BWW Interviews: Chris O'Connor from Mile Square Theatre
The holidays are a great time to take in a wonderful show and the Mile Square Theatre at the Monroe Arts Center in Hoboken has a great offering for this season. Artistic Director Chris O' Connor spoke to Broadway World about It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.
Thanks for joining us today, Chris. Mile Square is celebrating ten years this year. How does that feel?
Chris O'Connor: I'm amazed and incredibly proud that we've accomplished this milestone, no pun intended. A number of folks have tried to start a theatre in Hoboken in the past. For some reason, it's tough to establish a professional theatre when you're a mere river crossing from Manhattan. Despite their best efforts, those companies that came before us didn't last. We've stuck to it, and I think we've been aided by a changing demographics and that we've beenable to attract a board of very active community members. Of course it's helped that we do really good work and that we've developed a core of talented anddedicated theatre artists. I marvel that we are now producing a season of three mainstage productions, plus 7th Inning Stretch, our annual festival of 10-minute baseball plays.
It's truly an amazing feat as it is difficult to produce live theater in today's market, but Mile Square has always managed to produce such diverse works. Is this part of your mission?
Yes. We follow the regional theatre model and it's our mission to advance theatre in Hudson County and Northern New Jersey in a broad sense. That's why we produce new work, contemporary plays, classical plays, and theatre for young audiences. We want to develop a broad audience base.
It also seems you have always offered a holiday show of some sort. You presented It's A Wonderful Life as a radio play last year to rave reviews. Do you see making this a tradition for your company?
We've been trying to hit on a holiday show that can sustain itself over a few years. We produced wonderful productions of The Santa Land Diaries (with Tectonic Theatre member John McAdams) and A Christmas Carol, Told by the Spirit of Charles Dickens (with NY actor Lenard Petit). Both of those plays were wonderful, but as solo works, they didn't really catch on. Our first production (last year) of It's a Wonderful Life really built an audience as the run progressed. People were moved by it and many told us they'd come back if we produced it again. We're hoping people will make it part of their holiday tradition.
Tell us a little about the show.
It's a very clever adaptation by Joe Landry. The conceit is that the theatre is transformed into a 1940's radio studio. The stage is filled with sound effects equipment and microphones. The audience sees the sound booth upstage with the engineer behind the glass. The "radio performers" show up for a broadcast of It's a Wonderful Life. At the top of the show, the engineer counts down to top of the hour…and the radio show begins. Five actors, plus a sound effects artist, play the dozens of characters in the story. You could close your eyes and vividly imagine the story, just as you would listening to a radio drama. It's truly 'theatre of the mind.' But that's hard to do, because there's so much to take in visually with actors in 40's period costumes and the truly fascinating ways that the sound effects are made. But I have to say, beyond the spectacle is a deeply moving story, rendered by some wonderful actors. That's what grabs you.
Hoboken was hit pretty badly from Hurricane Sandy. How has the theater responded and/or been affected?
It's been a trial, to say the least. People have lost so much in Hoboken. Most of the town was underwater and I think people are still in a bit of a state of shock. Our theatre is on the second floor of the Monroe Center, so we were OK, but the first floor of the building was badly flooded. The building management was quick to get the place operational, so you wouldn't know now that it was the site of such an event. We had to cut short a residency at the Jersey City schools of our kid's production. When these life and death events occur and people are worried about how they are going to clean up their homes and businesses and wondering if FEMA is going to help out and if insurance will cover the damage, it's hard to urge folks to come out to a show and support an arts non-profit. So we're doing what we can to be sensitive to our community's challenge. We presented a benefit performance of Michael Thomas Walker's Bubba, which was part of the United Solo Fest. The proceeds went to Rebuild Hoboken, a local charity. We also lowered our ticket prices for this show and will be giving away tickets to teachers during the run. Two of our local schools were completely flooded and a third school had a catastrophic fire in September.
One of your producers, Joe Gallo said to me this was a great time for the area to have a "George Baily" and to escape some of the everyday world that so many are still dealing with in the aftermath of the storm. This live radio show can definitely deliver that!
Right after the storm, there were examples of folks helping each other all over the place. People were truly giving of their best selves. Restaurateurs were providing free food, emergency responders were carrying victims through the flood waters on their backs, and neighbors were providing water and bathrooms and cell charging stations for strangers. They were being George Baileys. They were acting on a selfless impulse to help their community. It was inspiring. This play celebrates that spirit, and the event of Sandy surely makes the play more resonant.
That is really wonderful. Can you tell us about the 'pay what you will" performance?
Yes. We do this for every production. We've designated Thursday, December 13 as our Pay What You Will performance. Audience members can pay as little (or as much!) as they like. We do this to encourage people who are on fixed incomes or folks who just can't muster the $20 to pay for a ticket. Pay what you will, no questions asked.
That is incredible you can make such an offer: a true gesture of the holiday spirit. What does Mile Square having coming up in the new year?
Well, we're still in the planning stages, but I think I can say with certainty that we are returning to our beginnings by staging an outdoor show on the Hudson River waterfront at Sinatra Park in Hoboken. Our first few years of production were outdoor shows at that venue. Next June we are producing Twelfth Night. We are still choosing titles for our fall young audiences show, and then we hope to bring back this production for the 2013 winter holiday show. There may be some other projects throughout the year, but nothing I can announce just yet.
I love that you work with such gifted writers at Mile Square. I had the pleasure of seeing Gallo's My Italy Story several years ago and was so entertained.
Yes, Joseph is a real treasure and an important company member. Our production of his play My Italy Story was a huge success for us and was brilliantly performed by Tom Pelphrey. We've staged readings of some of his new work and he also contributed a baseball play for 7th Inning Stretch. Joseph is a producer for It's a Wonderful Life, and we're in the planning stages of a project that he's developing about recent Hoboken history.
It sounds like you have accomplished so much in your first ten years and we look forward to the next ten from Mile Square. We wish you all the best with the holiday show, the clean up in Hoboken and the coming year ahead. For full details on the show, please visit http://www.milesquaretheatre.org