BWW Interview: Thomas James O'Leary Talks THE CHRISTIANS

BWW Interview: Thomas James O'Leary Talks THE CHRISTIANS

Director Thomas James O'Leary is delighted to be back at Actors Co-op after receiving the 2018 Ovation Award for Direction of a Play for 33 Variations. Other recent directing credits include Sunday in the Park with George (Musical Theatre Guild), Next to Normal (Pico Playhouse), Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter (Malibu Playhouse), Dusty de los Santos andBloodletting (Skylight Theatre), Thoroughly Modern Millie, Carrie, Nine, How to Succeed in Business... (AMDA), Reserve Champion and A Horse with a View (Hollywood Fringe Festival), and The Escape Artist's Children (Celebration Theatre).

As an actor, Thomas is best known for his three-year run as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway (over 1,000 performances) and Mason Marzac in Celebration Theatre's Take Me Out. Thomas is a proud member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC).

Tell us in detail about The Christians. Do you like the way Lucas Hnath generates the controversy as if out of nowhere in the radical changing of the pastor's sermon? Be specific!

TJO: When I first saw The Christians at the Mark Taper, I was so impressed with Lucas Hnath's writing. The debates that unfold are so smart, I found it easy to see both sides, and that's what was so dramatic and even unsettling for me. And much of the drama comes because most of the debates unfold in the public forum of a mega-church service, in front of thousands of congregants.

What makes those debates or arguments gripping are the human relationships between the debaters. This is a play with such humanity - every character has love and respect for each other. And each is doing what he or she thinks is the morally right thing to do. The heartbreak comes from how much love and respect each character has for the other, as they duke it out.

Why did you pitch this play to Actors Co-op? I must say, I think they are one of a few acting companies in town, including The Road and Antaeus, who can pull it off. I found the play thrilling to listen to when I saw it at the Taper a few years ago. In my mind, it's what good theatre should do - open up our minds to deal with both sides of the issue of the existence of God and Hell.

TJO: Gosh, when I am lucky enough to pitch plays to a theatre company, I choose material based first on what inspires me, and second on what I think could be a good fit for that theatre company. To be honest, I wasn't sure how the Co-op's Production Committee would feel about this play because it poses a controversial question about Christianity. I am delighted they embraced it so fully and that we are about to open a beautiful intimate production of it this week. I loved working with Actors Co-op on 33 Variations two years ago, and I knew that their actors would be great to work with on this material.

The play for me is a sort of parable of any organized institution, church or state, that uses its power over others, to get them to adhere to the rules set down or challenge them to decide for themselves. Do you feel freedom of choice is Hnath's main message?

TJO: That's a wonderful response to the play. I think Lucas Hnath's message is one of tolerance. There's a great moment in the play when a character questions the pastor's message of tolerance because he's being intolerant of the intolerant. I love too that Hnath has the younger associate pastor fighting for the traditional views and the older pastor urging something more radical. So he flips our expectations. And each of his characters is truly doing the very best they can to do what's morally right. There's no bad guy. Everyone has integrity, while possibly making mistakes in a human way. So in these times of polarization that we live in, I think it's an important play to open our minds to what "the other" is saying. Can we live in the grey? Can we live with not knowing? Do we have to cling so intensely to opinions and beliefs without really searching? In this play, everyone searches with an admirable commitment to what's good and loving.

I was brought up a Catholic. I'm sure with the name Thomas James O' Leary, you probably were as well. As a young kid in catechism, I frequently had doubts about believing in a God that was all powerful and yet he allowed violent things to happen to innocent people who had to suffer for no apparent reason. I outgrew the church, but still love faith, as long as it can be viewed by standards of goodness. What are your feelings?

TJO: I was indeed raised Catholic and though I have a lot of gratitude for that upbringing, which gave me a foundation in believing in some sort of power greater than myself, my beliefs have grown quite a bit from those early days. The more I grow in my spiritual life, the more I can admit that I really don't know very much, and the beauty is that I now believe that I'm not meant to know very much. And I like to think that I have a lot more acceptance of people as they are without feeling that they have to change to fit my expectations.

Again what I love about this play is that we can totally follow the opening argument and perhaps agree with it, but then we can go to the other side of the pendulum as the challenges to that argument unfold.

Did you ever read Miguel de Unamuno's short story San Manuel Bueno, Martyr? It is a brilliant look at a priest who has lost his fiath but keeps on preaching. He is kind of the opposite of the Pastor in The Christians, who says what he truly believes. Manuel preaches what he does not believe becasue the people want to hear it and he loses his own sanity to please them. It's an existentialist piece and bears looking into. Are you familiar with it? I believe it has been translated into many languages. It covers faith from old European culture to present day America. Shanley's Doubt also deals with present day loss of faith. Do you feel it may be more powerful than The Christians?

TJO: I love both plays a great deal, and both can help people become more open-minded. I think that Doubt is a bit more character-driven by Sister Aloysius being so rigidly conservative and having more of a tragic flaw. What I love about The Christians is that everyone is clearly coming from a good place. Each character is human and might make mistakes, but I think that one can relate to and hopefully admire everyone in some way. And therefore it's easier to see both sides - or all sides.

Tell us about your actors and their chemistry.

TJO: It has been a pleasure working with the actors from Actors Co-op on this play. The talent level is so high in this company. I wasn't sure I'd luck out as well as I did with 33 Variations, but I'm working with an entirely New Group of actors, all of whom are members, and it's been just as fulfilling! Everyone is so respectful of the work. And that's where the money is in this play - the human relationships and the emotional journeys. I think I was very fortunate to find the actors I did for each role, as they suit their roles so well. Their relationships to each other seem to come very naturally.

Any challenges with directing the piece? If so, what?

TJO: Well, first I think this is an actors' piece. Having acted for over 30 years, working with actors is one of my favorite things to do as a director. So a lot of our rehearsal time has been spent looking at specific moments and playing with the nuance of those moments. I think this is a very delicate piece, especially as we're doing it in an intimate setting - it's fascinating that one slight adjustment can make a big difference in the impact of a scene. We're always walking a very fine line in this play, maintaining the character's respect and care for each other, while standing up for their beliefs.

Working with my designers has a been a joy - we're finding a way to make this experience immersive so that this small space can evoke the feel of a modern mega-church. And all my designers are on their A game in this production!

We have also put together two rotating choirs of 12 singers each for the play, and there has been quite a bit of work that has gone into arranging songs, teaching them, and then directing the choir within the play. In our intimate setting the choir has taken on a strong role of giving the audience a look at what this church's congregation looks like.

Would you like to add anything? How do you feel audiences will react?

TJO: It will be fascinating to see how audiences react. I hope that we will make the audiences feel comfortable enough to just be present and go on the journey of the play. I think that the play will give people plenty to talk about afterwards. Some of the regular audience members at Actors Co-op are church-goers. I don't think Lucas Hnath takes sides in the main argument posed in the play, but it's possible that some audience members might not perceive it that way. I look forward to the Sunday matinee talk-backs.

May 10 - June 16. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sunday Matinees at 2:30 pm. Saturday Matinees May 18 and May 25 at 2:30 pm. Adults: $35.00. Seniors (60+): $30.00. Students with ID: $25.00. Group rates available.e for parties of 6 or more. or call (323) 462-8460. Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre. 1760 N. Gower St. 90028 (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) in Hollywood.

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