Playwright Rosary O’Neill has not let the pandemic and closed theaters keep her work from being seen. Moving from the traditional stage to virtual streaming, Rosary has continued to share her historically-themed dramatic works with audiences who can tune in from across the globe.
As a theatre history professor with a Ph.D., Rosary has a strong interest in the lives of now-departed cultural icons. These interests strongly influence her work. Marilyn/God is a brilliant one-woman show that artistically imagines Marilyn Monroe’s confrontation with God at the hour of her death where she looks back at her life and argues the reasons why she should be allowed through the pearly gates. Clark and Carole chronicles the marriage between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, who was killed in a plane crash at the age of 33.
Marilyn/God was performed online in June of 2020 and Clark and Carole had a performance in July. Both were available for viewing via The NOLA Theatre Talk Facebook Group, the Theatrecriticism.com Facebook page (not the website) or on director Alan Smason’s YouTube Channel.
Although moving into the virtual realm from the stage is a learning curve, Rosary is happy with the results thus far. She recently granted an exclusive interview where she discussed her experiences staging her art during a pandemic.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in the idea of staging some of your plays online?
Rosary O’Neill (RO): Digital streaming like Zoom came to me like a magical visitor from another planet. All of a sudden, I was in New Orleans, but I could be in New York, Paris, or Rome, with a push of a button. The Actors Studio where I’m a member (of the Playwright/Directors Workshop) introduced me to StreamYard. To keep its artists nourished doing the Pandemic, the Studio put workshops and productions on StreamYard. I learned StreamYard and its technique with fellow artists, by rehearsing and doing. With deftness, hard work, and compassion, members learned the process of connecting with colleagues to rehearse and then mount virtual projects.
A workshop in NYC that had been attended by 30 people was suddenly available and reaching out to Actors Studio members worldwide. There could be 40 people watching but scads more on mute watching. Another group I’m involved with — the Westchester Community Players — started working on Zoom and its tiny theatre hosted an audience of 850 in one night. We were all learning and growing together, and it was fun.
Alan Smason, critic, publisher, and theatre impresario on WYES Steppin Out (the PBS station in New Orleans), had been wanting to do a production of my play Marilyn/God. Thinking ahead, Alan was developing streaming possibilities for productions online. We talked about a reading of Marilyn/God online and things began to roll. Virtual theatre expands audiences, which is something all playwrights crave.
MM: What was the experience of seeing “Marilyn/God” performed virtually like?
RO: Thrilling! Easy! Lala Land for playwrights! What I love is that the words really count. The words glue the visuals and resonate on the face. The smallest gesture has an impact. The blink of an eyelash becomes a powerful moment, a knockout smile — a scene ending. With two characters in a play, you can keep both faces on screen and watch the interplay of reactions.
But primarily hearing my lines so full and clear like poetry that is what sailed in my heart. Actor Robert Pavlovich in Marilyn/God said, “For Marilyn/God, it was a radio play for me. Performing the ‘voices’ in Marilyn’s head gave me the opportunity to not only explore who those voices belonged to, but how the relationship could be made real in that dream-like experience she was having. There are some pretty famous people in her life, and I enjoyed delving into how those characters would talk to her.”
In the Zoom production, Pavlovich said they opted to keep costumes, makeup, and background to a minimum. While it might have been fun and challenging to find interesting backgrounds, makeup, etc., they preferred focusing on the performances and the actors. Simple backgrounds that suggested time and place helped the audience. The same with costumes and make-up.
Rehearsals were kept to a minimum. Virtual is ultimately a radio play for Pavlovich, the life and emotions came through the voice. As far as challenges were concerned, the actors in Marilyn/God were lucky enough to have had director Alan Smason. Alan ironed out all of the technical aspects and led rehearsals. Alison Logan, playing Marilyn, already owned numerous Marilyn Monroe costumes and wigs, having played her in past productions of other shows. So that was helpful.
Nothing shows up more powerfully in a streamed production than great actors. Beautiful bodies and souls and resonant voices. And since it’s a time-sensitive medium, the playwright feels immediately when boredom is setting in. Beware when there is repetition, a flat-lining of conflict, a long-winded moment. The writer’s challenge is to keep building the conflict on the tiny screen, and that means casting actors that can find the inner complexity, the combustion to sustain the tension.
As they say at the Actors Studio, the play is about fighting the character’s last fight.
Virtually, you must do this with a character whose face may be the size of a postage stamp. So writers must fire up. Actors, fuel up. Directors, go full speed ahead.
Virtual performance is wildly scary but fun.
MM: How did you find the venue, director and actress?
RO: For Marilyn/God, I had been talking to the director Alan Smason for some time about doing a production and we had ruminated about different possibilities. Alan and I have a mutual admiration. It always feels so safe and nice when you work with someone who loves your writing, has read lot of it and gets your style and what you are trying to say. When a director appreciates your style, you know s/he will honor your work and the artists s/he brings to it. With a great director, you can just sit back and watch the actors and director “let it rip.” That is what I like to do. Write and then watch.
When Alan started his StreamYard productions, it seemed like having him direct Marilyn/God was a perfect fit. Alan is quite the collector o
f Hollywood memorabilia and he had quite a collection of books on Marilyn and a fascination with her that readily translated to the actors. Streaming a production requires endurance and patience because of the technical challenges. So, having an experienced theatre person at the helm is very important. But most important in a cast of two are the lead actors.
The actor Robert Pavlovich — who played Marilyn’s agent and all the other voices — I had worked with some years ago when I founded and ran Southern Rep Theatre. At that time, Southern Rep specialized in southern shows, and Pavlovich was flamboyant and magnetic in the Little Foxes. The director and I were just thrilled that Pavlovich agreed to play all the iconic voices in the play, including Clark Gable, Stanislavski, Shakespeare and Strasberg (the three “s” men).
The actress Alison Logan was new to me but a delightful and talented discovery. She found playing Marilyn on StreamYard a wondrous experience and was drawn to the intimate chance to play her in the comfort of her own home. You know, there is this indefinable quality in fine actresses called soul. Alison and Pavlovich have that. It’s what makes great actors one step below the angels. They can lift you up past earth to a godly place that makes you “see.” We want to travel with them.
The eye of the camera so relentless on screen makes the virtual production an all-powerful see-er. I was blessed to have had a strong director and actors. I say that with all humility because we playwrights who descend from the line of Tennessee Williams have spent hours cringing in a diner after a production flopped. Rosary O’Neill with virtual streaming is HAPPY HAPPY.
MM: Was the performance as effective online as offline?
RO: You know, it’s like a paperback and a hardcover book: totally different cover but the same story inside. The driving pulse of the Marilyn play is: it’s 5 minutes after Marilyn’s death and she must audition for heaven.
And so, boom bang, we are in her head and in that journey with her moving up against and through the people she must encounter to get into heaven. So, it’s a dreamlike psychic journey and as such lifts easily into the StreamYard electronic otherworldly context. I think as writers we must always be searching for new forms and ways to reach our audiences, and since our audiences are confined and internet is the drink of choice, what better way to get our plays out there than through virtual streaming? This is what is happening in the NOW for us. My father used to say, “Don’t hold on to the wagon if the car has come in!” He said the biggest invention in his life was the phone because it brought people so close. But now with virtual streaming, the theater and film world will be even closer. So, three cheers for virtual productions.
MM: What other plays might you decide to host virtually?
RO: Other plays of mine that people have an interest in doing virtually include The Awakening of Kate Chopin and Degas in New Orleans. Director/producer Alan Smason says they are natural first choices for a New Orleans- and Louisiana-based audience. And as you know, a production of Degas in New Orleans has been rescheduled to perform at the American Embassy in Paris next year for the 43rd Conference of France/ Louisiane. A virtual Degas in New Orleans would have international audiences, too.
Actress Alison Logan tells me she loves the whimsy of the words and the beauty of the imagery of Sarah Bernhard in my play John Singer Sargent and Madame X. She’d find a virtual production of that a nice challenge. Robert Pavlovich would like to do a virtual play of Uncle Victor, the Chekhov Vanya adaptation to a failing 19th-century sugar plantation. I love to work with gifted artists I’ve worked with before because in doing so you keep evolving with the drum of their huge talent.
MM: What shows and projects are coming up next for you, and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
RO: I’ll be developing my farce The Reluctant Vampire, Take One at the Actor’s Studio Playwright Directors Workshop for a live production at the Winterfest at Hudson Guild Theatre in NYC in January 2021. Stage props (fangs, a crown, tuxedos, blood goblet) have already been rehearsed with via Zoom worship at the Actors Studio. I am Zoom-developing my vampire play The Naughty Vampire in Julie McKee’s Advanced Playwrighting Workshop in NYC and metamorphosing it into a screenplay in a Zoom screenwriting workshop with Columbia professor Loren Caplin. A third vampire play is being workshopped at Westchester Community Theatre. I guess that’s it for now. Oh yes, I’m in development for a TV series, The Garden District, and a screenplay, Degas The Impressionable Years. And two of my Gothic coming-of-age novellas, Inside the Rain and Sweet Opiumare, about to be published. Is that enough for now? As you can see, I love to write!
(photo: courtesy of Rosary O’Neill)