BWW Interviews: Spotlighting Portland Solo Artist Eleanor O'Brien
I have been living in Portland for a year and a half, and what I noticed immediately upon arriving here, is the theatre scene is vibrant, diverse and exciting. I like theatre that is edgy, performers that are irreverent risk-takers and I found what I was looking for when I met Eleanor O'Brien. Eleanor is a force of nature and her one-woman show, Good Girls Guide: Dominatrix for Dummies has thrilled Portland audiences with its unexpected tale of a woman finding self-confidence and self-acceptance while looking to survive as an actress in New York City. In the upcoming months, O'Brien is taking her show on the road and performing in several fringe festivals across the country. I had the pleasure of talking with Eleanor about her show and other exciting projects she has in the works for her theatre company Dance Naked Productions.
Debbie Lamedman: Tell us briefly about your solo show GGG: Dominatrix for Dummies.
Eleanor O'Brien: GGG: D4D tells two different stories, one fairly linear, and the other primarily told through dance.The play opens with the Goddess Domme – she is everything I ever wanted to be. Strong, sexy, funny – certain of her power, not a trace of doubt. She welcomes the audience with a smile and a crack of her riding crop and invites them to play along. She teases and flirts, and lays down the rules. She offers a challenge - can you learn how to worship yourself?
In the dark - a tap dance. As the lights come up, a six-year old dancing (barefoot). This scene introduces the spine of the play – the story of my life as told though dance, from tap to ballet, breakdancing, and then...junior high. Learning how to contain myself to acceptable forms, and that you must always wait to be picked.
"Waiting to be picked" characterizes my life post-grad school, pursuing a career in acting in New York City. Here begins the linear story. I go on countless auditions. I meet with casting directors. I wait on tables, and wait to get cast. I come across an ad on Craistlist that promises $75 an hour to work as a professional dominatrix. "Completely legal, no sex." It may not be Broadway, but it's a paid acting gig. How hard could it be?
The next hour take the audience back and forth between the two stories. The dance involves flashbacks to smoky bars, and uncomfortable shoes, before introducing the dance that saved my soul – freeform, ecstatic dance. Through a character based on Gabrielle Roth and following a structure similar to the 5-Rythm Wave, I experience a journey of freedom and permission to love myself, and the recognition that there is no wrong way to dance.
The dominatrix story takes us to The Jewel Box, a professional House of Domination in mid-town Manhattan. This story introduces you to Lena, the Madame, Equinox, and Margo, two drastically different dommes – their clients, their thoughts, and what goes on in a house of domination. The play closes with the return of the Goddess Domme. She unites the two stories with the acknowledgment that we are all waiting to be picked, and that what's necessary is to learn how to love ourselves.
DL: You're doing the Fringe circuit this summer with the show. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
EO: Having toured a kid's show from NYC to the Toronto and Winnipeg Fringe festivals in 2004, I knew I wanted to return with a solo show of my own. I took a class at the People's Improv Theater and began to develop GGG:D4D. My first public performance was at the Toronto Fringe in 2005. Disaster. I received a 1 star review from a local paper ("Unsexy, unfunny") and almost turned around and drove back to Oregon. I continued to rewrite as I toured Canada that summer (4 fringes in all), and by the time I got to Vancouver I was receiving 4 star reviews and MUCH better houses. I won the lottery for the Edmonton Fringe tin 2006, and with the help of a seasoned solo show artist (the incomparable TJ Dawe) my new and improved script won rave reviews, and played to sold-out houses. In 2011, I was asked to do the show for a mini- fringe festival here in Portland. I revamped and rewrote, and the 3-night run was another sell-out, standing ovation crowd. I realized that I wasn't done with this show - and decided to take it on tour. I started with a 3-week run in Portland and just finished up a run in Seattle at the Solo Performance Festival. I'll head to Orlando next (the oldest and largest of the US fringes), then Santa Cruz (a brand new fringe) and Edmonton again this August.
Fringes are funny things - you can be a hit in one, and a total miss in another. They are also a LOT of work - though you only do 7 or 8 performances, you spend most of your time promoting - putting up posters, flyering lines, trying to convince potential audience members that your show is worth their $10, trying to stand out from a crowd of 150 other shows.
DL: Let's talk about your ensemble show "Inviting Desire." Where did the inspiration come from to start that show? When did it start, and how does each show differ from the previous ones?
EO: In 2008 I was talking with a friend and fellow actress about her Masters program in sex therapy. I mentioned that I'd considered going the same route, but was compelled to try and use the Masters degree in theater I'd already bought (if not quite paid for!). I told her about my idea to turn the fantasies in the book "My Secret Garden" into monologues and she was enthusiastic about the idea. There was a new works theater festival being launched in Portland that year, and for $50 you could save yourself a spot in the line-up. I applied under the name Inviting Desire. I found that the topic of desire was rarely treated with respect in the theater - more often punished or mocked. I wanted to make a show that celebrated all the ways we get turned on. So I cast an ensemble of 7 courageous women, and we began to meet and brainstorm and free-write and improv - and eventually a show began to develop.
There were a number of challenges - debates about just how taboo we could be - but the end result was an extremely exciting piece of theater. One of the only criticisms I heard was that almost all the women featured climaxed - and to some that felt unrealistic (!) In the following production, we featured more scenes (the first production was largely monologues), an original song/dance number, an improvised skit - and the focus was more on pleasure as a matter of principle, rather than a feature of fantasy. Some of the scenes were about women whose sexuality has been repressed in some way (Muslim, gay, old...) or who've been frustrated by lack of desire. We widened the scope of what we explored. Every time we do the show, we begin by talking, asking questions, and creating a survey. We want to know what our friends, lovers and colleagues are thinking about, and then we begin writing from there. The next version is unique in that I already have a pretty strong idea as to what I'd like to explore, and while that won't be the exclusive focus, it'll definitely get its share of play time. I read a book called Sex at Dawn that examines our anthropology as humans, and asked questions about monogamy that I find fascinating. So that's become a jumping off place.
DL: What kind of reaction do you get from Portland audiences and how do you think it will differ in other cities?
EO: Portland LOVES this kind of thing. We totally have a following (and with no advertising budget, that's a beautiful thing). Portland is just hugely sex-positive. There are more strip clubs here per capita than anywhere in the US. We have an enormous amateur porn event called Humpfest that draws thousands. Kinkfest was held at the CONVENTION center. So that's a lovely thing. Other cities - well, I hate to jinx anything, but there are kinky, sex-positive people everywhere. When we first started our tour, we performed in Winnipeg. It was terrifying. The audience was dead quiet, and we were used to a loud and appreciative Portland audience. I was literally shaking, and convinced we'd made an enormous mistake. But after the show, a woman in her 50s came up to us crying, and telling us how much the show meant to her. She pledged her support in getting people into the theater - and followed through. I think she saw it 3 times and brought tons of friends. We'd heard Calgary would be our toughest audience (the Texas of Canada) and in that city we played to sold out crowds and were runner up for Best of the Fest. So, we've been pretty blessed to find our niche wherever we've gone.
DL: Besides Inviting Desire 2012, what are some of your short-term and long-term goals for Dance Naked Productions?
EO: I'm planning a new solo show - a kind of Anna Deavere Smith style piece that explores many characters and sexualities (it's much easier to tour a solo show I find). I'd like to create Inviting Desire in colleges and universities - I think women that age are ripe for the consciousness-raising and empowerment the show offers. I'd like to create a male-version of the show - or possibly mixed gender. I'd like to produce other shows that illuminate other aspects of sexuality. Eventually I'd like to sell the rights to these scripts so that other theater companies and actors can have access to them, maybe write a book that can act as a blueprint for how to create your own version. Personally, I'd like to figure out how to run a business. I'm very proud of the fact that I've always paid my actors (often more than they've ever been paid) but I've financed everything through my day job. I've recently quit waiting tables to do this full time, and my goal is to make it both artistically satisfying and financially rewarding.
For additional information about Eleanor and tour dates for her Fringe Festival shows, visit http://dancenakedproductions.com/