Darlene Shiley Shares Her Artistic Passion with San Diego

Darlene Shiley bolsters the San Diego arts in The Old Globe

Last December, the University of San Diego and the Old Globe Theatre announced that their joint Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Program was being renamed The Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program in honor of Donald and Darlene Shiley. To arts aficionados in San Diego, this was no surprise: The Shileys’ name has become synonymous with their legendary love for and devotion to the arts, and their generosity thereof.

For decades, Darlene Shiley and her late husband Donald have been leading philanthropists in education, science and the arts in San Diego and beyond. “They have shaped the future of our field in the form of the actors who go on to important work after graduating the acclaimed classical training program that now bears the Shiley name,” says Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein.

Due in great part to the Shileys’ special passion for theatre and their continued support, the joint M.F.A. program has evolved into one of the most competitive, highly praised classical theatre training programs in the U.S. Each year, seven gifted theatre students selected from hundreds of applicants receive the opportunity to attend the intensive two–year, year–round program tuition–free. Graduates, among them Jim Parsons of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory, have gone on to perform in theatre, film and television, with Golden Globe and Emmys among their many awards.

Old Globe San Diego As You Like It

Despite her high profile as a patroness of the arts, Darlene Shiley, herself a former actress and a familiar face on the pre–episode spots for runaway hit Downton Abbey, retains a genial, accessible persona. The kindhearted warmth in her smile and voice are immediately noticeable, yet she clearly presents an impression of an intelligent, thoughtful person who has a clear focus and remarkable determination. Describing the Shileys’ passion for philanthropy, Darlene Shiley says, “You don’t all of a sudden wake up one day and you’re philanthropic. It isn’t a function of how much money you have, it’s the fact that you have the feel for it.” Though she grew up in a poor neighborhood in the Bay Area, Shiley took her grandmother’s advice to heart: “Even if you’re poor, it doesn’t mean you can’t be neat and tidy, and share.” Shiley attributes an advanced understanding of that concept to her late husband, from whom she learned “what sharing and that kind of love and partnership were about.”

It was she who first expressed a desire to start that sharing and giving early in their relationship. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t we start doing it now so we can see how the organizations handle it?’ He thought it was a great idea. ‘You handle it,’ he said. Those were the most fateful words of our marriage. At that point I realized I’d made an enormous mistake,” she says, laughing. “Stewardship has always been important to me,” she adds, seriously. Over the years she found that USD has done well in that regard. “Values–based education was important to Donald and myself,” she says. “I’m building on his legacy.”

Old Globe Balboa Park

How did Shiley’s journey as an actress lead to her important role in the theatre life of San Diego? After supporting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Shiley thought, “You want to do the best, you go to the best, and that was the Old Globe.” The Shileys have been affiliated with the Globe since 1981. What she admires about USD is that it’s “value and mission driven. Those two organizations working together seemed a perfect fit.”

Each year Shiley lunches with all the M.F.A. students. “I talk to each one and find out what were their favorite roles, what’s a role they’d like to do.” For the annual Craig Noel and Darlene Shiley awards, she says, they look for “someone that had particular fire to them.” Is she proud of the M.F.A. program’s graduates? “Absolutely delirious,” she says. After the second year of training, they’re sent on their way, “with a little extra funding so it’s not quite so hard when they get out… Leaving college and going into the work world is bad enough on a good day to try to be finding a job in that industry.”

San Diego Much Ado About Nothing

Inevitably a conversation with Shiley turns to her popular, well–liked PBS promotions for Masterpiece Theatre. Fans of the shows approach her all the time to thank her for her work with the outstanding network. “I understand the power of the medium,” she says, but finds it astonishing that “people recognize you from a 10–second spot.” She was appalled at the thought that the station might be forced to abandon Masterpiece in San Diego due to funding concerns. “I wanted this for San Diego. So I went in on the funding on the basis of keeping it here.” Downton Abbey remains a personal favorite, and Shiley has visited the set. “I’ve met some of the actors,” she says with delight. “Hugh Bonneville is just—oh, I’d run away with the man if given the opportunity.”

Darlene Shiley

Shiley believes training is of key importance to all actors, which always brings her back to her own commitment to the joint M.F.A. program. She is filled with admiration at how serious the students are about the arts. “I don’t ever want us to lose our appreciation of what the arts can bring into our lives,” she says. “I want things to be better than when I entered into their lives or they into mine. Generally speaking, it is about people, isn’t it?”