Opening Nights with Director Robert O'Hara, SOA Theatre '96 (Directing) Print
Written by Chris Erric Maddox, SOA Theatre '03 (Acting)   
Tuesday, 24 November 2009 02:34

On October 15, a group of Columbia and Tufts University Alumni gathered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to view fellow Alumnus Robert O'Hara's premiere of yet another successful show, "Eclipsed."  Going to the theatre in Los Angeles can be a little unnerving because one never really knows what to expect.  "Will I be entertained? Should I have stayed at home and watched TiVo?  Or, better yet, watched a movie on the treadmill?" As soon as the lights dimmed, however, I was reminded why I continue to go to the theatre, despite the occasional blunder: I might just buy a ticket for a show like Robert's, one of power, intrigue, and age-defying laughter.

I have known Robert for many years, as we both went to Tufts University for our undergraduate degrees, where I had heard about this mysterious up-and-coming director.  Nonetheless, my first time actually meeting him was in New York City while I was still at Columbia, where he had already cemented himself in the theatre world directing critically acclaimed shows like "Insurrection" at the Public Theatre.  

At that moment, I realized "this guy is special.  This guy needs to be followed."  And at that time, being a young actor as I was, this was an important epiphany; it was, and still is, important to create alliances with strong directors, writers, and producers.

So after all of these years, after accepting his Obie and traveling the world, it was reassuring to see this very unassuming young man mount a larger-than-life show.  It made me think, yes we can.  And he continues to do so.

CM: Robert, you are working a lot these days?  Did you anticipate that your life would be like this upon graduating from Columbia's MFA Directing program?
RO: Yes, I am working a lot these day, and I'm grateful for the work, but it does take its toll on the body and mind, though I always hoped that I would be able to make a living as a writer and director. So to answer your question, I hoped for this, but of course, no one knows what a theatrical career will be like, because there are so many outside forces involved.

CM: When you get a call to direct, what kind of product are the producers expecting?  Is that the kind of director you want to be, or is there another side of the story?
RO: I think they are most likely expecting something rather visual and non-literal.  I don't get called for August Wilson plays, but I'd love to do one of them. They are mostly done rather literal, so I think folks are used to seeing his work that way, and therefore that's not something someone would normally think of me for, if they are looking for a director. I want to direct all different types of plays, but I will still bring my own theatrical sense to it.  I believe I am the director I want to be, and I think it all depends on how one feels about a particular play, and how they imagine it coming to life.

CM: What does winning the 2006 Obie Award for your direction of the World Premiere production of "In the Continuum" mean to you?  
RO: It means a tremendous amount to me as an Artist to be recognized for my work, and because I was given the opportunity a few years after I won my Obie to be on the Jury for the Obies.  I know how much work it takes to see all the shows in NYC and to decide who should be recognized for their achievement. It is, in fact, the first award I've ever been given for my Directing.

CM:  Congratulations!  That is wonderful.  What is your most important professional relationship?  
RO:  I have many very strong and important relationships with various artists, be they Artistic Directors like Carey Perloff or Oskar Eustis or Emily Mann, or if they be mentors from my early career like George C. Wolfe and (director and Columbia Theatre professor) Anne Bogart, or designers like Clint Ramos and Colin Young, or even fellow playwrights like Tony Kushner, Danai Guiria or Tarell McCraney.  As for my professional relationships with actors, there are simply too many to mention.  I have very exciting professional relationships throughout the field, and I feel it would be a disservice to single out one of them as the "most" important. I value them all greatly. As for  "Why", the Why is simple: an Artist needs encouragement and engagement of the mind, body, and soul, and each of my professional relationships function along those lines. Without them, I would not be where I am, or doing what I'm doing.

CM:  Mind, body, and soul.  I love that.  Is there a quote or saying that a professor would say, that comes to mind every so often?
RO:  Nothing that comes to mind right now other than Anne Bogart really encouraging me to find my OWN Voice and commit to that… to not be afraid to be an INDIVIDUAL Artist. Oh wait… yes, Anne would always tell us that we have to be "attracted" to the people we cast, because if we can't identify what about that individual is attractive, then we can't show that to the audience and insist that they watch an individual for 2 hours.  No matter who one casts, they should seek to find individuals that they find "attractive" … that they want to be in the room with for 4 weeks, whose brains they want to pick and engage.

CM:  Anne Bogart, another remarkable artist.  How do you begin a project? Do you have a certain ritual that starts off every project?
RO:  Well, there is the time before you get in rehearsal, which consists of me reading a lot and finding visual references that may or may not make their way into the production, but that Feel and Smell and Sound like the piece I'm about to interact with… it's a courtship… you begin to learn where the play LIVES… its environment… and then you begin to find a "path" that will lead you into the neighborhood of the play… into its nooks… so I try to bombard myself with information, be it directly related, or not.

CM:  What was your breakthrough directing project?
RO:   My first big break as a director was at the Public when I directed the play I wrote for my Thesis production at Columbia, "Insurrection: Holding History", but that was a complete mess of a process, so I don't really think folks think of that as my breakthrough as a director, probably more as my breakthrough as a playwright.  As a director, I think it would have to be actually "In The Continuum", which won the Obies, and garnered international attention.  

CM:  Congratulations on your first feature-film directing debut, "My Place in the Horror."  How was that experience?  Any surprises?
RO:  Thank you.  By the way, the movie is now called "The Gathering" and I have little doubt that it will probably change titles again before audiences see it, but I like the new title, it's grown on me.  That experience was NUTZ, because it was such a whirlwind of activity that is still happening now since we are in post (production.)  I will share one surprise, which is that when you see a movie, you don't see actors go up on a line.  Filming it, it happens all the time, and I always thought that the director would just call "CUT!" and they would start the scene again until everyone got it right.  Well, of course, that's not true, and I had to learn the hard way. Very early, when an actor went up on their line, I called out "CUT" and the whole room turned to me like I was crazy!  My AD said very politely that "we just keep the cameras rolling and we feed him the correct line, and since we're doing multiple takes from various angles, we can edit it seamlessly"… and I was like… "oh…duh…" so that was a funny day for me…

CM: How was working with (film producer) Effie Brown?
RO: She's as crazy as I am and that's how I like it… I wouldn't change a thing about my working with Effie except that we have more money and not be in the freezing colds of Minnesota for a month!  Other than that I loved working with her.

CM: So would you say you feel more at home directing for the theatre or for film?
RO: I've only directed one film and one short, so I don't think it would be possible for me to feel at home with film…yet.  I feel at home in the theater because I've been doing it most of my life.

CM: Okay. NYC or LA?
RO: NYC. Chill' puhlease.

CM: What do you do when you've just finished a project?
RO: Get on a plane and go to another project, or go home and watch "Judge Judy" until I have go to my next project, or procrastinate on writing a new play!

CM: Are the reasons you first started directing, the reasons why you still direct today?
RO: Yes.  I simply love the theater. I love creating and telling stories.

CM: Who first inspired you to become a director?
RO: My parents would tell you that I've always been a director of some sort… I'm sure most of my family would have stories about that.  I was directing in elementary school and high school and on through college, without any sort of inspiration on the theater side.  I do know that there were many more film directors that I admired as a kid, because I didn't go to the theater a lot outside of the shows that were done in my schools.  Those film directors are Scorsese, Spielberg, and these days, Lars Von Trier and Lynch.  I think the first time I really had the inspiration of a Theater Director had to be George C. Wolfe, who I assisted at the Public when I was its AD.  I remember seeing "Jelly's Last Jam" and thinking to myself  "He's a f______g GENIUS!"  I knew who he was already, because I'd done his play "Colored Museum" in college, but when I saw that Jelly's production, my heart stopped.

CM: With which theatre do you prefer to work?
RO: No preference.  I'd like to be at home in NYC more, so I'd love to work there as much as possible, but I have friends all over the country so I love going out to San Fran and LA and Chicago to direct…

CM: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
RO: Directing and Writing. Doing the same ole, same ole. I'd love to be an Artistic Director at some point.

CM:  How important are your Alumni connections from Columbia?  Do you keep in touch with anyone from graduate school?  
RO:  I have great, great friends that are Alumni from Columbia. I'm working with one now in NYC, Heather Simms, who also went to Tufts with me.  We are extremely close, and then there's tons of folks I've met, who were in my school while I was there, and we've become fast friends, and of course we keep in touch as much as we can.

CM: What would you like to see happen with Columbia's Alumni organization? How can we further support you?
RO: I think it should continue doing its job of connecting and networking Alumni with each other and helping to build both professional and personal relationships.  And you can further support me by telling folks to come see my shows, and telling me when others are doing things!

CM: Thank you, Robert.
RO: Thank you.