5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Brooke O’Harra

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Seeing and reviewing a performance of The Verge, the 1921 play by Susan Glaspell recently at the Ontological, in a production by Performance Lab 115, rekindled my fascination with one of the 20th century’s more unconventionally successful writers. This website, of course, is named for a tremendously successful American playwright whose work and status largely vanished immediately following his death, so the profound esteem in which Glaspell was held in her lifetime, the obscurity into which she faded after her death, and the scholarly and theatrical reclamation that remains ongoing are all very much of import to me — intriguing, saddening and inspiring, respectively.

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Were we flies on the wall in a chat between Glaspell and her contemporary, Rachel Crothers, another superlative playwright of the early 20th century, what wonders we might be hear. While Glaspell and her husband, artisan and all-around Renaissance man George Cram Cook, were spearheading the Provincetown Playhouse, presenting the first works of Eugene O’Neill to the world and experimenting with the model of collaborative theater producing that would be innovated later in the 20th century, Crothers was a Broadway baby: the Internet Broadway Database lists 30 original plays by her between 1906 and 1940.

Glaspell’s output was not as large — IBDB lists eight original works — but it was Glaspell who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, for 1931’s Alison’s House. She remains a landmark figure not only in feminist literature, but, indeed, in the writing and producing the drama of experiment that categorized so much of the American stage seven, eight and nine decades ago.

Another Glaspell at the Ontological, meanwhile, is Theater of a Two-Headed Calf’s take on Trifles, the playwright’s 1916 foundational piece, and it would appear to be a distinctly 21st-century exegesis. Founded in 1999, the group’s acute adaptations of Shaw, Witkiewicz and Chikamatsu speak volumes about their dramatic range; here, director Brooke O’Harra and composer Brendan Connelly, per the press materials, “approach Glaspell’s text as part concert, part play and part sculpture.” Glaspell was inspired to write Trifles by a real-life wife-husband murder trial that she covered as a reporter in Iowa in 1900, and, arguably, never quite got out of her head.

Trifles runs through Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day, don’t’cha love it — at the Ontological Theater at St. Mark’s Church, 131 E. 10th St. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or click here.

And now, 5 questions Brooke O’Harra has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I find there are people who ask deeply thoughtful questions about our work. To name a few: Roger Babb, Steve Luber, Jessica Delveccio and George Hunka. They have all written feature articles or conference talks on our work in the past. There is a deep connection between what we are doing with live sound and the actors use of language. When people can see that and attempt to tease it out in conversations around the work, I am truly grateful.

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Sound is such a strong sense (of the five senses) for most people. When people ask us how we draw the connection between narrative, language and rhythm you think they are really tuning into what we are doing.

That was an unintentional pun.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I actually am of the school of thought that questions can’t be idiotic. Maybe that’s the teacher in me. If someone asks a question that seems obvious or deeply confused, I tend to take on the brunt of the responsibility for their inability to understand. Maybe I am doing something unclear and sloppy or maybe I am making things difficult for my audience. I hope to challenge and excite audiences. But it is never my desire to confuse them or leave them feeling “idiotic.” People, on the other hand, can have idiotic assumptions. The assumption I find most frustrating is that Two-headed Calf is doing things with the intent to be weird or incomprehensible. I would never intentionally confuse an audience or leave them stranded.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
When we were working on the S.I. Witkiewicz play Tumor Brainiowicz, there was a mathematician who saw the show five times. The play is based on the set theorist Georg Cantor, and this mathematician who became obsessed with the play was a group theorist. We were using principals of set theory in the form of the play and in the musical composition. Also, every night, the lead actor, Brian Bickerstaff, wrote a huge formula for the proof of set theory on the chalkboard and in chalk across the floor of the set. Brian had memorized this long, elaborate formula. But I guess some nights he made a few errors while rewriting them. The group theorist would notice these errors. He asked me if we were doing that to make the audience feel insane — he genuinely meant the question. Of course, we weren’t attempting to torture mathematicians. We had no idea anyone would actually be capable of following the formulas. It was so funny that he assumed we would do that intentionally — and that we would ever imagine someone in the audience would have these formulas, that were very long, memorized.

4) With composer Brendan Connelly, you’re approaching Trifles as “part concert, part play and part sculpture.” Given the play’s status as a feminist tract, and given research that argues it to be about more than mere gender psychology, how did you decide what part is a play, what part is a concert and what part is sculptural?
Hmmm, well, we don’t really chop the play up by percentages. Instead, we approach the play through a variety of languages: music, dialogue and picture. The concert, the play and the sculpture all exist in the realization of the performance and every moment.

But, at any given moment, one or more of those forms seems to take over the foreground of the story. They all serve a united purpose — to tell the story of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.

5) Trifles was produced in 1916, when universal suffrage fervor was at its apex. Would Glaspell have written this play after 1920? Would she have written it differently?
Gaining the right to vote was only one of a number of issues that women were faced with and struggling against. And gaining the right to vote became an important symbol of equality but, as is evident, it didn’t solve all of the conditions of inequality and gender oppression. Susan Glaspell was writing about these everyday conditions of a woman who is isolated in, and amongst, the structure you’re supposed to be supported in — the “family.” There are interesting ways that the play has resonated across time and geographies — it has resonated with other women’s experiences. But it is not a play that is about every woman’s condition. Also, the idea of the word “trifles” ripples out and becomes emblematic of a whole host of ways women’s experiences are devalued, written off, not seen or heard.

This play was also written under a series of conditions. I imagine, because she was a journalist at the actual trial the story is based on, she was ruminating on it for 15 years. She did, however, write the play right after she found her husband in an affair. She wrote it in one day. So maybe the question is: If she hadn’t written that play on that day, what would she have eventually written about the event she was so close to as a young writer?

Bonus Question:

6) Glaspell thrived at a time when male playwrights far outnumbered female playwrights. A century later, many believe a gender-bias and gender-production problem still exists. Do you suppose Glaspell would agree? What would she think of women playwrights — and directors — of today? If you could ask her one question, what would it be?
I can’t speak for Glaspell. But I can speak for myself. And I absolutely agree. Just go to Barnes and Noble and look at the play section — the number of plays by women is minuscule compared to those by men. And that is just one example. I would ask Susan Glaspell what woman she found the most exciting, tantalizing and seductive.