WILL NO ONE MOURN THE CARTER? The Cassius Carter Centre Stage is no more. The Old Globe demolished its intimate theater-in-the-round to make way for a state-of-the-art, ADA-compliant arena. Named for its generous donors, the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre will open January 2010. But in the meantime, San Diego has lost a historic playing space, and no one has mourned its passing.
Over the years I’ve seen dozens of in-the-round theaters, but to me the Carter had a mystique. Four steep-raked rows of seats faced the four sides of the stage. The audience was so close to the actors, I overheard a woman say, “You can almost hear their heartbeat.”
That intimacy made the Carter ground zero for the craft of acting. In the movie The Hustler, Paul Newman plays “Fast Eddie” Felson. The cocky pool shark goes to a Southern gent’s home. The gent removes a black cover from a strangely small table: it’s for billiards, an intricate, three-ball game much more confined — many say more demanding — than straight pool. Accustomed to a larger table and 12 more targets, Fast Eddie loses his shirt.
The Carter was the Old Globe’s billiard parlor. On the main stage, actors can hide behind a prop or inside a lavish costume. At the Carter, even though fully clothed, an actor was naked.
“Totally vulnerable,” says Jonathan McMurtry, who performed at the Carter since the day it opened. “You were more aware of the audience looking at you. They’re right there, all around you. There’s no place to hide if your fly is open.
“But because of that closeness,” McMurtry adds, “there was also a special connection, a warmth.” McMurtry had an affinity for the Carter from the start. “I’m sure it was Craig [Noel] who coaxed me into it, but it’s always been my favorite space.”
Audiences in the front row sat arm’s length from the stage. Diane Sinor, the Old Globe’s director of education for 30 years, recalls when a woman crossed the line. A cigarette smoldered in an ashtray. “She got up, midscene. She tiptoed on stage, crushed the stub, and returned to her seat.
“That’s the Carter,” says Sinor, “that closeness. It’s always been a challenge for actors — and audiences. People across the way were in the show too.”
Welton Jones, who has been a theater critic for 50 years, remembers the hallmark instance. During a 1974 performance of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, an African-American drama set in a barbershop, cast members threw darts at a picture of Richard Nixon. “A woman from the audience suddenly walked onstage and pulled the picture off the wall. ‘Well, he IS the President!’ she said.
“She headed out, only to be met by Floyd [director Floyd Gaffney], who gently removed the picture from her hand, replaced it, and nodded to his cast (frozen in their spots), saying, ‘Go ahead.’ They did, and the woman left the theater, followed by her totally embarrassed escort.”
From the start, Craig Noel always wanted a second stage at the Old Globe for experimental works. “In the ’50s,” says the 93-year-old father of San Diego theater, “the Globe was staging one Broadway repeat after another — and not as well, since we didn’t have the budget and couldn’t compare with the money they could spend in New York.” Noel envisioned a second, smaller space to “do plays that had a modest appeal and an intrinsic value, rather than repeating Broadway successes.”
In 1961 the Globe performed cutting-edge works by Beckett, Albee, and Pirandello at Sherwood Hall in La Jolla. In 1963, Noel and company moved into the Falstaff Tavern, next door to the Globe’s main stage. Along with a Renaissance-flavored menu, the tavern served as a makeshift workshop and rehearsal hall. Noel and William Roesch began staging the “modest” works on a bare floor with three rows of folding chairs on risers. Diane Sinor, who performed in several of these shows, remembers an in-the-round production of Arthur Miller’s Crucible in 1964 that jelled: “Everybody was drawn in. We knew we had something. Craig said, ‘It was like directing 21 people on a 9’-by-12’ rug.’ The stage wasn’t that small. Just seemed so. But it worked, and an audience grew that was eager for experimental plays.”
The popularity of the second stage pleased Noel, who has always believed that “every successful show is a success for the whole theater community.”
Cassius Carter, a Shakespeare scholar and county district attorney from 1903 to 1906, had a home in Balboa Park and donated to the Old Globe. The Centre Stage was completed in 1969. Carter’s words hung on a wall beneath his portrait: “Drama is the noblest form of human expression. A people that has no love for great plays and good players will show itself to be lacking in social development, in humane politics, and in intellectual and moral life.”
Noel directed the first show — The Unknown Soldier and His Wife, by Peter Ustinov — and embraced the theater from the start. “My absolute favorite space,” Noel says. “I loved doing things in the round, with people on all sides. You never had to worry about scenery getting in the way, or [design] values that had nothing to do with an actor performing. It was where more honest acting could take place — had to, because the audience was practically breathing on the actors.
“When they asked me where I wanted to work, I’d say, ‘Give me all the shows in the Carter.’ ”
There weren’t many small, arena stages when the theater opened. Actors and directors were relatively new to them. As were costume designers, who found the configuration an acquired taste, since audiences could see practically every stitch.
Noel experimented continually. How do you include an audience on all four sides? He tried different ways. In a proscenium theater, center-stage is position A for an actor; in an arena, it’s the worst, since the actor must “spin like a top” to keep contact with the house.
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.”