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Interview: Thomas James O'Leary Smoothly Moves On From His Fiery Phantom Performance to Helming MARVIN'S ROOM

Actors Co-op Theatre Company presents Scott McPherson’s multi-award-winning MARVIN’S ROOM opening February 18th

Interview: Thomas James O'Leary Smoothly Moves On From His Fiery Phantom Performance to Helming MARVIN'S ROOM

Actors Co-op Theatre Company presents Scott McPherson's multi-award-winning MARVIN'S ROOM opening February 18, 2022. Thomas James O'Leary directs a cast of Tara Battani, Justin Bowles, Francesca Casale, Brian Habicht, Dean Hermansen, Crystal Yvonne Jackson, Marek Meyers and Kimi Walker. I had the chance to question Thomas on ROOM, his past directorial projects and his long run playing the titular Phantom.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Thomas!

You're a member of Celebration and Skylight Theatres. What factors came into play for you to connect with Actors Co-op to direct MARVIN'S ROOM?

Both Celebration and Skylight are terrific companies, and it has been a pleasure to work with both groups! The first production I saw at Actors Co-op was a gem of a production of AH, WILDERNESS in 2013. I reached out to them sometime after that, and was hired to direct 33 VARIATIONS in 2017, which turned out to be one of the best directing experiences I've ever had. After that, it seems that I've been fortunate to be on their short list of freelance directors. I directed THE CHRISTIANS for them in 2019, and now MARVIN'S ROOM, which we were almost ready to open in February of 2020. And here we are - after a two-week pause turned into a two-year pause, ready to finally open this production!

Have you worked with any of the MARVIN'S ROOM cast or creatives before?

I have worked with Nicholas Acciani as set designer, David Marling as sound designer, and Lori Berg as props designer before - I love working with them! I also worked with E.B. Brooks as costume designer when I was an actor in Celebration's TAKE ME OUT. Since then, I had always wanted to work with her on a show I directed, and I'm so glad that it worked out this time! Interestingly, all of the actors in this production, most of whom are members of Actors Co-op, are first-timers with me, and they're all wonderful!

What would your three-line pitch for MARVIN'S ROOM be?

MARVIN'S ROOM is a beautiful funny-sad play by Scott McPherson loosely based on his experiences as a youngster when he lived with an ailing grandmother. This 1992 Drama Desk Award-winning play is refreshingly comedic while also being unsentimentally honest as it reunites two estranged sisters when one becomes ill. The comedy lifts us up and the drama touches our hearts at just the right moments, bringing us a final message of transformation that is a perfect antidote to these challenging times.

Aside from the logistics of cast size and budget, how do the challenges of directing a full-scale musical differ from directing an intimate two- or four-hander?

Great question, as I find myself directing mostly musicals at AMDA College of the Performing Arts, where I'm a full-time principal faculty member. Whereas outside of AMDA, I often find myself directing more intimate non-musicals. It might be my Gemini talking, but I love directing both types of plays, and enjoy navigating the differences. One difference is that directing a full-scale musical requires more of a collaborative process with a musical director and choreographer, in addition to all of the designers. Perhaps because most of my performance experience has been in large musicals, I feel at home with those collaborations. Large musicals require a lot of directing of traffic, especially when you have 25 or 30 performers on stage. But I love that challenge. I'm quite drawn to visuals when I direct - and that helps me a lot when directing a musical. And I think that the experience I've had directing musicals has helped me appreciate the visuals even more in the intimate non-musical productions. I also love to incorporate music in the plays I direct. I'm particularly fond of how we use the original music composed by Dylan Price in our many set changes in MARVIN'S ROOM. I also find myself drawn to a playwright's rhythms, as I would a composer's music. Scott McPherson's naturalistic flow of dialogue in MARVIN'S ROOM effortlessly bounces from serious to humorous, often tickling our funny bone at the most unexpected moments, and a lot of that comes to life by riding the rhythms.

Do you find similarities in your goals as a director with your objectives as a teacher?

My goal in both cases is to create a safe and inspiring space in which a group of artists can tell a good story in a captivating way. Another shared goal is for the actors to behave absolutely truthfully in imaginary circumstances while also embracing the specific tone and style of the piece. The difference is that as a teacher, I introduce and teach the tools needed to do that, and in a production I'm directing, the artists already have those tools, and together we can run with them, as we build something larger and more impactful than individual scenes or songs.

Would you say that your style/method/process of teaching is the same as that of your directing?

Well yes, in that I'm passionate about the work while also being pretty detail-oriented, sometimes annoyingly so. I love to help artists take their work to a higher level by using a rich foundation of backstory and analysis to create space for moments that are nuanced and spontaneous, while being true to character and circumstances.

Is there a specific piece of advice you always pass onto your students?

I'll share two. The first is the advice I received many years ago when I studied at Trinity Rep Conservatory. When we young actors asked the brilliant Richard Jenkins for the key to acting, he always said "to listen." Not as easy as it sounds, but it's the main thing, and without it, there's no life on stage.

The other thing I always remind my students is that the most important gift they have as actors is childlike curiosity - that thing that somehow we abandon, or cover up, around the time we're in junior high school by pretending we know it all. And that is such a killer for an artist. If artists can embrace their childlike curiosity more, then most of the work becomes a thrilling ride filled with questions and possibilities rather than stopping the flow of creativity by jumping to conclusions. The more I teach, the more I come back to both curiosity and listening.

Is there a specific piece of direction you always emphasize to your cast?

I probably repeat direction on pacing more than anything else.

As the director of a piece, do you have the final say in its casting? Or is it sometimes a collective decision?

It depends on the company or the school. It has varied at AMDA because there are so many factors in terms of the academic demands and requirements. And then when I work at Actors Co-op, I'm working with an acting company, and cast within the company unless there is a role that can't be cast from the membership. But if there is a good choice within the company, I will not look outside. As long as I'm casting within the company, and those auditioning are active members, then I usually have final say among those who turn out to audition.

Which do you prefer: sinking your teeth into a juicy role? Or guiding a group of actors through the discoveries of a playwright's words?

For the last decade I have found that directing is what feeds my soul - I truly love it. When I graduated from Trinity Rep Conservatory 40 years ago, the artistic director Larry Arrick's last words of advice to me were, "You have to direct." I ignored those words, and focused on acting for the next three decades, which worked out fine. But following his advice these many years later feels, oh, so right. Thank you, Larry.

Interview: Thomas James O'Leary Smoothly Moves On From His Fiery Phantom Performance to Helming MARVIN'S ROOM Is there a theatrical role that would definitely entice you to mount the boards again?

I've enjoyed doing some readings with my old friends from the conservatory over Zoom the past two years just for fun. But to commit to acting in a full production, it would have to be the right role at the right time, and I'm not sure what that might look like. I might like to do another Shaw play, or Stoppard or Chekhov someday.

Out of the over 1,000 performances you played the Phantom in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is there one or two that stand out in your memory, for whatever reason?

I started performing in the ensemble of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and then added understudying the Phantom to my contract. After several months of understudy rehearsals, I got to go on for four nights. So the first night I went on as an understudy was a very special night. I had some warning, so I invited a lot of friends and family, because I had no idea that I'd take over the role someday. But what was even more thrilling was how many of my castmates were watching from the wings during the both of the big lair scenes. I felt so much love and support from my peers while doing what I loved - hard to beat that!

Some of my other favorite performances were not the big ones you'd expect - the various opening nights, taking over the role on Broadway, or the Broadway 10th Anniversary Celebration. No, my favorite performances were those that were not advertised or celebrated. Working with Diane Fratantoni as Christine while on the tour in Columbus, Ohio, became a favorite time. It was my first city on the road, and Diane is such a wonderful actress to work with - over the seven weeks in that city we developed such a beautiful moment-to-moment way of working, that by the final weeks in that city we were in that zone that every actor prays for. No critics, no opening night parties, no pressure - just the two of us on stage having a real life in front of an audience. Another special time years later was when Sandra Joseph took over the role of Christine on Broadway - the acting chemistry was special enough then, that I said yes to renewing my contract for another eight months even though I had done the role for almost three years and was getting super tired. But we were on a roll creatively so I just couldn't walk away from that.

But for a "the show must go on" moment, there is what became my best, one-night-only Phantom trick - the night my head turned into a human torch. In the final lair scene, I would release Raoul from the magic noose around his neck, by using a trick candle that shoots sparks. One night, the sparks landed on the top of my head, which thankfully was still covered by a bald cap plus the wispy-haired alopecia wig. My makeup artist at the time would grease up the bald cap and wig with petroleum jelly to make them stand out more. The combination of the sparks, petroleum jelly, and wisps of wig hair caused quite the little bonfire. So, as I was ranting and raving during the rest of the scene, with full orchestra blaring, I started to feel a warm sensation at the top of my head and eventually a little pulling at the top of the bald cap. Instinctually my hand went up to the top of my head where I was shocked to feel flames! Without missing a beat in the music or lyrics, I pounded the fire out with my bare hands (which may have made sense to the audience given how crazy my character is in that moment). I soon learned that, by that point, I had a crown of flames four inches high at the top of my head! By putting the fire out myself, we avoided having the stagehands run out on stage with fire extinguishers to put the fire (and me, I suppose) out - which they were about to do! I'll add that a few minutes later, I sang the final note of the show longer and better than I had ever done before and was able to land it like that every show after that. Amazing what the body can do when pushed a little! Ha!

Do you have an inkling of what musical you will be directing next?

It looks like I may be directing a staged concert version of NINE at AMDA soon - something I'm excited about! And there's another production planned after that, but I can't say yet.

How about your next play?

No idea yet. Hopefully as L.A. theatres open up more now, those opportunities will also open up.

Thank you again, Thomas! I look forward to checking out your MARVIN's ROOM.

For tickets for the live performances of MARVIN'S ROOM through March 27, 2022; log onto www.actorsco-op.org



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