Friends and colleagues of the director Gabriele Jakobi were shocked and deeply saddened to learn that she suffered a massive stroke in June. A GoFundMe campaign has been set up with the goal of helping her cope with the enormous medical bills that she has incurred to date and will continue to incur during a challenging recovery period.
A native of Nuremberg, Jakobi enjoyed an acclaimed and award-winning career as a director of theatre and opera not only in her base of Berlin, but also throughout Europe. Her productions won “best of the year” awards in Berlin and toured internationally to festivals as a representative of Germany. So admired is her work in Europe that she is among the women profiled in the book “Regie Frauen” (“Directed by Women”) by Christina Haberlik (Henschel Verlag, 2010).
Starting in the 1990s, her work has also been seen in this country, beginning in New York, at the legendary Off-Broadway space La MaMa Theatre. For NYC’s American Opera Projects, she directed Cigarettes and Chocolate, working with its author, the Oscar-winning film director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley). She also developed and directed AOP’s piece based on the work of Heinrich Heine, called Doppelgänger.
She began a long and deep relationship with DC’s own Scena Theatre. Her first production for it was Bertolt Brecht’s In the Jungle of the City. Another Brecht project for Scena featured Nancy Robinette leading an all-star cast of local talent in Mother Courage and Her Children. Her production of Jean Genet’s The Maids for Scena earned particularly strong reviews. “Everything works,” raved Nelson Pressley in The Washington Post. “The production captures a rare theatrical quality: It breathes.”
DC saw more and more of Jakobi as her artistic partnership with Scena’s Artistic Director Robert McNamara became romantic. The two continued to spend much time in their beloved Europe, while at the same time maintaining a strong presence here at Scena. At the time she was stricken, she had cast and was about to start rehearsals for a Scena production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. (The play was particularly meaningful to her, as she is one of three sisters whose relationship was always extremely close.)
It can’t have been easy for Jakobi to leave the city in which she was so strongly established. As much as we rightly crow about how strong the theatre community is in this town, it can be hard for someone to break into the scene, particularly someone for whom English is not the first language. Some of the qualities that invite success in Europe (Synetic’s success notwithstanding) don’t always translate easily here. The fact that other local companies didn’t reach out to her might be seen as evidence of that dynamic.
That she chose to share her talent with us here in DC ended up being, pun intended, a stroke of very bad luck for Jakobi. The Affordable Care Act and the progress it represents notwithstanding, this country is still an unfortunate place to be when you fall ill. Had she been in Germany, she wouldn’t have faced ruinously high medical bills. In fact, part of the goal of the GoFundMe campaign is to get her strong enough as quickly as possible in order to enable her to return to a country where it’s a lot easier to survive a catastrophic health event financially as well as medically.
I hope it is not breaking a confidence to report that husband McNamara, a long-time colleague and friend, spoke to me soon after the stroke. He expressed his frustration and anger over a situation in which, at a time of intense personal grief, he was also having to deal with the stress of a medical system that would threaten the withholding of treatment and of rehabilitation care unless he could immediately pony-up thousands upon thousands of dollars. (Apologies if this seems overly political for a theatrical website, but, fact: it’s very easy in a circumstance like this to accrue more in medical bills in a couple of weeks than the average annual salary. And if you are a freelance artist, it’s very easy to end up uninsured.)
I remember when Robert (I here move to using first names, after I have admitted to our close relationship) and I took our Scena production of Wallace Shawn’s The Fever to Berlin. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by Gabi with a glass of champagne at her apartment. Over the couple of weeks that followed, Gabi — and her wide circle of friends in theatre and in other arts — introduced a stranger to that city’s electric, vibrant aesthetic life. With her wise and inviting smile, she was a wonderful ambassador for her country, for her city, for her culture.
Friends and colleagues of Gabriele Jakobi now are trying desperately to get the word out about her current need in the hopes that her recovery will be quick and complete, and that her contemplated production of Three Sisters will be realized soon, her misfortune having caused merely a delay.