Bill O'Brien says he likes being put in the

Bill O'Brien says he likes being put in the position of "trying to accomplish impossible things." So maybe it wasn't out of line for him to walk away from his post as managing director of Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, Calif., this summer to take a job with the federal government.

In early September—after a tenure that included working with Deaf West founder Ed Waterstreet to bring Big River to Broadway and later send it on a national tour—O'Brien moved to Washington to become the director of theatre and musical theatre at the National Endowment for the Arts, heading programs that collectively receive about $5.1 million of the endowment's $130 million annual budget.

O'Brien, who has been on the job for only two months, hasn't been subject yet to the political turmoil that has enveloped the NEA in past years, when it was threatened with closure by some Republicans in Congress for being, in their view, emblematic of an elitist, coarse, and permissive culture run amuck.

Even if that battle were to arise again soon—which doesn't appear likely, because President Bush and his fellow Republicans in Congress have increased NEA funding each year Bush has been in office—O'Brien faces more-immediate challenges in his new job, including how to make live theatre relevant for people "from New York to Montana" in a fast-growing, on-demand, and online culture. It would seem the job is well-suited to someone who, as a hearing person in a deaf community, has spent much of his adult life learning how to communicate and live in sometimes divergent worlds.

"There are things that I pick up about who people are and what they're trying to tell me that you can't necessarily see on a page or pull out of a diagrammed sentence," O'Brien said. "Really, communication is words and everything that happens in between those words."

As he settles into his new job, O'Brien has been following Shakespeare's dictum, trying to be "no tongue, all eyes." That makes him a highly unusual figure in these very political times: someone who goes to Washington to watch and listen.

For more than two decades, O'Brien has worked as an actor, director, producer, and composer. (He had a recurring role on The West Wing as Kenny Thurman, the interpreter for Marlee Matlin's character, Joey Lucas.) Though his background may not seem typical for a theatre artist—he grew up on a hog farm in eastern Iowa, not too far from Dubuque—his love affair with the theatre began in typical fashion: seeing a production of a great musical. In O'Brien's case, it was Guys and Dolls at the local high school when he was in the fifth grade.

"Those actors up on the stage, they looked like grown men," he said. "I knew them; I knew their families. It was a hell of a transformation. What did they do to achieve that? I became obsessed."

Once in high school, O'Brien was in every play. "It was the only thing I was committed to," he said. "I was not a good student. But I saw that when you put in the work, you can create something. It turned me around."

After graduating from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in musical theatre, O'Brien had two job offers: to be an actor-composer at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., or to act with the National Players, the oldest classical touring company in the country. He chose the latter and spent a year playing Romeo.

As is typical in touring companies, O'Brien had to do more than just act; he was also the sound designer. As he traveled with the Players and noticed everything that went into making a production work, O'Brien began to see the process of theatre as a puzzle, one that he liked trying to solve. He also thought about what might have been had he gone to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

When O'Brien got another chance to work at the Institute, he took it. At first it was a bewildering experience. "I was dropped like a stone in a 12-foot pool of deaf culture," he said.

O'Brien eventually became fluent in American Sign Language. But even when his vocabulary was only about 200 words, the experience of trying to understand and be understood was just another puzzle. "The reality is that you could find a way to effectively communicate what it is you were trying to say, even when you didn't have a completely fluid line of communication open to you," he said.

After several years carving out an acting career in New York and touring for several more, O'Brien moved to Los Angeles to produce and score a friend's independent film. Needing a day job, he went to Deaf West and ended up working as an actor, director, producer, and—eventually—managing director.

It was in that final position that O'Brien became well-acquainted with the NEA by writing grant proposals. He secured a $60,000 award for a new lighting system, which the theatre needed so its deaf audience could better see the actors signing.

His biggest accomplishment was working with Waterstreet and Roundabout Theatre Company to bring a revival of the musical Big River to Broadway. O'Brien said his experience on that project played a significant role in prepping him for his directorship at the NEA: If he hadn't enjoyed it as much as he did, he said, he wouldn't have moved to Washington.

O'Brien has been a bit circumspect about his new job—an understandable attitude, perhaps, at an agency that has drawn a lot of political fire during the past two decades. When asked in what direction he wants to take theatre and musical theatre at the NEA, the best he will offer is, "Forward."

Nevertheless, O'Brien stresses that his job is to channel whatever forward momentum comes from what he calls "the field," the people and institutions that constitute theatre in America. As a result, he has spent time visiting with people from the National Alliance for Musical Theatre and the League of Resident Theatres, and will soon talk with Theatre Communications Group in New York.

"It's been a really interesting exercise in macro theatre," O'Brien said. "I have to be as attuned to thinking about the big picture in all of the different agendas involved. I think that the bottom line is a lot of energy—there is a lot of passion, there is a lot of intelligence being applied in the theatre today."

One of O'Brien's chief duties at the NEA is to appoint the panels that determine which institutions get what money. He has to assemble four of them a year: two for theatre, two for musical theatre.

He just finished supervising his first panel for musical theatre, and he will do the same for theatre later this month. Because the panels' recommendations still have to go through several stages of approval, O'Brien can't comment on what transpired, not even whom he chose to survey the applications. He did say he made sure the panels were as broad as possible: geographically, culturally, and artistically. Some might fear that a broad reach would yield tepid or tame art; O'Brien disagrees.

Outside of potential political dust-ups, O'Brien said, there is a greater challenge facing both him and the entertainment world at large: the growing new-media culture. As audiences get more accustomed to getting their entertainment wherever and whenever they want it, theatre faces more pressure to be a vital destination in people's lives.

"It's something that can seem awfully daunting when you look at it," he said. "But I really do feel like it's these kinds of challenges that have in the past brought out the best.… The on-demand culture that is emerging is not something I think that should be feared but something that has to be recognized."

O'Brien believes that new media could make theatre better. "In an on-demand culture, people have to overcome the incredible bother of going to the theatre," he said. "It has to become one of those transcending experiences that's going to drive it. And I don't think necessarily that's a bad thing."