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A Remembrance Of Craig Noel, Patriarch Of San Diego Theater


Craig Noel, the founding artistic director of the Old Globe theater and often called the father of San Diego theater died at his San Diego home over the weekend. He was 94. We talk with Pam Kragen, North County Times arts editor and president of the San Diego Theater Critics Circle.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The earthquake that shook our region on Sunday dominated the news this weekend but there was another quake in San Diego's theatre community that was just as powerful. The founding artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, Craig Noel died on Saturday. He was 94 years old. Throughout his 70-year career, Craig Noel is credited with putting San Diego on the map as a regional theatre hub and attracting national artists and world premiere productions to the Old Globe. Here to tell us more about the legacy of Craig Noel is my guest, Pam Kragen. She’s arts and features editor at North County Times. And good morning, Pam.

PAM KRAGEN (Arts and Features Editor, North County Times): Good morning, Maureen. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now Craig Noel’s death really marks an end of an era for San Diego theatre. You knew Mr. Noel, and I wonder what your response is to his death?

KRAGEN: Well, as I’ve said, Craig was in declining health for the last few years and he’d been in hospice care for the past few months so while those of us who knew Craig knew that he was going to pass soon, it’s still incredibly sad because, like you said, it’s the end of an era. You know, in the past couple of years three of the other men who helped shape San Diego’s modern theatre scene left town, that’s Jack O’Brien and Darko Tresnjak at the Globe and Des McAnuff from the Playhouse.


KRAGEN: So with Craig passing, it feels like the closing of a major chapter in San Diego theatre history.

CAVANAUGH: When was the last time, Pam, that you saw Craig Noel?

KRAGEN: You know, it had been a little bit of a while because he’d been ill for quite a while. The last time I had a lengthy conversation with Craig was last year at the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards. Back in 2002, we renamed the awards in Craig’s honor and he used to come to the ceremonies every year and hand out all the plaques. And last year he wasn’t really able to see or hear the way that he used to so he asked if he could sit in the audience and watch the show. And after that I saw him at the theatre a few times right up until about I would say last spring and then he had an illness and never quite recovered from it. So it had been a while.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’re going to be talking more about his significant impact on San Diego theatre but what was Craig Noel like as a person?

KRAGEN: You know, anybody who ever met Craig loved Craig. He was one of a kind character. He was sharp as a tack, to start with. Nothing ever got past him. He was so smart, and he had a really wicked sense of humor, too. Some people called him irascible. But, you know, he was very lovable. I think, you know, he loved his martinis and he was really generous with his time to anybody who asked, whether it was journalists or students or young directors or actors, people starting theatres, he was just full of information and happy to help. And he – one thing that he never really liked was theatre critics, to be honest, you know, they were a thorn in his side. But one day every year he would bury the hatchet and come and spend the evening with us and we were grateful for that.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about the death of the founding artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, Craig Noel, and my guest is Pam Kragen. She’s arts and features editor at North County Times. Now in your North County Times article on him, Pam, you say he was widely credited with building San Diego’s national reputation as a theatre town. How did he go about doing that?

KRAGEN: Well, you know, the Globe started out back in 1935. It was built for the California Pacific Exposition in Balboa Park. And he – When he was about 22, he actually came and joined the Globe company of players as an actor, two years after it was started, so that was like 1937. And the Globe had been the hit of the Exposition and so they – a group of people got together and decided to start up a Shakespearian repertory theatre troupe and he was one of their early players and then eventually one of their directors, and started directing quite a few of their productions as they got going as a theatre company.

CAVANAUGH: Now what was the theatre landscape like back then in San Diego? There – I know that the tickets were – to the Old Globe were only thirty-five cents. What kind of a reputation, if any, did San Diego have in the thirties, forties and fifties as a theatre town?

KRAGEN: Pretty much zero when the Old Globe came along. There wasn’t anything. There were lots of movie house – movie palaces around San Diego back in the twenties and thirties. There was vaudeville theatres and opera, operetta type performances, variety shows, but there was really no theatre tradition, is what Craig said about the landscape at the time. So it was very hard to kind of create a theatre-going audience at the time. It was hard to get them to pay thirty-five cents to come and see the shows.

CAVANAUGH: So I know that Craig Noel left to fight in World War II but he eventually returned to San Diego and took over the role of artistic director at the Old Globe. How did he get people excited about theatre in San Diego?

KRAGEN: You know, it was a very gradual process. If you look at the history of the Globe, I mean, he was there over 70 years and it took quite a long time to create a theatre-going audience and an audience that appreciated theatre. And the way he did that was by sort of slowly developing the audience. In the fifties, he kind of took the Old Globe company players into professional theatre. He was the first person to establish an Equity actors theatre company in California, so he was bringing in professional talent and the audience began to respect the quality that came out. He was the first to start a Shakespeare Festival in California. He was the first to create a theatre touring company in San Diego. He was the first to build a black box theatre in San Diego that could do experimental work. And he introduced the San Diego theatre-going public to plays by people like Brecht or Pirandello or the more experimental playwrights of the mid-20th century. And then in the eighties, he created the Teatro Meta, which was the bilingual theatre company. And if you think about it, that’s pretty unique, back in the eighties, you know, to be thinking about bilingual audiences and bringing in Hispanic audiences so that was pretty way ahead of the curve.

CAVANAUGH: So I would imagine in dealing with Craig Noel, often you would be dealing with somebody who was really thinking ahead of his time.

KRAGEN: Very much, and that’s what Jack O’Brien used to always say. You know, when he brought in Jack O’Brien to be his successor as artistic director in the early eighties, and Jack would just say here was this man who knew so much and he had created this sort of oasis in the desert of theatre, you know, where it hadn’t existed before and he had sort of a textbook knowledge about everything, and I think that it was sort of like coming to mecca is how Jack O’Brien used to refer to it.

CAVANAUGH: You have a quote in your piece in the North County Times about the passing of Craig Noel. You have a quote from Jack O’Brien and he calls him my benign father…

KRAGEN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …and says he was never challenging, always nurturing, always supportive and always, always charmingly funny.

KRAGEN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And that’s quite a lovely thing to say of someone that you’ve worked so closely with.

KRAGEN: That’s true. I think everyone thought that, though, about Craig. You know, he was very funny. He had a wicked wry sense of humor. You know, he always had a twinkle in his eye if – when you talked to him, and sometimes you didn’t know if you were being put on. But he was just a charming man and he was very old school, very old-fashioned in some ways in terms of his – He was a gentleman and he had great manners, and he was classy, you know. He had – he loved a good joke but he had class.

CAVANAUGH: You also talk in your article about the fire in the Old Globe at – in 1978. I think probably a lot of people who are living in San Diego now don’t remember that because they don’t – haven’t been long time San Diego residents, so tell us about that fire and Noel’s reaction to it.

KRAGEN: Well, they never caught the person who did it. It was an arsonist-caused fire, and it burned the Globe to the ground. And I was – I grew up in San Diego. My dad was in the Navy, so I remember the video images on television. I remember the newspaper images of the fire, and it was sort of shocking and devastating. And there were images of Craig Noel, both on video and on still photographs of him, tears streaming down his face as he stood there just – he just looked shellshocked by the experience. Yet the very next day, he was out there in front of the press cameras saying, okay, we’re going to move all the Old Globe performances downtown. I think they moved to the Spreckles Theatre, and finished out their season. He started a fundraising campaign and the people of San Diego wanted their Globe back and they donated more than $6 million, which was a ton of money in those days, especially it was recessionary times. And they, you know, sure enough, they rebuilt better than ever.

CAVANAUGH: Now was Craig Noel particularly fond of a certain kind of theatre? For instance, did he prefer musicals or drama or did he just love it all?

KRAGEN: You know, I asked him that question when the last play he directed at the Old Globe back in, oh gosh, I’d say it was in the early 2000s. I think it was “Over the River and Through the Woods,” which was a sort of a sentimental comedy. And I asked him what kind of plays he liked best, and you’re – just like you said, he liked it all.


KRAGEN: He directed more than 200 plays in his history at the Old Globe, and they were everything. They were comedies and Shakespeare and drama and classics and experimental things and world premieres and musicals. I don’t think – What he told me is, he said he – what he looked for wasn’t a type of play, it was a good script that told a good story and had good characters. That’s pretty much – that was his gauge.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit more about the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival because I know he restarted that in somewhat recent years, didn’t he?

KRAGEN: That’s right. It started up, I believe, in 1959 and it ran through the eighties. And it just became prohibitively expensive so the Globe moved away from having an actual festival. They still did Shakespeare plays on the outdoor stage but they weren’t doing it as a festival. And around the time that Craig sort of unofficially retired, because he never fully retired…


KRAGEN: …he went to the management and said, you know, I think we need to bring this back. We need to create that tradition of Shakespeare in the park again. And they did bring it back under Darko Tresnjak, the founding artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival and it’s been a great success for them.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you say, Craig Noel retired—air quotes around there—because he continued to support theatre in the city, didn’t he?

KRAGEN: He did, you know, and he didn’t just support the Old Globe. He didn’t just continue consulting on their programming. He supported all the theatres. I went – You know, every time I’d go out to an opening night of plays, I’d say 50 or 60% of the time Craig was there. He supported all of the local professional theatres, and he was also really generous with his time to anyone who wanted to talk to him about San Diego’s theatre. I remember when we renamed the awards the Critics Circle Awards the Craig Noel Awards, at our first ceremony we sort of roasted Craig and there was a young, 18-year-old director who he had – who had met Craig through the San Diego Playwrights Project and he got up onstage and talked about his buddy, Craig Noel, and how he had mentored him. And he just said, you know, I don’t just think of him as my teacher but as my friend. And they maintained that friendship right up until his death.

CAVANAUGH: And in your article, you have a quote from Seema Sueko of the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company about consulting with Craig Noel when she was just creating that troupe.

KRAGEN: That’s true, yeah, she told me that she contacted the Globe and they set her up with him and he – She had said to him, you know, I want to start this company and he – she said he was tough with the questions. And he just said, you know, I don’t know that we need another theatre. Why do you think we should have another one? And she said, well, there’s not enough of mid-level theatres in town paying actors Equity wages, and he said, okay, you’re right, go ahead and start it. And she did. And, you know, one of the things we’ve heard from a lot of our winners over the years at the Critics Circle Awards ceremony is that having Craig Noel’s name on their plaques means so much more to them because they know who Craig Noel was and what he meant to San Diego theatre and so it enriches the value of their awards.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know, Pam, it’s so – it’s impossible really to sum up a 70-year career in just a few words but what – You must’ve been thinking about this. What do you think is Craig Noel’s legacy for theatre in San Diego?

KRAGEN: Oh, I think what you said at the very beginning of this interview is exactly what I would say, and that is that he put San Diego on the map as a theatre city, not just in creating this legacy of high quality, professional theatre productions in San Diego but also creating, like you said, a legacy first by bringing in Jack O’Brien, who is a genius in his own right, a three-time Tony winner now. And both Jack O’Brien and Des McAnuff over at the La Jolla Playhouse, together they created San Diego as one of the major exporters of plays and musicals to Broadway. One of the – San Diego’s now respected as one of the top theatre towns in America and I would trace it all the way back to Craig Noel.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us about Craig Noel.

KRAGEN: Thank you so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Pam Kragen. She’s arts and features editor at North County Times. And we have been talking about the passing of the founding artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, Craig Noel. He died on Saturday at the age of 94. And if you’d like to respond to this or anything you hear on These Days, you can go online, And we’ll continue in just a few moments here on KPBS.

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