BWW Interviews: Crystal and Justin O'Brien Chat About LIFE IS A DREAM, Performing Together & Successful Relationships
Main Street Theater's production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's LIFE IS A DREAM, translated by Nilo Cruz, began previews on Saturday, September 15, 2012. Following their first preview, I had a chance to sit down with Crystal O'Brien, who plays Estrella, and her husband Justin O'Brien, who plays Astolfo. On a lovely almost Fall-like Sunday morning, we met at the exquisite Prego on Amherst. Over a charming brunch we discussed LIFE IS A DREAM, acting together, what else they're up to this season, and successful relationships.
LIFE IS A DREAM is currently in previews. What is it like playing opposite each other?
Crystal O'Brien (CO): You know, honestly. This probably sounds cheesy but I was just telling him in the car on the way over here that I'm so grateful to be in the show with him. It's been at least a year and a half, maybe close to two years now. The last one we did together our son was 18 months old, the age of our daughter, and he's three now. It's a treat. It's fun to be able to talk in the car rides in about tactics and intention and just playing stuff. It's kind of a luxury, actually. Really, in other rehearsals you get rehearsal time to work it out and we get any time we want to talk it through and work it out.
Justin O'Brien (JO): I tell people over and over again, acting is reacting. You know, just that idea of being able to listen to your partner and respond to what they give you. Obviously, you have the intentions, tactics, and objectives to go after. But in a shortened rehearsal process, as we've all become accustomed to because of financial constraints and things along those lines, sometimes it's really hard to build that trust and rapport with your fellow actor to go ahead and feel the freedom to think, "you know what, today I'm going to try something different. I'm going to grab your arm, or I'm going to say my line this way or I'm going to go ahead and try this tactic versus this other tactic." Obviously, being able to do it with somebody I trust more than anybody in the world, I know that I am free to play on stage, and I know she is right there with me.
CO: A lot of times when I work with other actors, I feel the need to say, "I'm going to try this today, just so you know. I don't want to throw you off." I don't feel like I have to do that with Justin.
JO: She should. (They both laugh.)
CO: I should not. No, I hope that actors feel they have that freedom to do that with me, at least.
JO: Yes, it's a blessing. It's been really, really fantastic. The only struggle we have both working together on stage is that we have two little kids that haven't had their mom and dad for the last couple of weeks.
JO: But other than that it's great.
Well, you guys have already answered my second question, so we'll move on to the third one.
CO: Oh yeah? What was the second one?
Is this the first time you two have appeared in a show together?
CO: Oh, okay.
JO: Actually, this was the first time we ever auditioned together for a show. We had never read during an audition with each other. We'd been in previous shows together. We had three rounds of auditions for this production, and finally on the third one we were both called in. I just told Becky, I said, "We've never read together. We've known each other for 10 years, but we've never read together in an audition before." And they we're like, "Okay, well, just go ahead and do it anyways. I'm not going to quit." So, that was a first. But yeah we've be in probably...
CO: Just a handful.
JO: Probably, five or six shows together now.
JO: Yeah. Hopefully, more in the future.
As characters with romantic interests in each other that get skewed and manipulated, is it sometimes hard to turn it off after a rehearsal or show? Do you sometimes go home in character?
JO: I hope so! (Laughs) I'm very much an outside in type of actor. So, the second I put on that costume, I instantly kind of start to assume that role, and the reverse is true. You know, really, as soon as I take the costume off, I'm back to being the same dorky self I normally am, which probably isn't nearly as attractive to Crystal as Astolfo is. (They both laugh.)
CO: Now, yeah, I don't ever have a hard time getting out of character or whatever, but I love watching him on stage. I love working with him on stage, so it does influence other parts of our lives. I come home and find him a little bit sexier. (Laughs.)
JO: Yeah, I guess that would be true. I first fell in love with Crystal because I was in the audience and I watched her in a performance in college, and I thought to myself-I had no idea who she was-I thought this person was incredibly attractive and talented, and I wanted to know this person. So, here we are 10 years later. Obviously, it's great being able to be on stage with her and engage in this law of attraction, as far as our roles are concerned, and being able to experience her talents on stage absolutely. When we go home, it's like, "Hey baby, you did really great tonight. You're really talented." But I certainly don't go home and role-play Astolfo with her. (They both laugh.)
LIFE IS A DREAM is renowned for being a philosophical allegory on the human situation and the mystery of life. What do you feel audiences are getting or will get from this show?
CO: I think-there's a couple of big monologues-well, more than just a couple big monologues in the show, but specifically the character of Segismundo has some longer monologues contemplating what is life. Is it a dream? Is everything what we make of it? What I walk away with is life is what you make it. It's the path that you choose. It's not necessarily planned out for you. You can dive in and make your own way. Hopefully, audiences will take that away.
JO: Yeah. Life is what you make of it. You know, life doesn't happen to you. It happens for you, I guess, is an interesting way to kind of possibly put it. The one truth in this show is the role of Segismundo. He is destined to be king. He is the heir to the king; however, the present king has assumed all of these negative qualities about Segismundo. Therefore, because he has assumed it and he believes it, it has become true in his world. Segismundo then struggles with that. He is told that this is why you are who you are presently. You are this evil, bad person and look what happens. Of course, he assumes those qualities, but then there becomes that pivotal moment in the show where that shifts and he begins to believe in a different way. And then, like in all of our lives, when you think positive thoughts positive things happen; if you think negative things, negative things happen. But the title is LIFE IS A DREAM, so just like when I wake up in the morning and I tell what I think my dream was about last night, everybody has different interpretations of that dream. So, I do think this show will open up a lot of interesting conversations after the show, and I think multiple people will be able to pull different things from it.
CO: I think that dream has several different connotations though. It could be what you dreamt about last night while you were sleeping, or it can be an imagining, like daydreaming-thinking about what could become of something, what could happen in the future. So, hopefully, people will walk away thinking of both of those ideas of dreams, rather than it all just being like "oh, that was just make believe." There's a line about dreams; something about they foretell the future events to come. To me, it's all future forward looking, rather than "oh yeah, this is something that I dreamt last night while I was asleep."
Without giving anything away, is there a moment in the show that you favor?
CO: Curtain call, no. (We all laugh.) There's an onstage moment that happens between Segismundo and Astolfo that I look forward to every night, where there's a little bit of fight choreography. I like it because it's...I don't know. I don't know if it's just that I'm married to him or what, but I'm on The Edge of my seat. It's like "Oh! Aw! Please!" I know that they rehearse it, but still it's one of the realest moments on stage for me.
JO: I mean, it's not specific to this show, but in this show there are lots of these moments. I love those moments in a production where there's a discovery, and it's an honest, carnal discovery, not a rehearsed discovery. In this production, we never leave the stage, so we are an ensemble of actors and we're omnipresent on the stage at all times. In most productions, we'd be back inside the dressing room and you don't have the privilege of seeing those discoveries happen from night to night. So, I do enjoy being able to watch everybody's work and then find those moments. And that's the beauty of live theatre. You know, you could come and see this production all 20 nights that we're doing a performance, and you're going to find something new, different, and creative every single night that works or doesn't work. (Laughs.) And that's the beauty of theatre, and that's the moments I love. I never know what those moments are going to be, but I look forward to them.
After LIFE IS A DREAM, where can Houston audiences see you next?
JO: Sure! Well, things are always changing and stuff like that, but we are already committed to several other projects. My next project will be A FEW GOOD MEN at The Alley. All of the final casting details are being worked out, but I will be in that production. I can't say which role I'll be playing at this point, but that's what I'll be in next. And then, we kind of have-Houston audiences, if they want to go to Bellingham, Washington-we have an open invitation, depending on what our summer schedule ends up working out to be, to go back to where Crystal and I first met, Bellingham, Washington. There's a theatre there called Mount Baker theatre, and they do a summer repertory theatre program-three shows that run in rep-and that's something we're looking forward to exploring again this summer. Now, Crystal's like chock full, busy for the rest of the year.
CO: I'll be at Main Street. I'm in...
JO: LOVE GOES TO PRESS, which is the next show at Main Street.
CO: And then, HENRY V.
JO: And HENRY V takes you to Prague as well.
CO: Yeah. That will be fun. I'm excited, and blessed, and blown away at being in a few other shows there this season.
JO: We're just kind of, you know. Well, Crystal was very supportive for me over the course of the last year and a half, while she was busy making babies...
CO: I was busy raising babies.
JO: Yeah, raising babies.
CO: I wasn't making them anymore. (Laughs.)
JO: She took a little bit of a hiatus. We do a lot of corporate entertainment work as well, so we've stayed busy artistically even though we aren't in full on productions. I did several shows back to back to back, and then Crystal was able to get back into the swing of things this last spring with RICHARD III [at Main Street Theater] and then LARGE ANIMAL GAMES [at Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company], now this show. She's on this string of fantastic shows. We try to do our best to alternate productions because we really like that work/life balance and being able to have that family time with the kids. So, there was an opportunity for us to potentially be doing more shows over the Christmas period, and we just decided-well, I decided, at least, for my personal self-to take a little bit of a reprieve from work.
What advice can you offer to other married couples pursuing their dreams in the theatre?
JO: Support, support, support. Communication, communication, communication.
CO: Yeah, I think in every life it's about finding balance. It doesn't matter if you're in the arts or in the corporate world. In our life, our relationship with God is our number one priority and our family. You know, for a long time I was like, "well, I love theatre. It's my passion, but is it more important to me than spending time with my children? No." So, I don't know. I feel like I had to become kind of picky and choosy for what I even auditioned for. And right now, unless I'm in love with the script, really want to work for a director, or be with the theatre, I won't pursue an opportunity.
JO: I think the key, and this happens naturally for us, is to be your other's number one fan. You know, I could see the potential where one could get jealous of their counterpart. "You got cast in that show, and I didn't." Or, "you've gotten cast in five straight shows, and I'm staying at home with the kids," or whatever it may be. But the reality is, if you take that mindset that of one of the qualities you love about this person is their talent and you're going to support them, support them, support them; then, it just makes everything a whole lot easier, versus being their competition for some reason. I can certainly never play the same roles that she can for obvious reasons, so why should I ever be jealous about her getting cast in something and me not being cast in it?
CO: And just being sensitive to your partner's needs also. There were times I was in a show and Justin was at home, and I was like "Woo-hoo!" I felt like a single woman out on the town. (Justin laughs.) "My kids are at home with my husband." And in theatre, you know, you like to go out for drinks and stuff afterwards. And there were times where Justin was just like, "Can you just come home?" As much as I wanted to go out and live it up, I was like, "Okay. I'm going to go home tonight and spend time with him" because it was one the needs he needed at that point.
JO: But really, having a relationship and pursing theatre is not different than just having a successful relationship in general. It just goes back to trust, communication, and support. So how would that manifest itself in the theatre world? For me, it's like I said. I believe I am Crystal's number one fan, unless there is some crazy stalker out there that I don't know about, right? So, I just really love and appreciate everything that she gets in, and it makes it really, really easy. Like I said, I fell in love with her watching her perform. And every time I get to see her in a performance, I fall in love with all over again. Gosh, that sounds good. (We all laugh.) Besides that I don't mean for that to sound cheesy, but its true. I mean, I'm very hard pressed-I'm sure that there's people that can critique my wife, but I don't have that ability. Everything she does is the greatest thing on the face of the planet, in my eyes, so here we are.
CO: (Sighs.) I love you. (We all laugh.)
Main Street Theater's production of LIFE IS A DREAM officially opens on their Rice Village stage on Thursday, September 20, 2012. It runs until October 21. For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.mainstreettheater.com/ or call (713) 524 – 6706.
Photos by Jenny Franco of Jenny Franco Photography.