended Fair Lawn High School and went on to graduate summa cum laude from Tufts University. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he earned an M.Phil. in English Renaissance drama.
His father and uncle owned Edelstein Office Furniture (“my father was owner, founder and chief schlepper). His “modest” childhood home was kosher, and his family was active at Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative temple where Barry became a bar mitzvah. His relatives were involved in the founding of that shul.
His parents still live in New Jersey, and though they’re excited about his new adventure, they miss their two young grandchildren, Tillirose (middle name, Shoshana), age 5, and August (middle name, Pesach), age 4 months.
Edelstein is a proud product of the New Jersey public school system; that’s where he got his first taste of theater.
“That was back when public schools had first-rate arts programs,” he says, before the Draconian cuts to arts in education. He was 13 when he performed in his first play.
His wife Hilit (her family is Israeli) also started out as an actor. Now she’s in the travel business.
After completing his London education in the late 1980s, Edelstein had a genuine (life-changing) Jewish Mother Experience.
Joseph Papp, Edelstein says of the legendary visionary who founded the powerhouse Public Theater, “got very, very Jewish in his later years [Papp died in 1991]. He started studying Talmud, brushing up on his Yiddish and taking stock of his life. Every Jewish organization in the city was clamoring to honor him.”
At one of those luncheon events, Edelstein’s mother was an attendee.
“Amazingly,” Edelstein says, “she got him to sign a paper saying, ‘Have your son contact me about a job.’ When I actually got an interview, I produced the paper. Joe Papp gave me my first paying job in the theater.”
At that time in New York, Edelstein reports, “all anybody talked about was the Old Globe. It was Jack’s glory days” [Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien, the Globe’s long-time former artistic director].
“My wife and I spent a couple of years in L.A. before our daughter was born [he was working in TV and film], and we saw some Globe productions. Who could ever dream that one day I’d be running the joint?” he quips.
“We’re thrilled to be here, in what we feel is a wonderful place to raise children. They’ll grow up at the Globe, exposed to an extraordinary range of people.”
The making of a man of the theater
After his impressive education, Edelstein went on to become the artistic director of Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company (1998-2003), where he directed John Turturro in “Richard III”; David Strathairn in “The Winter’s Tale”; Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” starring Roger Rees and Uma Thurman (making her stage debut); and the world premiere of “The Underpants,” adapted from a 91-year-old German comedy by Carl Sternheim. Edelstein suggested the wild and crazy idea to the original ‘wild and crazy’ guy, sometimes playwright Steve Martin. (The piece had its local premiere last year at North Coast Repertory Theatre.)
Edelstein served as producer on at least a dozen other productions at Classic Stage, working with high-profile theater artists such as Tony Shalhoub, Mira Sorvino, Amy Irving, Bill Irwin, composer Philip Glass and director Michael Greif (former artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse).
Then he went on to become director of the New York Shakespeare Festival and The Public Theater’s Shakespeare Lab Conservatory (2007-12) and director of the Public’s Shakespeare Initiative (2008-12).
He oversaw all the Public’s Shakespeare productions, including its famous and beloved free Shakespeare in the Park series in Central Park, as well as extensive educational, community outreach and artist-training programs. He launched the Public’s Mobile Unit, which took the Bard’s work to prisons, homeless shelters, centers for at-risk youth and other underserved audiences, prompting NPR to call him “one of the country’s leading Shakespeareans.”
At the Public, he directed notables like Jeffrey Wright in “Julius Caesar” and Ron Leibman in an OBIE Award-winning performance of “The Merchant of Venice.” He was associate producer of the Public’s Broadway production of “The Merchant of Venice,” starring Al Pacino. At the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, he directed Gwyneth Paltrow in “As You Like It.”
Lest you think he’s only a Shakespearean (he’s already staged nearly half of the 37-play canon), he also directed Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (in Williamstown, then at New York’s Roundabout Theatre, where it won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Revival); Steve Martin’s “Wasp and Other Plays” (the Public); and many contemporary and classic works at leading regional theaters.
His latest production (November 2012) was the premiere of novelist Nathan Englander’s first play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” at the Public. Englander adapted his own fact-based short story about the grim fate of a group of Russian Jewish writers under Stalin’s brutal reign. Edelstein cast Ron Rifkin and Chip Zien in the major roles.
He’s directed several plays with Jewish themes (“that’s who I am and what I’m interested in”), including “iWitness” at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., a historical drama by Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, about an Austrian farmer who defied the Nazis and was beheaded for refusing conscription into the German army.
In 2001, Edelstein adapted and directed “Race,” written in 1933 by Ferdinand Bruckner (real name, Theodor Tagger), a Jewish poet, director and playwright who left Germany for his native Austria in 1933, later immigrating to France and then the U.S. “Race” was one of the earliest literary works to warn against the coming Holocaust.
Edelstein’s film, “My Lunch with Larry,” based on a play by Erin Cressida Wilson, starred Lisa Edelstein (no relation); it played the festival circuit from 2006-07.
But wait! There’s more. Edelstein is not only a producer and director. He is also a writer, having penned pieces about theater and Shakespeare for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic and American Theatre magazine. His book, “Thinking Shakespeare,” published in 2007, was called “a must-read for actors” (New York Magazine) and has become the standard text on American Shakespearean acting. His other book, “Bardisms: Shakespeare for All Occasions” (2008), provides “a fitting quote for any mood, moment or occasion. But read it through to learn how to enjoy Shakespeare and bring more of his language into your daily life” (Slate magazine editor Jacob Weisberg).
Oh, yes, and did I mention he’s also a teacher? Edelstein has taught Shakespearean acting at the Juilliard School, the University of Southern California and New York University’s Graduate Acting Program.
Making a mark at the Globe
In the theater’s 77-year history, Edelstein is only the fourth artistic director. Founding director Craig Noel passed the baton to Jack O’Brien, then there was a brief co-directorship shared by Jerry Patch and Darko Tresnjak. For nine years, Louis G. Spisto served as CEO/executive producer. There has been no artistic director in charge of programming since 2009. Now it’s back to the original structure, the one used by most large regional theaters: a leadership team of artistic director and managing director.
“Barry Edelstein and Michael Murphy will give the Old Globe world-class theatrical leadership and open up a future for the Globe that’s even brighter than its illustrious heritage,” exclaims Board Chair Harold W. Fuson Jr. “Barry will be a terrific asset to San Diego, helping secure the city’s cultural reputation in the same way our universities make San Diego the center of cutting-edge research.”
“The Globe is the sixth or seventh largest theater in the country,” Edelstein says. “I’m not sure San Diegans know what a treasure they have. That has to change.
“We have to go where the community is, sending work out in something like the Shakespeare Project at the Public.”
Of one thing he’s certain.
“Shakespeare is absolutely the place to start,” he says. “Shakespeare’s works created this theater. It’s right and natural for us to start there. Of course, there’s also a place for new plays and musicals and classics. The Globe has a responsibility to provide something for the entire community. The way I see it, you set up Shakespeare’s work as a kind of hub. And all the other pieces can relate to it.”
Edelstein suggests the following example:
“‘The Merchant of Venice’ is about money and its effect on people’s lives. A similar idea is a new play I’m looking at, with a backdrop of the recent mortgage foreclosure crisis. In juxtaposing them. We get a kind of conversation going, an energy between them. You can’t do it with all plays, of course. But it’s exciting when Shakespeare becomes the fulcrum.
For the time being, Edelstein says he’ll embark on what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called a “listening tour.”
“Right now, I’m focused on finding where the light switches are and getting to know the community,” he says. “Fortunately, there’s already a wonderful season in place for this transitional year. Then I’ll start to make some plans, commission some new work, set up a Shakespeare Touring project. … And I’d like to get back in the director’s chair. My private ambition is to eventually direct the other half of the [Shakespeare] canon. But I’d like to get out of the 16th century for a while! We’ll do the new play I just directed in New York, ‘The Twenty-Seventh Man.’ And a couple of plays that are Jewish in some aspect. And of course, it’s incredibly important that we focus on diversity. That’s where my life at the Public Theater was oriented, and it will be here as well.
“My mandate is gigantic. It’s pinch-yourself exciting.”
For more information on Edelstein and the Old Globe, visit www.oldglobe.org or call (619) 234-5623.