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STC Women in Charge: Ellen O’Brien

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WOMEN IN CHARGE

This fall, more than 50 Washington, D.C. professional theatres are participating in the momentous Women’s Voices Theater Festival, showcasing more than 50 world premiere plays by women. In the spirit of the festival, Shakespeare Theatre Company wants to highlight some of its Women in Charge. Theatre is a collaborative art, and a successful production involves stage managers, scenic designers, administrators and grant writers, costume designers, prop masters, trainers, and so many more. That is why we are taking the opportunity to highlight some of our women behind the scenes who keep our theatre, and the art form, alive.

During the run of Yaël Farber’s Salomé, our contribution to Women’s Voices, we will be publishing interviews with some of the women you will not see onstage, but who keep STC running smoothly. We’re proud to put these wonderful women in the spotlight!

We hope you enjoy the first installment, featuring Ellen O’Brien, STC’s head of voice and text.

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Ellen O’Brien

AN INTERVIEW WITH ELLEN O’BRIEN

How long have you been working in the arts?
Over three decades.

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Anthony Roach as Dorante and Amelia Pedlow as Lucille in The Metromaniacs, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

What’s your favorite show that you have helped make happen? Why?
It’s hard to name a single favorite. Metromaniacs was certainly one of the most satisfying. It was a splendid collaboration with Michael Kahn, David Ives, and a terrific cast. As David and Michael honed the language, I worked in detail with the actors to give embodiment to that language and to the particular nature of David’s verse. In the end, I think we were all very gratified by the results.

What’s your “dream show” to help make happen? Why?
Sixteen seasons at STC have enabled me to realize a number of former “dream shows.” In a lot of ways, Salomé is my current “dream show.” Yaël’s way of working engages the actors in an integration of heightened language and deeply physical work, which is thrilling. Developing a devised piece has been a new and inspiring experience for me–a fascinating departure from working on Shakespeare, where everything begins from an established text. The Oresteia has long been a “dream show” for me. It has such great potential for a production that realizes the richness and depth of that text through integrated voice and body work.

What do you love about STC?
I take great pride in our commitment to keeping the classics alive and vital, both through production and through the terrific Education programs that bring Shakespeare to so many D.C. children.

What got you started in the arts?
At the very beginning, my mother’s love of music. The soundtrack of my earliest days was our local classical music radio station and Mom’s collection of folk and classical music. My first performance memory is of playing a Snowflake in The Snow Queen at the age of 4 or 5. But it took several decades for me to find my place in the theatre. Although I continued to act in high school and college productions, I never had ambitions to act professionally. I don’t have the heart of a performer: the exploration of rehearsal excites me far more than getting up before an audience. Seeing no place for me in theatre, I followed my love of language into life as a Shakespeare scholar. But teaching Shakespeare made me long to be engaged in it beyond the page. My circuitous and unplanned route to a career in theatre began with offering pre- and post-show talks for the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. Then we realized I could be of help to the actors in untangling Shakespeare’s language. The breakthrough moment came at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, where I arrived as an observer and left as a text coach. The more I worked with actors, the more I realized that understanding the workings of the human voice would allow me to take the language work beyond the head and bring it into the body. A workshop with Cicely Berry finally showed me what I wanted to become. A year at in the voice program at Central School of Drama gave me the means to become that. And STC has given me a rewarding professional home as head of voice and text.

Can you explain your role in the theatre world, for those who might not know?
My task is to make sure that the language of the play is realized and shared with the audience as fully as possible–not a simple process. I work with the actors on filling the performance space without vocal strain or shouting. Along with that goes clear articulation for the particular performance space. Clear articulation for the Lansburgh is not
sufficient for the Harman. And every set affects the acoustical environment. But long before we move into the performance space, we have to address clarity of thought. Shakespeare’s characters often speak in longer and more complicated sentences than we are accustomed to. It is not enough for actors to be able to paraphrase their lines. If actors’ thoughts differ from the words they speak, we may understand each word, but not follow the thought. So actors need to move beyond paraphrase to think the thought in Shakespeare’s words. That includes exploring verse and rhetoric as shapers of thought. This complexity of thought also requires greater vocal range and variety than do contemporary plays. So we have plenty to work on in the rehearsal period. In addition, some shows also require me to coach one or more dialects–occasionally even a foreign
language. The Welsh lines in Henry IV were quite a challenge, since I don’t speak a word of Welsh! In the end, my work should be undetectable to the audience. Ideally, the actors command the text with such ease that it seems to be their native language.

What’s the best part about your job?
Living in Shakespeare’s language on a daily basis. The joy of collaborating with so many wonderful artists.

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