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BWW Interviews: Denise O'Neal Talks FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD

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In my opinion, one of the most incredible aspects of theatre is the World Premiere of a new piece. While these works seldom become the next big hit on Broadway, it is always fascinating to experience a product on the ground floor and be a part of it from the beginning. Luckily, for me, the Houston theatre community revels in giving me the opportunity to enjoy that experience with moderate regularity. The next brand new work to hit Houston stages is S. Denise O'Neal's THE FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD. The play is based on her interviews with men recovering from addiction in a F.I.R.M Recovery's 90-day faith-based rehab program. She took time out of her busy tech week schedule to give me insight into the work, its inception, and its development.

BWW: How did you first get started as a playwright?

S. Denise O'Neal: From my church. (Laughs) When I was maybe 20 years old, it was kind of a bug that bit me. We did an Easter play, and I just was hooked. I'd been kind of looking for the one thing that is inclusive of all the things I love, which is writing, comedy, clothing, actors, drama, stage plays, and the things that put all of that together. So, I tired my hand at it, loved it, got really great receptions when I did it, and I just kept going.

BWW: FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD is based on actual interviews you conducted with those recovering from addiction. What was it like talking to these people?

S. Denise O'Neal: It was amazing. I learned a lot. I thought I knew what they were going to say, but I was very pleasantly surprised. What I decided to ask them was what was their life like the moment right before they were hooked. I said, "Take me to the moment in time where one second you are clean and the very next second, after you've taken the substance, you're hooked." They didn't know how long and severe that addiction was going to become when they first experimented with the drugs. So, it was very interesting to find out how they managed life while taking drugs and how they continued to keep their habit going, sometimes with no money. There's several different things they could do to obtain drugs, and that terminology was interesting. I just had been sheltered from all of these things.

Also, I see people as their spiritual beings, so I looked at them as a spiritual person that might have gotten lost along the way. It was really an amazing experience to interview them. There's maybe seven or eight men that were just inviting me in, sharing their lives with me, telling me about their journey, and saying things to me that they probably wouldn't share with somebody else. I was asking them point blank questions. "How long had you been doing this? What made you keep coming back? What was the effect on your family? What did that make you feel like as a man?" They had to answer those questions, and it wasn't always easy.

BWW: What was your writing process for FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD?

S. Denise O'Neal: I was approached to consider writing the play as an opportunity to possibly fundraise for this drug rehab facility. The gentleman who came and asked me to consider writing it was a graduate of the program himself. So, I thought, "Well, that's an interesting concept." I met the gentleman and interviewed him. Then, I decided, "This is really a great project. I can't turn away from it. It will affect lives. It's a good cause. It will give me something substantial to write about, and it will be a challenge for me as a writer." So, I took on the project, met the people and the pastor, this program happens to be faith based, and talked to them.

Then, I began the process of doing a lot of research and lots of study. It's not a world I grew up in. I learned a lot of terminology. I watched documentaries. I just did a lot of study to make sure what I was writing was authentic because I didn't know anything about it, having never got hooked on those kinds of things myself and never really having had too many friends or family members that were strung out on drugs. I had to do the work to get prepared.

Over the next, I want to say, seven or eight months I was just writing it out, writing drafts, rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting. Then, I let it go for a minute. I didn't want to continue with it. It lost interest in me. I lost interest in the project. I had some disappointments along the way with a lot of personal things, and I just wasn't motivated to do it. So, for about a year, I didn't touch it. Then, one day, I remembered my commitment to the men. I told them that I would write this play that would be loosely based on their lives and that some of the proceeds would go back to this facility to help carry on this great work.

When I picked it back up, doors started opening for me. I had, at that time, been elected as a board member for Scriptwriters/Houston, and they were beginning to see some of my work. I told them, "I'm working on this play. I'm not sure how I'm going to make it happen, but I'm working on it." The next thing I know, I had had an opportunity to do the second and the formal reading of the play. I had done readings with actors before, but this was a formal reading where people were invited to come. Theatre Suburbia opened the door and let me do it.

The reading went well. It was very well received. As a playwright, you don't know how people are going to receive you work. You're kind of holding your breath the whole two hours, (Laughs) hoping that they like it. (Laughs) But I'm humbled and flattered to say that they really liked it and couldn't wait to see it performed. I went about fundraising, raised the money to get the capital and basic budget that I needed, and the rest is history. I held auditions and rehearsals, and on Thursday, we'll do the production.

BWW: You were fortunate to do a reading of FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD at Theatre Suburbia. How did that experience shape the final product?

S. Denise O'Neal: Well, you know, I hadn't incorporated singing in the play. When you're in a faith-based drug rehab program, what they do, which is different from what you'd find in a 12 step, is they will submerge you in Bible scriptures, Bible studies, and prayer. You are given different tasks to do for approximately 16 hours until you're just really tired, and all you can do is sleep. So, not going through that facility and ever doing it myself, I didn't remember or take note that in order to keep going all day you've got to have something to do. The men would sing, they would pray, and have a walking prayer sometimes where they would just quote scriptures and, in the interim, they would sing to pass the time away. I hadn't thought to incorporate that, and I think someone in the audience said, "You should do that." So, the right songs came along. There's maybe three or four in the whole play. It's not too much, not too little. It's not a musical. But it really gives the play some flavor. It makes it more fun. It gives it color. I'm so glad I incorporated that.

Then, I changed the cliffhanger. I made it earlier in the play, and I made some changes in terms of what would bring the audience back after intermission. One thing I hate is if Act I is a bore. If I can figure out what happens in Act II, then I feel like I've kind of failed and need to go back to the drawing board. I made some shifts and changes to the script so that the audience would want to come back and find out what happens on the other side. So, there are some surprises in Act II that I'm very proud of. I think that after all the rewrites, opinions, and feedback that I got, it's a well-written product. I'm very happy about it.

BWW: What has it been like taking the final script from page to stage?

S. Denise O'Neal: It's been a journey. (Laughs) It's been a journey because you're working with actors, all kinds of different circumstances come up, and it's an original piece. It's a new piece that's never been done before, so you're laying a new foundation that you had not done before. It's not like a play that I'm doing for a second time. So, along with the challenges of getting everything just how you want it, it's just a journey to keep going forward and keep at it until you carve out the product that you want. I incorporate the actors' opinions at a certain time, (Laughs) not at the beginning. (Laughs) Once they connect with the character enough, I do allow them to bring what they have to the table. If it works, in terms of directing the play, then we keep it. If it doesn't, we don't keep it. So, it's just been a pioneering kind of journey where I'm learning new things, implementing the things that I know, and just letting it happen more naturally.

BWW: FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD is somewhat of an unusual title. Where did it come from?

S. Denise O'Neal: I had done a lot of study about drugs, people who are on drugs, how it's so difficult for them to stay off drugs, and how common it was for them to go back, and go back, and go back. Despite the help, despite the rehab programs, despite everybody pulling for them, they still would get out and get hooked again. One hot, sunny day, I was getting into my car, and a fly came into the cabin of my car. I thought, "Man, I was on my way someplace. This is very inconvenient. (Laughs) I have to stop and deal with this fly that found its way into my car." So, I did the ritual thing. I got a newspaper, I tried to flash and swat the newspaper, I rolled my windows down, and I moved your hand over it so the fly would go. I did all these things to help this fly be motivated to go out the window and fly in his natural habitat, and this little fly wasn't getting it. (Laughs) He just kept getting lost.

I kept thinking, "Surely, you know your inside," but then I thought, "Maybe he doesn't think he's inside because he's behind this big glass windshield. Maybe, from his perspective, it looks like he's outside." I thought, "That's so much like the drug addict. You're doing all these things for him, and you're motivating him. You're trying to do everything you can to help him get back to a place of freedom, and he gets stuck and confused. And many of those little flies die because they don't know where they are. They're bouncing off the wall. No matter what you do, they don't get it. They don't get that help is right there. The window is open for them." So, I thought, "That is what it's probably like for them. They are acting like flies in the windshield." Then, I was thought, "Should it be FLY ON THE WINDSHIELD? (Laughs) FLY AROUND THE WINDSHIELD? Because he's not technically in the glass, but behind the windshield."

That's how I came up with the title. I don't like titles that give away the whole play. And I hope that FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD intrigues people enough for them to think, "I want to know more about that. Explain that to me." And when I do explain it, people always say, "Oh yeah! I get it! It makes sense."

BWW: Yeah. Now that you say that, I totally get it. I felt like I was missing something, but I get it now.

S. Denise O'Neal: Yeah. Next time a fly comes in your car, you're going to think, "You know what? That's just like people who struggle with things. Everybody in the community is trying to help them, and they just don't see it. They die in their struggle, and they don't have to."

BWW: What do you hope audiences take with them after seeing FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD?

S. Denise O'Neal: Well, I hope they have a good time. I hope they enjoy the show. It's not a dreary drug show. (Laughs) It's a lighthearted drama. It's not a silly show. It's a play about transformation of character and the strength of the human spirit. I hope that hey take away form the play that you've got to keep going, you've got to keep pushing, to become your best self. When you make that decision, that real strong decision, that I'm going to do this or that or whatever in the Earth realm or for your life, it's only after you're very sure about something that people come alongside you and help you make it so. For me, I hope that they see that these men had a choice to stay on drugs, but they got on this program, they stayed the course even though it was not always comfortable, and they have this new set of brothers who were strangers to them initially, and their brothers came and helped them be better men, but it first starts with a decision.

You have an audience of 100 people, and 100 people have different ideas, but I hope it lends itself to helping people understand how important it is to push forward, to get a vision, an idea, or a desire clear in your head first, because that's when the magic happens. That's when people or the universe comes along to help you make that happen. If you're wavering, not clear about it, or you don't have a plan, then nothing really happens to you. All the men in the play were on their journeys. They have challenges that they have to overcome. Every single one of them, the good ones and the bad ones, all have a reason why they are where they are in the present day, but the choice to make a change to become better is a real serious choice for people. You've got to make it, or you don't make it.

BWW: What has been the most difficult aspect of getting FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD from the page to the stage?

S. Denise O'Neal: Do you really want an answer to that? (Laughs) Time. Time to do everything. I think that's probably the best answer. The cast is great. They have a heart for the play. They all love the play. They all love their parts. But, there are times where it's quite obvious that we need more time to do this and that. So, it's been a time crunch for us, which has caused me to have to stay up much later than I usually do on a much more regular basis than I've ever had before.

Another challenge is not having enough volunteers to help. You ask, but not everybody will really be a dedicated volunteer, so with what you have, you have to try and make it work. And that's just a lot. But, the story has it's own legs. Everybody's excited about it. With more time, you know, and in some cases more funding it would probably be a better product, but I think that it's going to be ok either way.

BWW: What has been the most rewarding aspect?

S. Denise O'Neal: To see the actors bring my words to life, to see them embrace the characters so well, and to see how excited people who attended the reading are to come to the production. Everyone is so excited, and I'm very humbled that they can't wait to see it. That makes you feel good. Nothing is better than writing words, laboring over them, rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting, and then having an actor embrace them and bring them to life in such a way that it brings tears to your eyes. That's golden. That's the most rewarding thing, seeing the actor embrace it and then execute it in such a good way that you feel like they got it. They've embodied the character, and it's going to really, really, really touch someone because they've got it so well that they don't need any help.

BWW: What advice would you offer to aspiring playwrights?

S. Denise O'Neal: I want to self-produce because, to me, that's the only way that I know my product is done well. But, with any playwright, they need to be committed to growing and developing their craft. You can't just say you're a playwright and never study and never do anything to develop yourself personally. That requires that you take the time to slow down sometimes and take the time to do the studies you need to give out the best product. Another thing is that I think each playwright should be connected to his or her grave responsibility to the audience that they serve and to the actors that they provide work to. I don't think a playwright should give an actor work that's dumb or that doesn't really challenge an actor. And, I don't think that a playwright should charge an audience member one dollar, unless they have really developed that product and made it the best it can be. Feeling it is one thing, but being more intellectually connected and having a responsibility to your work, is another thing that not every playwright wants to do. It takes some work, but you have to do it.

S. Denise O'Neal FLY IN THE WINDSHIELD runs August 1-10, 2013 at Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch Street, Houston. For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.mslilysgroove.com/Fly.html.

Images courtesy of S. Denise O'Neal.


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