Stage Directions: How Writer-Director Robert O’Hara Decides Which Plays to Direct and Which to Hand Over

Interview   Stage Directions: How Writer-Director Robert O’Hara Decides Which Plays to Direct and Which to Hand Over
 
The Obie-winning director discusses the provocative new Slave Play, choosing his projects, how his rehearsals lead to unconventional results, and more.
Robert O’Hara
Robert O’Hara

“It’s a unique voice, an exciting young voice, dealing with issues around race and identity and sexuality,” Obie-winning director and playwright Robert O’Hara says. “New ideas and new thoughts. I love plays that capture the imagination, that take you on a ride and an adventure. And I think this play does.” O’Hara is talking about Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, which O’Hara directs at New York Theatre Workshop. The play, about black and white in white America, was called “willfully provocative, gaudily transgressive and altogether staggering,” as well as “furiously entertaining,” by The New York Times.

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Robert O'Hara and Jeremy O. Harris Marielle Solan

O’Hara often directs his own plays, but recently directed works by Kirsten Childs and will direct BLKS by Aziza Barnes at MCC in 2019. His plays include Insurrection: Holding History, Brave Blood, -14: An American Maul, Antebellum, The Etiquette of Vigilance, Bootycandy (about a gay African-American man, which won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama), Barbecue, and Mankind.

Other works he has directed include Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter’s In the Continuum (2006 Obie Award for direction), about H.I.V. in the United States and Africa; Kirsten Childs’ Bella: An American Tall Tale; Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays (Part 2); and Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy. Here, O’Hara spoke about Slave Play, his directing career, and his future plans.

Why he became a director:
“I’ve always felt that I was a director and I was a writer. I’ve been writing all my life and I’ve been directing most of my life. One of the things that drew me to directing was the idea of helping people tell stories. That’s always fascinated me—as a child and as an artist, to explore different ideas on the stage and also in other mediums.

“My directing is about how can we further the storytelling, the play or the script, that is being told. And that’s exciting to me. In college and in high school I was performing onstage at times, but I always enjoyed being offstage and being in the room making things up and getting groups together and talking about things and creating things. I wasn’t so much interested in being in front of an audience. So directing came naturally to me. I had a large extended family, and we would always put on shows, make up little plays. It was always fun to create those things. That’s why I still gravitate toward getting a group together and creating something for others to see or experience.

“I call it building a bus—creating a ride for an audience to come and take a trip with us, and engaging their minds and their hearts, engaging them fully.”

His directing principles:
“I always tell my cast that only the people in this room know the work that went into what we are doing, and that is sacred, that’s important, and that they depend on each other to be there. It’s almost like coaching a team sport, with everyone doing their part. I can’t be any more brilliant than the people in this room. If people think that the work that I did or am doing is good, it’s only because there are people inside the room who are just as good or better.

“I always allow everyone in the room to have a voice in the space, because it’s only going to work if everyone is operating to the fullest of their ability. I tend on the first week of rehearsal to say there are no characters, no one owns any ideas, anyone can say whatever they believe about any scene or any character. I like to give the space so that everyone can activate everything inside them, all of their gifts.

“Also, there are very difficult subjects that I deal with sometimes, and sometimes you can invite an audience in by putting something attractive or interesting in front of them, and allow them to relax inside for the moment, and then you can have a deeper conversation with them.

“And I guess one other principle I have is not to be limited by your own [or by someone else’s] imagination. Just because someone else can’t imagine it doesn’t mean you can’t. I also use that for my own imagination; I’m not going to be limited by what I think this should be. I’m going to be open to the possibility of what other people bring to it. It’s important that you keep yourself open to the possibilities.”

Directing his own plays vs. directing others’:
“Sometimes I direct my plays in order to better understand them. Most times I’ll direct them in a nonprofessional way, at a college or in a workshop, and then I’ll be comfortable enough to say I think the play works enough, let’s give it out to someone else to do.

“My last play, [Mankind] at Playwrights Horizons, I directed. That was because I was still working out the idea of it, and the director in me was engaged in the idea in a different way from say my play Barbecue, which I wrote and was working on for two years, and I said, ‘I’m not that interested in directing it as I am in watching someone else take a hand at it.’

Bobby Moreno and Anson Mount in <i>Mankind</i>
Bobby Moreno and Anson Mount in Mankind

“It comes back to whether I have something to say differently as a director than I did as a writer. If there isn’t, and I want to expand its world, I will allow other people to direct it. People are directing my plays all around the country, so it’s exciting to me to go and see other people take ideas I sat in a room creating, and flower them and make them work in their own way.

“I have a little more insight, I guess, when I’m directing something I write, but also I understand that means I depend on more people to give me their thoughts, to come into the space and share their thoughts because I don’t want to be in a blind spot and not see certain things. I think I actually become more open to the input of others. I’m not ‘precious’ that way. And I ask playwrights not to be ‘precious’ with their work. If something doesn’t work as well, let’s try something else.”

In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“There are many times when you’re working on something and the actor says, ‘I don’t understand, this doesn’t feel right,’ and I think you have to let that play out. You have to allow the actors to express themselves fully. So I’ll say, ‘What would you like to do? Let’s try that.’ I always ask for the actor to go fully into an idea before we scrap the idea.

“During rehearsing Slave Play, the actors went really, really far into a satire of a moment, and the moment got blurred. So I allowed that to happen for a full rehearsal and then I said, ‘Now let’s take it back. Now that we went there, let’s see if we can pull it back to something else.’ It’s important to me when I’m working with actors to give them ownership of the space and ownership of their actions. That they don’t wait to figure out what I want. Many times, I don’t know what I want. It’s really about what the play wants and what the play needs.”

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Paul Alexander Nolan and Teyonah Parris Joan Marcus

A mistake he made that he learned from:
“Early on in my career I had an experience in which I cast a group of people based on not auditioning or interacting with them personally. From that moment on, I say I would never work with anyone I don’t really want to work with, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. You have to be in a room with people you want to be in a room with. And if you’re not, it turns into a lot of difficulty. The mistake I made earlier was casting or working with people I had not fully engaged with before the rehearsal process.”

A decision that paid off:
“I recently did the Scottish play in Denver [Denver Center for the Performing Arts], with an all-male cast and we decided that we were not going to use any weapons. That we were going to make the world magic. I allowed the cast to come up with all the physicality. And with 17 individuals coming up with all types of things, it could get into a place of chaos really quickly. But out of that came some wonderfully startling, beautiful moments. And when you saw it on stage it felt lived in, it felt as if these people owned it in a different way from a choreographer or fight director coming in and putting things on with them. The actors created something that you see in front of you, something that was physicalized.

“Actors go through training, and they use all this stuff in training, and when they come into a rehearsal hall they’re told what to do. Sometimes if you allow them to unlock all that training that they used to do in acting school, it comes out in a really wonderful way. People said, ‘How can you do Macbeth without swords, without those epic battles that are in Shakespeare?’ I said I’m going to make this Macbeth as told from the point of view of the witches in the story, which it’s rarely told from. I’m going to allow them to tell the story, and they carry magic inside them, which doesn’t require weapons. That was scary and exciting.”

About Slave Play:
“The first third of the play is a setup for the rest of the play. It gives you an imaginary place that you think you’re in. And these little gestures that tell you that something’s not right here. Something’s off. You think you’re in antebellum space, and then the play changes, and tells you that you’re not in an antebellum space. You’re in a contemporary space. And for the rest of the play it deconstructs what you’ve just seen. Without giving the play away, that’s the play’s world. It concerns couples who are dealing with their relationships with their partners and their identity inside those relationships.”

His future plans:
“I have some commissions, from a couple of theatres in New York City and I have some television projects I’m involved in. I’m also directing a few more new plays this season. But I’m excited just to see what comes next—the opportunities ahead.”

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