Noel had actors move in curved lines. In time, he grew to love the “four corners” — the four entrances of stairs, often putting an actor on the second step from the top. By looking left and right, they could include the largest audience.
“Acting in the Carter became like driving a car and talking to people in the backseat,” says McMurtry. “It’s a mental thing. You don’t have to project, just keep them in your rearview mirror.
“The Carter was Craig’s baby,” McMurtry adds. “The only thing he regretted: the stage had a trap door but no tunnel entrance from backstage.” The land was a former Navy yard embedded with scrap metal. “It was too tough to dig, so if you were supposed to be under the trap door, you had to climb into a four-by-six concrete coffin before the show started.” When McMurtry began Moby-Dick Rehearsed beneath the stage, he “read a book with a flashlight.”
The Carter was also McMurtry’s baby. “I did my best work there.” Along with the critically acclaimed Francis Biddle, the aging judge in Joanna McClelland Glass’s Trying, McMurtry will never forget replacing Anthony Zerbe as the lead in the Scottish play. “Jack [O’Brien] directed a 90-minute, no intermission speedball. Tension started rolling and you couldn’t stop it.” McMurtry, who had played Macbeth before, found himself taking the role further, and deeper, than ever. “A lot of that was the Carter,” he says. “The space became a pressure cooker.”
It’s a tribute to the theater that no two people agree on favorite shows. Those who remember the first season name The Balcony by Jean Genet as a breakout production (“we could never have done that at the Globe,” says Sinor, “it was so-o-o-o risqué”). Fairly recent productions that made most lists include Stephen Metcalfe’s Strange Snow and Vikings; Noel’s expert direction of Gurney’s Dining Room (“no backs to the audience,” said an admirer) and Billy Bishop Goes to War; and Loretta Devine as near-death Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
One look at the Carter’s restrictions and you’d wonder why a set designer would ever work there. No object could be as high as the front row; if one were, it had to be see-through. And yet, the Carter has been a boxing ring (by Lee Savage for In This Corner); Billie Holiday’s bar, which Robert Brill extended from the stage into the house seats with a cream-colored floor; the Kent Dorsey-designed deck of the Pequod for Moby-Dick Rehearsed; and Michael Vaughn Sims’s mystical, aquamarine island for Lee Blessing’s Body of Water.
Noel’s favorite project? Billy Bishop Goes to War. “A gem,” he says; “I simply couldn’t have cast it better. Harry [Groener] was so natural he wasn’t doing anything — except doing everything correctly.”
Groener played Bishop and a dozen other characters. In an interview he called it his favorite performance: “It was like going…back to acting again in the sense that all your facilities are going all the time. I loved that one-on-one with the audience.… They would really be involved.”
Noel’s original idea for the Carter, he says, 40 years later almost to the day, was “for people who want to see interesting plays in an unusual space. I didn’t want just to repeat Broadway. I wanted to make theater an integral part of this community, make San Diego a theater town — and it wasn’t at all at that time; there was no theater here. I think I did turn it around.”