Special 5 Questions: Crystal Skillman Interviews Susan Louise O’Connor

Deanna Dunagan and Peter Friedman in their corners. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Susan Louise O'Connor

By Crystal Skillman
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

I am a playwright and I first saw the work of actress Susan Louise O’Connor in my friend Adam Szymkowicz’s play Nerve, directed by Scott Ebersold for Packawallop Productions. Simply put, I was blown away — by the play, the direction and by O’Connor, along with her fellow actor, Travis York.

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I’ve been following O’Connor’s work for four years now. Currently, she’s appearing in my play, The Vigil or the Guided Cradle at the Brick Theater, and I’ve been thinking about how all of this came to be.

Seriously, whenever I fall in love with a show, you’ll know it because you’ll see me kind of hanging around afterward, stunned by its awesomeness, asking silly questions. Such was the case with the folks at Packawallop, who were busily selling drinks at the end of Nerve and cleaning up while I followed around O’Connor and Ebersold — Packawallop’s co-artistic director with playwright Alejandro Morales. I just had to know more about this group. I had to know more about these talented actors. Luckily, Travis and I started working together shortly afterward. But working with O’Connor kept escaping me!

While I’ve waited to work with her, I’ve watched her career continue to flourish, from snagging an IT award for Morales’ The Silent Concerto to rockin’ in other amazing plays, such as Larry Kunofsky’s What To Do When You Hate Your Friends, Jordan Seavey’s Children at Play and the recent Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, earning rave reviews in all.

O’Connor’s work also branched out into film, with two shorts I love: The Moment, as well as The Question, also written by Szymkowicz. Check this out:

Before Vigil, I should confess, I did work with O’Connor in the Pack, Packawallop’s very cool developmental group which I’m honored to be a part of. But when — oh, when would she and I ever get to work together on a production?

Well, cue the theater gods: A few months ago (months!), Impetuous Theater Group and the Brick Theater decided to co-produce Vigil, which is about torture in 15th century and 21st century Prague, which we like to call “now and then.” John Hurley, who’d just directed my comedy Hack and such indie-theater favorites as After Darwin and 12th Night of the Living Dead, is directing — and he quickly assembled a rock-star team of actors: Dion Mucciacito, Christian Rummel, Vinnie Penna, Alex Pappas, Joseph Mathers, Travis York (yay!) and, yes, that’s right, Susan Louise O’Connor!

OK, enough gushing. If you know Susan — I’m calling her Susan from here on in — you know she’s a very cool gal who loves going to the theater and to read, walk around the city and hang out with folks. If you’ve ever gotten to hang with her, you know just how damn funny she is, and the pride she takes creating vivid and memorable characters that will have you laughing one minute, then crying the next.

So you better start coming to The Vigil or the Guided Cradle, which starts previews on Thurs., Apr. 22 at the Brick Theater and runs through May 8! For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or click here.

And now, 5 questions Susan Louise O’Connor has never been asked — by me:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Nice question! I think the most perceptive question would be one I recently received from a graduate student at the University of Florida. She asked, “How do you get through those times when everything is just too hard?”

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2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Well, a pretty funny one I received was: “When you’re on stage, do you ever forget which play you’re in?” Thankfully, my answer was “No.” I think it’d be cool if people from all professions asked each other more about their work — there’s all these people out there with such interesting professions.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
This is one that still haunts me. During a talkback, one of the patrons asked me, “We weren’t really supposed to care about you because you were a caricature, right?” Ouch, ouch, ouch. I think I answered, “Um…”

4) What I’ve been knocked out by as an audience member and in working with you on Vigil is how detailed your work is in creating a character — the intimate results you present. The character of the Foreigner that you play — a 21st century woman in here mid-20s who is pulled into the 15th century and into this world of torture — is quite a task. What is the most important question that pops up for you when creating a character?
The most important question for me is “What do I want?” With this experience especially, I’ve started purely with your text figuring out “Why am I using these words?” “What do I want from the person across from me?” “What exactly am I saying or trying to say?” “Why do I say this, after he says that?” I find that the more specific I am when working with the text initially, the more freedom I have to explore later. It’s kind of a like a tree: If I can root the text completely, then there are limitless ways to branch out from there.

I’m less interested in starting my exploration with characteristics like pitch of voice, rhythm of walk, habits, etc. This probably comes from my training at the Barrow Group, where the focus is always on communicating the words. One of my favorite pieces of advice they give is, “You are much more interesting to watch when you’re being yourself, then when you’re ‘acting.’” I feel like my job is kind of wonderfully simple: to actively communicate your text and listen to my scene partner.

5) As an actor, you consistently choose provocative, engaging new works to appear in. What is it about these kinds of dark but humorous works that jazz you?
I love new plays. Working on new plays is problem solving (in a good way) for me. There’s no “way that it worked before”; we, as a team, get the opportunity and the challenge of searching for the most productive ways to communicate this play to an audience. Because of this, I think that new plays are engaging in an active way that perhaps older plays are not. I’m inspired by characters and plays about people who are going after something wholeheartedly. This passion can be sexy, it can be mean, it can be ugly, it can be dark, it can be funny, it can be tons of things, but it’s usually not clean and easy. Messy is challenging and I’m interested in messy people in messy circumstances.

Bonus question:

6) When you debuted on Broadway in Blithe Spirit as the accident-prone maid Edith, you breathed whole new life into that character. And it was noticed by — well, everyone! You earned a Theatre World Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination, not to mention the fact that you got to work with incredible veteran actors like Angela Lansbury. Is there something in particular you learned from that awesome experience that you bring into your work today?
I learned so much. I know that had the show run for years, I could have learned something new everyday. I can’t say enough positive things about the cast and crew and everyone involved — professional rock stars, every one of them. Everyone was extremely talented and also behaved with professionalism. Work ethic is so important and wow, did I witness it.

And I also learned that this whole showbiz thing is much more of a roller-coaster than I’d thought. I think I know now, more than ever, that every project is valuable and a precious opportunity. Because of that whirlwind experience, I feel more secure in my own skin, and I feel so fortunate to have fantastic people in my life. And I also learned that I want to be on Broadway again ASAP.

Bonus bonus question:

7) Any plugs?
I’m a member of Packawallop Productions. We’re a theater and film production company whose mission is to produce and foster new work that examines identity. We have a program called the Pack, which is a monthly meeting of writers (like yourself, Crystal!) and directors and actors. At the Pack, artists can try out new work, lead exercises or have conversations about art in a supportive and friendly environment. The work fostered in the Pack is presented four times during the year in public performances called lounges. We are currently raising funds for next year’s Packs through Kickstarter and any help is much, much appreciated.

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