June 15th, 2019
If you enjoy this article, see the other most popular articles
If you enjoy this article, see the other most popular articles
If you enjoy this article, see the other most popular articles
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com, or follow me on Twitter.
(This interview also appears in the book How The Young Anna Barnev Established Her Career As A Graphic Designer)
Kelly O’Donnel is one of the co-founders of the Flux Theater Ensemble in New York City.
The following interview was conducted on January 18th, 2019.
Krubner: I’ve done a lot of these interviews, as part of a larger project, and I’m so excited to talk to you. I’ll start off with some personal questions, because even though I’ve sort of known you a long time, I really don’t know anything about you. So, what was your background when you went to school? Were you focused on the arts from a young age?
O’Donnell: Yes, I was, my mom was actually a choreographer. She had a dance studio, in a little neighborhood called Glenside, just outside of Philadelphia, so I kind of grew up in that dance studio, for many years of my life, and she was also a choreographer for a lot of local high school productions and community theaters, and even a small theater company that she was part of for about two years, before it crashed and burned, like most theater companies.
Krubner: This was all in Philadelphia?
O’Donnell: Yes, all in a north west suburb called Cheltenham Township, a very beautiful, historic place. She got me into it, she was the choreographer at a small Catholic school in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which she had gone to, and which I also went to. I was in some of the shows, any time they needed a kid, or some small role to fill, they would just throw me in, I didn’t have to audition.
Krubner: From what age?
O’Donnell: From as early as 1st Grade, so I guess 5 or 6 years old.
Krubner: Your resume starts early!
O’Donnell: Yes! I actually once made a list of every show I’ve ever been in, directed, produced, was on the crew, whatever, and I lost count, because it was more than 100, if you include all the high school things, the college shows, and the 30 or so shows I’ve done since I’ve been in New York.
Krubner: Big number.
O’Donnell: It’s a lot. I need to go back to that list and see what I’ve missed, because I know I’ve missed a few key things. So my mother got me into it. I found myself really attracted to what she was doing: choreographing these students and these amateurs in dances and the way she looked at specificity and movement and storytelling, I thought it was fascinating and I loved it. She then worked with a priest, Father Sabatini, who is still alive today, such a cool dude, he was the director of all of the productions at their high school. He brought me in, he said, “Oh, you’re going to be in this show.” He took me under his wing. He was someone I looked up to at the time – still do actually, so he and a few other people encouraged me along the way, and then I decided, hey, I think I want to go to school for this, I think I want to study acting,
Krubner: How old were you?
O’Donnell: I was probably about 16 or 17 when I realized that I was a theater person, that it dawned on me, that I was like, yes, I am one of those people, I have the bug, I am a theater person.
Krubner: So in your freshman year you were not thinking of yourself as a theater person? Maybe you were in the drama club, but you were like, hey, I’m not one of those people.
O’Donnell: It was a drama club, it was like, maybe I’ll do this, it’s fun, I’m good at it, and there were expectations of me joining drama club. So I joined. But I never really thought of it seriously at that time. But then I started to realize it could be a life’s calling, that it is an art form. That started to dawn on me in 11th Grade, even though I didn’t quite know what it meant yet. I’m still trying to figure out what it means.
Krubner: This might be a dumb question, but was there ever a time when you thought of yourself more as a dancer than an actor?
O’Donnell: No, I never did, actually, I was always more interested in acting, and directing. It was when I started watching theater that I felt drawn to it, but I admire dancers, I love dance, and I feel that dance has influenced my acting and my approach to directing.
Krubner: I’ve spoken to others about this. I have a friend who says she went to acting school and felt the acting was false because of the emphasis on speaking, but then she went to dance class and she felt she discovered real expression and real acting, that the acting was only real when people used their entire body for expression.
O’Donnell: Absolutely. I feel that the language of the theater is not in the voice alone. It’s not just in the text or the movement of the bodies, it’s in all of it. In the rehearsal room you create a new language that people in that room understand – and that an audience will interpret – and that’s how you tap into new ideas and explore memory and build a future.
Krubner: So when you were a little kid, you saw your mom engaged in dance, and directing dancers, even at that young age, you were mostly drawn to the storytelling aspect of it?
O’Donnell: Yes, I think I was, I was more into the storytelling aspect of it. I also found that through acting there were these little nuggets of beauty that would emerge that were different from anything else I had experienced, so I was really attracted to those moments of specificity and honesty and clarity that would emerge from time to time.
Krubner: Give me an example? You mean some kind of spontaneous thing that would emerge and feel true in the moment?
O’Donnell: Yes, some kind of spontaneous thing, or a well-orchestrated accident.
Krubner: That’s a good phrase!
O’Donnell: Yes! [laughter] But I’m referring to when I get to witness an ensemble of people work really hard for many weeks to create a single moment, and eventually everything comes together. When it comes together in a way that you’re not exactly planning is when the truly most beautiful and meaningful moments occur, especially when it is a surprise.
Krubner: And that’s really the thing about theater, right? You’re not doing film, you’re not doing 50 takes, you can’t edit it later. Instead, you’re doing it right there, in front of the audience, in real time, and what happens is what happens.
O’Donnell: What happens is what happens. And with film you can really think about the final product when you’re making it, you can say, I want it to look exactly like this, I need this moment, I need this shot, and you can do it over and over again, until you have exactly what you planned. Not every film director does that of course, but with theater, you can’t do that. As my professor Anne Bogart says, “You can only create conditions where something might happen”, and I think the more you do it, the better you get at creating those conditions. If you try to replicate something specific that you have in your mind it is most likely going to come across as flat. And that goes for playwrights too. If a playwright has something in their mind, and they become obsessed with thinking that a scene has to look, sound, and feel exactly as they imagine it, they are most likely due for disappointment because in theater there is a team of collaborators executing the play live and every performance is a little bit different.
Krubner: Even film directors often worry about doing too many takes. Truffaut often worried about it. He felt it was often the first or second take that was best, maybe the third take, but if the actors did too many takes then the scene lost all spontaneity. After a few takes, each take gets worse and worse.
O’Donnell: Yes, I can see that based on some of the film work that I’ve done. You start to lose track. You’re like, wait, why am I doing this? What was in the third take? Why was the second take so good? Why do I like this one better than that other one?
Krubner: I imagine there are little moments that jump out. Like, in an ideal world, you’d like to be able to take a gesture from the second take, and combine it with a smile in the third take, but you can’t do it, because each take is its own cohesive whole, you can’t easily mash them up together. Each one has its own flow, which doesn’t necessarily work with other takes?
O’Donnell: Well, right, but also, unless you’re doing one shot for the whole film, it’s not real, there is always something fabricated about the final product.
Krubner: Those films are always interesting, though rare. Interesting experiments. Changing topics, was your father also an artist?
O’Donnell: My father was a visual artist. He went to Penn State and I think studied painting. He was the first person in his family to go to college. He came from a big Irish-American Catholic family. Got his degree in, I guess it must have been fine arts? And then he continued painting for his whole life, and he still does, he still dabbles in it.
Krubner: So you come from a very artistic family?
O’Donnell: I do. Lots of cousins, on both sides, lots of noise, lots of drinking [laughter]. Lots of parties and weddings and christenings and funerals. But yes, very creative family, very expressive family, everyone in my family, with a few exceptions, is very eager to express themselves.
Krubner: That’s a beautiful euphemism! I love it! So when you’re 16 it hits you, and you go, “Oh, I’m a theater person.”
Krubner: So what was your next step after that?
O’Donnell: My next step was that I went to a small college called DeSales University, which is in the cornfields of Pennsylvania, in the Lehigh Valley, not too far from Bethlehem and Allentown.
Krubner: Just far enough away from the parents to get some breathing room.
O’Donnell: Just far enough away from the parents, exactly. So that was a four-year program, a really great program, it was Catholic, so I went through 16 years of Catholic education. The theater program was founded by a Catholic priest, who was very smart, a genius, and organized. He put together a really outstanding program, rooted in the classics, rooted in traditional theater, normative theater, so we learned a lot of the basics, from Shakespeare to the Greeks to classic American dramas. We worked hard, it was definitely a hands-on program, which was good. And from there I got affiliated with their summer Shakespeare festival which was called the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. I was an intern there for 4 years, so I got to do some directing, some acting, a lot of crew work, build a lot of connections, so when I got out of school and moved to New York, I already knew a lot of people, which was very helpful.
Krubner: If you don’t mind me asking about the Catholic side of that education, my grandparents came over from Czechoslovakia, and my grandfather was a very strict Catholic and he insisted that my dad go to Catholic school, which my dad hated, he hated the strict discipline, he said the nuns were sadists [laughter], he put up with it till 8th grade and then he rebelled and he insisted he was going to a public school. I personally never went to a religious school, but from my dad I have the impression that such schools can be rigorous, in a good way, but also there were things he hated, there was a lot to hate, so I’m wondering what your overall experience was with Catholic school?
O’Donnell: I would say it was tumultuous, frustrating and ultimately worth it, and if I could go back in time, I would go to a public high school, instead of a Catholic high school, but overall I thought the Catholic school experience was good. I didn’t go to an especially strict or “fire and brimstone” school. It was Catholic, so of course we learned about the Bible, we went to church once a month as a class, we celebrated all the holidays, we were Catholic, we were given Catholic values. I don’t know, I think there was both good and bad in it. I think the Catholic Church gets a bad reputation as an oppressive regime, a misogynist regime, where terrible things happen to children, and that is one reality. But in my experience, having worked with the Catholic Church more as an adult, through an education program that I’ve been involved with, I can see they are taking great steps to fix that, and to be better, and most priests and nuns are really good people who care about the church, the community, the communion of the church, as they call it. So, looking back on it, I try to focus on those positive aspects, I focus on the values that were given to me, the sense of community that was really important, the structure, the organization, I try to focus on those, because I feel like I’ve already dealt with the oppression, you know, as a queer kid, it can be a very oppressive atmosphere, and I don’t really believe in the Catholic church, or believe in God the way they were expecting me to, but fortunately I don’t really feel resentment any more about that — for a long time I did, but I’ve moved past that now, and I find myself defending the Catholic church oddly, lately [laughter], when people say nasty things about the Catholic church, I’m like, well, you know, most of my family is Catholic, so when you criticize Catholics, you’re criticizing my family. But it influenced me. It’s who I am.
Krubner: I recently came out to Queens to see the play you directed, I think it was called “Full of Grace”, about various Catholics and their relationship to the Catholic church, and the characters were dealing with different issues, such as being gay.
O’Donnell: Yes, Full of Grace. That’s right. I’m so glad you came to that.
Krubner: That was a chance for you to revisit these issues?
O’Donnell: Yes, it really was. It was therapeutic.
Krubner: It had an inspirational ending. I think I was almost surprised. It was a play that was aware that the church was struggling with a lot of serious issues. Yet the ending was full of hope. The various characters all reassert their love of their church, and their ownership of it. They were like, hey, this is my church, we are going to fix it. I believe in this church.
O’Donnell: Yes, very much. I’m a little bit different than the voices in that play. I don’t consider it my church. I don’t consider any church my church. But I do consider it to be an aspect of my culture. I consider it part of the foundation that built me.
Krubner: Sure, I can see that. I’m not religious at all, but I’m aware that a part of my family, my father’s side, was deeply Catholic, so I’m aware that those ideals are in the background for me, part of the culture I grew up with, one generation removed. So I can sort of relate to that idea. We inherit our culture from a long time ago. I understand what you are saying. Also, I guess we should note, the Catholic church is huge, people try to stereotype the church, but it is one of the largest organizations in the world, so it is automatically going to be fairly diverse.
O’Donnell: It is huge. I read once that the Catholic church owns more real estate in New York than anyone except the government. They have a lot, they own a lot of land.
Krubner: That’s a lot of churches. I believe it.
O’Donnell: I believe it.
Krubner: You went to college and you came to New York City right after college?
O’Donnell: I came to New York City right after college. I lived in Greenwich Village for 2 years, with 2 other people and a dog, in a studio.
Krubner: That was back when rents were still somewhat manageable?
O’Donnell: Somewhat. We had a good deal. I think between the 3 of us we paid $1,900. It was a studio near Washington Square Park. We slept out in the open, there was no privacy at all. I did that for 2 years and then I felt kind of burned out on that. I was tired of it. And the apartment was going to be sold, because real estate was about to explode. So I moved to Queens, to Astoria, and I’ve been there ever since.
Krubner: When you came to New York City did you have any specific ideas about how your career would go?
O’Donnell: I didn’t. I was just drawn to the energy of the city, and the life of the city, and the freedom that it seemed to provide for me, it felt like there was something here to be found, but it was also the theater — I loved the theater scene here. And I didn’t want to stay in Philadelphia, and I didn’t want to go to LA, I wanted to stay on the east coast. And I already had a lot of friends here, and then an apartment opened up, two friends of mine were there and they said, hey, we need a third person. It wasn’t something that was in my grand plan, instead it was just something that I jumped on. And I never left!
Krubner: And how did you connect with the theater scene?
O’Donnell: When I first got here, it was different, because the Internet wasn’t really a thing that everyone was using yet, so you had to find out about the shows that were happening through the Village Voice, which was big, and the New York Times had a lot of listings, I think there was something called Show Business Weekly. I’d read through all of those newspapers, and I’d go to the Equity building where a lot of auditions happened, that was like Grand Central for actors, that was where actors would congregate. And I would go see shows, I would try to see as much as possible. And meet people, and gradually meet more and more people. I tried to audition for a lot of things, and I tried to assistant direct things, do whatever I could, without thinking about the projects, I just did it to meet the people. I wasn’t looking for any particular kind of work, I just wanted to meet people and get into the mix.
Krubner: You weren’t looking for any particular kind of work, but can I ask, did you feel more drawn to theater than to film?
O’Donnell: Yes, I always was more drawn to theater than to film.
Krubner: Can you say why?
O’Donnell: I think I love the process of it, and I love the experience of being in a room with people and creating something as an ensemble, and taking an empty room and creating a whole world, from that empty room, a new world. You have the ability to create a new world, in any space that you want. You have the ability to structure the values of the system of that world, according to your vision, and I think that is so exciting. And I feel like there is an immediate, visceral effect that theater has on everyone in that room, the actors, the audience, everyone involved, that you can’t get anywhere else. I think it touches something deeper in our sense of self. It is addictive. I think once you try it, you’re like, I need more, I need more.
Krubner: Well, it is a bit more intense, right? I mean, it is not something that was recorded earlier, it is something that is actually happening right now.
O’Donnell: It is happening right now. And every time you do it, it is a little bit different. You can’t replicate it. You try to replicate it, and that is the actor’s job, you try to replicate the timing and the moments as well as possible, but it’s never going to be the same, and that’s what’s wonderful about it. If it is the same then it becomes lifeless, it becomes stagnant, it dies. It’s those moments of newness, those moments of discovery, which happen every night, that are really the most exciting to me. And even accidents, when something goes wrong on stage, that’s the best, because the audience leans in, they’re on the edge of your seat, they’re like, what are they going to do? I love when something goes wrong and everyone knows that something has gone wrong, so you get to see what happens, you’re wondering, how are the actors going to fix this, they didn’t rehearse this, what are they going to do? That’s the magic of theater. You don’t get that in film, instead, you just do another take.
Krubner: I had a friend visiting with her daughter, so I took them to see Wicked. Her daughter was really into Wicked. And there is a scene where Glenda the Good Witch is supposed to casually throw her wand off stage, but her wand hit the lighting equipment and bounced back onto the stage. And I think everyone in the audience was wondering what she would do. So she picked up the wand and made a big deal about trying harder to throw it off stage, and the audience was just absolutely howling with laughter. It was a good moment. Very real, very live. And we all understood that was a freak accident and she was just trying to play it off. And it was better than the best planned joke, seeing her roll with it.
O’Donnell: It was probably the thing people remember the most from seeing the show that night.
Krubner: It is what I remember most from that show, and that was perhaps 6 years ago.
O’Donnell: And yet, at the same time, you can’t have everything be a big improvisation, you can’t be like, okay, do whatever. No, you have to work really hard to give it structure, you have to know, this is what we want to say, this is the arc, this is the structure, the timing needs to be specific, the show is supposed to be 93 minutes with an intermission, and I think without that structure then the accidents would not be as exciting, or meaningful.
Krubner: Do you mean that as a general criticism of improvisational theater?
O’Donnell: Oh, no, no, not at all, they are different things. I see improvisational theater as its own form. I don’t have a criticism of that. I think it’s actually great for actors to do improvisational exercises, because it keeps them on their feet, it teaches them to not think but do. Improv can be exciting for the audience. It can also be a grueling experience for the audience, if it is not good, but I guess that’s true for all of theater.
Krubner: Certain improv groups fall into certain patterns, fall into cliches, especially if the same people perform together for a long time, they start to know each other’s style of humor, create spaces for certain kinds of jokes, but also sometimes fail to do something new.
O’Donnell: Improv is an ancient form. It’s been around a long time. You can look back at the Italian commedia dell’arte troupes, who relied on certain stock characters, and appeared in all different kinds of sketches. These were highly skilled actors, very talented and deft at physical comedy, they would start with simple plot outlines, just a sketch, and the details were filled in via improvisation.
Krubner: So, changing subjects, I know you are part of Flux Theater, but I’m curious, were you part of other groups before Flux?
O’Donnell: No, I wasn’t, Flux is the first ensemble of people I’ve been a part of. Before that, I would work with one company, then work with another company, maybe travel a little bit to work with various people.
Krubner: Can you tell me a little more about that era? I met you in 2009, and I know nothing about your life before that. From the late 1990s to 2009 what were you doing?
O’Donnell: Well, there was a period of time when I wasn’t doing much, when I just focused on making some money and getting a footing in the city.
Krubner: You were at DoubleClick, which was bought by Google?
O’Donnell: Yes, and while I was working at DoubleClick, I was also taking an acting class, a Meisner class, a technique that involves repetition, and not thinking, and being in the moment and responding to stimuli.
Krubner: I don’t know anything about it. Is that some kind of improvisation technique?
O’Donnell: It’s not an improvisational technique, though it uses some improv in the training to train your acting muscles.
Krubner: Is it an attempt to bring out your raw instincts?
O’Donnell: I think that’s right, it’s an attempt to bring out your raw instincts.
Krubner: So don’t overthink the character.
O’Donnell: Don’t overthink the character.
Krubner: Don’t spend weeks trying to get into the head of that character, or studying that character?
O’Donnell: Yes, and I actually don’t always like it, I’m not a fan of Meisner training. But I did get a lot out of it. The fundamental idea of Meisner training is good: it trains you to be impulsive and to react to external stimuli, to respond to the what is outside of you rather than focusing internally. I do like the fundamentals of Meisner training, but I don’t think the training is always successful outside of the classroom.
Krubner: Such as? What’s an example of where the training goes wrong?
O’Donnell: The actor can rely too much on impulse and not enough on craft. Being impulsive on stage is great but it has its limits. You also have to be aware of your body in time and space; and how your character plays a role in the broader piece you are creating. Let me give you a simple example. I could direct an actor to sit in a chair and remain in the chair after the front door unexpectedly swings open. This actor could impulsively jump out of the chair anyway and then tell me “Yeah, I just had the impulse to jump out of the chair.” Ok, sure. Or they can ask themselves “What is keeping me from jumping out of the chair?” or “I have the impulse to jump out of the chair, but I make a choice to stay.” That could open up something more complex about the character and the moment – it also plays with expectation. Also with Meisner training, actors are encouraged to come to the first rehearsal completely off book, knowing all of their lines but no one else’s lines, the idea being that your reactions to the other actors, and their lines, will be more authentic, with more of an element of surprise, without knowing what they are about to say. But I think that is silly because it only lasts for a few rehearsals and then you know their lines anyway. So those are two examples. It’s also can be very negative training. Meisner teachers often try to break you down, they focus on what you are doing wrong, rather than what you are doing right. I have a problem with that approach. I don’t think actor training should be focused on breaking people down. I think you should be honest with people and I think you should give real helpful, critical feedback, but to try to dig into someone’s unconscious state, or psychological state, to uncover neurosis in them, I think that is outdated, and it’s not helpful any more.
Krubner: The training should not harken back to Freud.
O’Donnell: Yes, exactly, I’m more into this idea that as an actor you are constantly responding to the things around you, and dealing with the things around you changing, because the moment you are born, the moment you step outside of your door, you are immediately faced with unexpected forces around you. And sometimes you can have more than one impulse at the same time. Sometimes you can want two things at the same time.
Krubner: That is the universe we live in.
O’Donnell: That is the universe we live in. The general idea behind American acting, which has been adopted by the British now too, is the Stanislavski method, which is great, but it is all about, I have an action, I have an objective, there is something in my way, and I’m going to use different tactics to get what I want, or change that person. I think that is all great, but I think we need to take it a step further. Okay, you have an objective, but how often in life do we think about what our our objective is? Rarely. We’re like, I have to go to work today, I have to go to the bank today, I have to talk to my mother – that’s my intent. You think about that, but the little moments that lead up to that, you are not thinking about them, you’re dealing with them, you’re dealing with all of the unexpected things around you, and that is exciting, I think it is exciting to see actors do that, even when it is a very simple conversation, back and forth.
Krubner: It’s a fascinating topic. Let me make sure I understand this part of your history. You were working at DoubleClick, and you were like, cool, I finally have a job.
O’Donnell: Yes, I finally have a job! I can pay off my student loans!
Krubner: You have financial stability, and that is great, so you put theater on the back burner for a bit? But you’re still taking classes?
O’Donnell: Yes, still taking classes, still seeing a lot of theater, but not doing it for a few years.
Krubner: So what led to you coming back to theater and re-engaging with it?
O’Donnell: I happened to be taking a class with a couple of good friends of mine, Liz Daily and Will Ditterline. They are married. They live a few blocks from me now, we are very close. We were taking a class together. And the two of them were friends with Gus Schulenburg, the playwright, we all went to the same school together. The three of them were going to do a show together. Gus was invited by Theater For the New City, an old school downtown theater in the East Village that has been around since the 1960s, to produce a play. The play was called Riding the Bull, it was a two-person play. They realized they needed a director and one of them said, what about Kelly, Kelly is a great director, she wants to direct more. So Gus was like, okay, let’s talk to her. So I came in and we had drinks, talked about it, it was very loose, and they were like, do you want to do it? And I was like, sure. I had been kind of depressed and itching to get back into the theater so it came at a perfect time.
Krubner: Exciting possibility.
O’Donnell: It was great. It was the first show I had directed in New York. The first full length play I had directed.
Krubner: This was about 15 years ago?
O’Donnell: About 12 years ago. So we did it. We were somewhat spoiled because we had rehearsal space in the basement of the theater, which is not usually the case, usually with these downtown shows you’re jumping around to different spaces that are available and that you can afford. But we did it, and it was a really beautiful play. We barely had any money. The theatre gave us $2,000 and we raised another $1,000. There were some shows when we were performing for like 7 people in the audience. We didn’t know how to market it, or get the word out.
Krubner: Sounds like the theater did not do much to help you get the word out?
O’Donnell: They helped a little. I think they had an ad in the Village Voice, and they had some of their regulars come and see it. And we had friends come see it. It was a huge learning experience. But we did it, and we had a great time, and then Theater For The New City asked Gus to do another show, and we continued a spectacular colllaboration. We brought in some of the people who were part of the Riding the Bull team, and a few new people, and we did a play called Rue, a big show, it had a cast of maybe 25, it was a complete mess, we didn’t know what we were doing, we shot for the moon, it was a hot mess, but with moments of brilliance in it.
Krubner: So, did you feel you were reaching beyond your skill level as a director? There were too many moving parts?
O’Donnell: So many moving parts! I was so in over my head, I had to manage so many people, there were all of these strong personalities, we had no money. A lot of times I would literally go into the rehearsal room without knowing what I was doing and just winging it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it was, uh, not a good experience. And so many things went wrong. For instance, the day of our load-in, which is very important, that’s the day we load all of our sets and costumes into the actual theater space. It’s a thing that we had scheduled for 2 months. And that day we get a call from Crystal Field, the artistic director, and she tells us, hey, you can’t do your load-in today, because we have a spaghetti dinner planned now for a puppet troupe from Vermont, the Bread And Puppet Theater Company, an old puppet show from the 1960s. So we were like, are you kidding me? Our tech was delayed for a day, which is huge. When you only have 4 days for tech, and you lose a day, that is huge. We already had the trucks lined up, we barely had any money. But we persevered. We figured it out as best as we could. We had a truncated tech, it was madness. And then after that, for many years, at Flux Theater, we would have a spaghetti dinner during tech for each show.
Krubner: That’s great! Good for you!
O’Donnell: But we eventually got too busy, so that just fizzled out at some point. So that was crazy, it was hectic, but after that, we were like, let’s start a theater company, let’s name it, let’s become a 501c3. Let’s do this. And we did it. Myself, Gus Schulenburg, Heather Cohn, we were the 3 founders who are still active with Flux. There were a few others in the early days, Jason Paradine, went off to work fulltime at the Public Theater.
Krubner: I know that you guys have worked on a Mission Statement. More than most organizations you seem to have put a lot of thought into your overall vision. You drew up a list of ideals, you discussed them at length, you posted that to your website. How much of that was clear at the beginning, and how much of that evolved over time?
O’Donnell: Most of it evolved over time.
Krubner: So when you initially said, let’s create a theater company, did you feel you were doing something utterly unique and innovative, or did feel like you were going to set up a theater company and then figure out what made you unique?
O’Donnell: The latter. We felt like we believed in each other, we really enjoyed working together, we felt like we were doing really strong work, and that we were committed to excellence, so we wanted to continue doing this work. We had a difficult time writing a mission statement, at the beginning, we didn’t know what our vision was, we didn’t know what our mission was, we were just doing the work, and because of that, it lead to a lot of frustrations, a lot of disagreements. You have to be fully aligned as an organization, as an ensemble, to move forward in a healthy way, and I think one of the reasons why the vast majority of theater companies collapse and fail is because of that, because people have different agendas, and they don’t sync up. We were lucky, for a number of years, where we did have similar enough agendas that we could all work together and create really strong work. So I think through working together, through luck, through patience and perseverance, and because a lot of us were gluttons for punishment [laughter] we figured out our mission. Through the work we’d already done, at the annual retreat that we do every year in Pennsylvania, we brainstormed “What is Flux Theater?” If we could write it down in a few words, how would we describe it? And we wrote down those words on a whiteboard, and we looked at the similarities among the words we had each used. And then we were like, oh, so we all feel that Flux is this. It is X and Y and Z. And we found those commonalities and we built toward consensus. And from there we figured out what was important to our company, and that is how the Mission Statement came to be.
Krubner: I’ve talked to a lot of artists, and I’ve read a lot of biographies of artists, and so I know that artists tend to exist on a continuum, with some artists being very empirical and experimental and groping in the dark and making discoveries, whereas other artists tend to be very conceptual, very abstract, full of brilliant visionary concepts. And what you are describing sounds like a fairly empirical process? You were like, let’s just try this and we will see what this leads to. It sounds like you figured out what you were by being what you were.
O’Donnell: Exactly, yes. In the beginning, we were just doing Gus’s plays, but then we realized we wanted to work with other playwrights, we wanted to work with different people, we want to tell different kinds of stories, so we created Flux Sundays, a meeting every Sunday, which we did for a long time. It was like going to church (circling back to the communion of spirits, very Catholic), and we brought a lot of young playwrights in, and people who just wanted to hear their work heard, sometimes writers just had a few pages they wanted to hear read, and we provided actors, we had some actors that we really liked, but really we worked with anyone who showed interest, we were eager to work with anyone who would show interest. They would come, we would give out the pages, we would sometimes have 4 different plays being brought to one Flux Sunday, and everyone would retreat to some corner of the room and work on their scenes for a half hour, and then we would take turns showcasing what we had worked on. So sometimes we would stage things, or sometimes there would just be a reading, but it was invaluable to the playwright to bring some work and hear it alive with actors and have a director to guide them if need be.
Krubner: A powerful workshop technique.
O’Donnell: Yes, and from there, we started to meet other playwrights, and we were like, oh hey, we want to do that play, we want to work with this person. But when you do that, suddenly things become more complicated, because then you have people in your ensemble who are like, no, I don’t want to do that play, I want to do this other play, I want to play that role, or no, I don’t want to do that play because there is no role for me, that playwright and I don’t agree on things, I won’t work with that person, etc. Dynamics shift, and things become complicated.
Krubner: That’s a nice euphemism. It sounds like there are a lot of potential conflicts.
O’Donnell: Yes, a lot of conflicts. And we work through it. Ultimately we figure out what works best.
Krubner: Yes, but how? I’d like to know more. This is the question that interests me most. I’m curious about why so many artists scenes fall apart. Even when the individual artists seem to love the scene, even when the participants remember the scene fondly, even when the participants later say “Oh, those were the best years of my life.” And yet still, the scene falls apart. People don’t know how to deal with the conflicts? That’s part of what interests me so much about Flux. You’ve lasted longer than most. Especially for a group that has no endowment and no government funding. You’ve been working together for 15 years and you are still going. Flux is rare. I know you’ve all gotten busy with other things, but still, you are still active together. You must have a secret? You’ve lasted longer than many arts organizations, especially those that are supported almost entirely with volunteer labor.
O’Donnell: We’ve lasted longer than most. We’ve also lost a lot of people. A lot of people who were initially very passionate about Flux and then, for different reasons, leave. And I think they leave because the way the company works in their life is different than what they were expecting. Perhaps they come in thinking “Oh, I’m going to play these awesome roles, I’m going to be seen by a lot of people, this is really going to help my career.” And sometimes that doesn’t happen. People don’t get what they want. And that leads to resentment, that leads to a break down in communications, destruction of relationships, and eventually the people leave. It’s awful but it is the truth. Or, sometimes people come in, and they do get to play great roles, and it helps them, it does lead to other jobs, but then they start getting a lot of work outside of Flux, they get amazing work, they are busy with theater, they get film roles, but they are no longer members of Flux. They might be members on paper, but de facto they have left. Some people have gone on to have amazing careers, which is great, but they are no longer part of Flux. So the relationship falls apart or drifts away. And then there is the clash of ideals, which still happens, and that is the more destructive thing, that tears apart companies, when you have 2, or maybe 3, people who have very strong opinions that clash, and they hold onto those opinions for dear life, and they become unable to work together. At Flux, for a long time, we were able to have really strong opinions, really strong egos, but to also let it go, to know when to quit, because ultimately we were thinking about the health of the ensemble, the welfare of the company, we valued the ensemble more than we valued what our individual means were with the company. And, I think that sounds good, it sounds good to say we are totally selfless, we are a non-hierarchical structure, the only reason we do this is for the health of the ensemble, the health of the communities that we engage with. That sounds good on paper, but in reality, it’s a dream. Because even if you say you are non-hierarchical and you say you have a flat structure, the person with the most articulate vision, the person with the strongest voice, is always going to end up being the leader, and everything is going to go their way. I think this idea of pure ensemble, non-hierarchical art-making is really rare, I would even argue, perhaps, it is a dream. And I think there is a false idea being promoted by a lot of industry leaders, that we are moving toward a non-hierarchical industry.
Krubner: Okay, so here is a subject that I actually know something about. Because something very similar is happening in the world of tech startups, where I work. Almost every entrepreneur that I’ve worked with in recent years have insisted that they want to set up a flat organization, a non-hierarchical organization, an agile organization where everyone is empowered to make decisions. And yet the rhetoric is always false. The organizations remain hierarchical. To the extent that money is involved, then the top people still make all the decisions, and to the extent that money is not involved, the situations tend to play out the way you describe, with the person with the strongest voice tending to win every argument and thus get their way. Aside from the top officiers, there is no formal specification of who gets to make a decision, which can lead to policy changing with every meeting, as one person or another comes in with their opinion and makes an argument for doing whatever they want to do. What I find especially frustrating is how dishonest the rhetoric becomes. In these so-called flat organizations, informal, invisible, hidden relationships determine everything. If you are friends with the CEO then you have more leverage than anyone else. It is a dishonest rhetoric that hides who actually holds power at the moment.
O’Donnell: Yes, I completely agree. And, this might sound a little hyperbolic, but it can feel really Orwellian: you get to the point where you are like, am I crazy, or is the world around me crazy?
Krubner: The CEO no longer wants to be seen as a tyrant who is giving an order, so now the employees are supposed to figure out what the CEO wants, and then pretend that they agree with the CEO’s opinion. Honest disagreement could lead to healthy debate, yet there is a reduced chance for employees to go on the record with an honest disagreement, because of this need to create the illusion that the organization is non-hierarchical and so the CEO is definitely not giving an order. This false rhetoric about non-hierarchical organizations can be damaging in a business setting. Mostly because it is never true. And then there is the crazy thing where someone is acting nice, and you’re getting stabbed in the back, and in a sense it is more maddening. I found myself craving an open confrontation, because it would at least feel more honest. I wouldn’t feel so crazy. I don’t want nice smiling people to stab me in the back, it is too confusing. It would be better to have an enemy who says “I hate you!” At least that offers a kind of clarity.
O’Donnell: Right! The positions of power become cloudy, I think that is true, especially when the people in power pretend that they don’t hold the power. I think the responsible thing to do is for the people in power is to admit that they are in power, and to realize that they are in power, and to hold themselves accountable for that, it is a great responsibility, and they have the power to lead a company to do something great.
Krubner: I agree, I think the most important form of transparency in government, or any kind of governance, is simply to be honest about who holds the power, and that means formally saying so.
O’Donnell: Yes, and I think it’s possible for the power to shift. It might be possible for a theater company to function the same way that Congress does, so that every few years, or every few projects, the power structure shifts, and that sort of does happen, no matter what, even in the sort of non-hierarchical structure (which I don’t think exists). But when you’re actually doing a project, there is a clear hierarchical structure, there is a director and they are in charge, and it has to be that way, and the actors want it to be that way, and there is a playwright, and you have to say the words that they wrote, you can’t just go off and say any words that you want, and there is a set designer who is building a set for a specific play, you can’t just make random changes. There are different levels of power. But with structuring a company, it is helpful to make everyone feel like they are leaders, feel empowered to make choices, and to feel like their actions matter, their ideas matter, but I also think it helps to have a clear hierarchical structure, with someone transparently pulling the strings. The buck has to stop somewhere. What I think it can lead to, if you have a non-hierarchical structure, is diluting the work and minimizing its potential. See, you have to make decisions by consensus, and you have to have a meeting, and you have to let everyone have a voice, everyone needs to be heard, you have to honor that, and then you have to have some kind of vote, you need some kind of democracy, and when you do that, you are always going to water something down, because I could be an artist in the room with a really amazing idea and I know that if we could all get behind this we could shift the world, but through the consensus building, you have to make compromises, you have to dilute that vision, to get to a place that works for the whole ensemble, so it might help the ensemble, but individually, it is exhausting, and so that is why people eventually leave, they don’t feel empowered, they feel like they are sacrificing too much. It mirrors society in some ways.
Krubner: In what way?
O’Donnell: On a simplistic level, I was thinking about socialism versus capitalism, in their extremes, they don’t really work in their extremes, they have to sort of work together to build a healthy society.
Krubner: I was politically active for a while and I have many friends who were politically active, and they went into it with high ideals and they just got worn out. Because it is tough to always compromise. It is tough to see injustice and want to fix the world and then realize it might take 100 years. And you realize, hey, if this isn’t going to be healed in my lifetime then I want to just move to the country and grow a garden. So let me ask, was there ever a conflict so intense that you thought Flux was about to come to an end?
O’Donnell: Many, many times. I’m trying to think of specifics. There were many times when I thought, this is going to be our last show.
Krubner: Because the level of disagreement reached such an intensity they endangered the relationships?
O’Donnell: Yes, and also because the dissatisfaction that people felt caused them to leave, which lead to us having fewer resources to get anything done. I’m talking about basic stuff, the kind of stuff you don’t tend to think about, but it’s important to a theater company, stuff like moving your crap in and out of storage, raising money just so you can get your next production off the ground, cleaning the theater after a show, loading in, finding a space where you can build your set, running the meetings, showing up for the meetings, organizing the meetings. When you’re doing this for little to no money, the currency that you are promising people is the opportunity is to act or direct or create a piece of work and have it seen, that’s the only currency you can offer, and then, if that doesn’t flesh out the way people initially hoped, then people check out. They drift away. And then the company shrinks and then you’ve got the same 2 or 3 people doing all the work again, and then they are exhausted and burned out, and then they also want to check out. It is a very tough thing to do and, in a way, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but in a way, if a person really wants to do it, they should totally do it, because it is a great way to learn, and it is a great way to figure out what you want to say, and, who knows, it could end up living and breathing and having a future.
Krubner: Change of subject. There are some artists out there who insist that art can not be too political or it is not art anymore. Before the interview started, you mentioned that you were studying Leo Strauss for a class, that is part of your MFA at Columbia. You’ve just started studying him? Did you tell me he had some influence on the Bush Administration?
O’Donnell: Yes, Leo Strauss. It’s debatable whether he was liberal or conservative. I think he was probably like a classic conservative, of the type that doesn’t really exist today, he was the type who was capable of reason and logic and moderation, he was not dogmatic, which is where the Right is now, especially with Mr. Trump. So, he has many lectures, and I think this one was lecture number 11. He basically goes back to Aristotle and talks about how, in ancient Greece, the political philosopher was the empire par excellence, the go-between of two opposing ideas. Such a person would come up with a compromise so that you could move forward with a civil society. Without that, chaos and strife ensue. But these days, we don’t have that. Politics is very polarized. But what we’ve been talking about at Columbia, is that artists can play the role, culturally, as go-betweens, finding a path between coercion and cooperation.
Krubner: Can you think of real world examples of theater playing that role?
O’Donnell: I feel like we don’t see this kind of thing nearly enough, and I think a lot of it may be because ironically we base a lot of our theater off of Aristotelian ideas, specifically the Poetics. When you say “political theater” to people they seem to check out right away, like as soon as someone says, hey, I’m doing a play about oppression, I’m doing a play about the MeToo movement, the reaction you get is something like, oh my god, does the experience come with a sleeping bag and a shot of gin, to get me through it?
Krubner: Unless the playwright is very famous, like, say, Athol Fugard in South Africa.
O’Donnell: Yes. And I feel like there are many ways you can do it. But I think you need to change the form first, and the content second.
Krubner: Change the overall formula? Change the overall approach?
O’Donnell: Yes, change the overall formula. I think if you really want to get in and make change and allow people to see things in a new light, from a different angle, then you have to change the world. You have to change the fundamentals of the world.
Krubner: So, this classic template, there is a kind of worldview embedded in the Aristotelian formula, and that formula might be very flexible, and you can tell a lot of different kinds of stories that way, but in the end, you can’t use it for everything. If you are trying to change people’s views in some fundamental way, then perhaps you need a new paradigm for storytelling.
O’Donnell: I think so, yes. Because with the Aristotelian method, which can be very enjoyable, some of my favorite plays follow it, but with the Aristotelian method you just sort of go along for the ride, and in the end, you don’t come out changed, or at least, there is a limit on how profound the changes are. Whereas changing the form, and then adding the idea later, and thinking about that kind of play, with a new form, and thinking about it as an opportunity to expose human behavior in a new way, that’s where real change can happen, and that is a political act, just by saying, no, we can see the world this way, we can abstractly create the world this way, and as my professor Brian Kulick at Columbia says, we can “smuggle the new idea in”, without the audience really knowing, because once you start lecturing and becoming a didactic, the audience tends to check out, at that point it would no longer be a dialogue, it would be more like their dad lecturing them, so they check out. So you have to sneak it in. And you have to capture their imagination from the get-go, be it with a new form, or, if you are a good enough writer, with interesting human behavior, something that grabs you, captures you, ignites your imagination, takes you to this new place of intellectual curiosity without being overly sentimental.
Krubner: So much needs to come together. You need a great writer, a great director, a great actor.
O’Donnell: Yes, a lot needs to come together. Theater is more of a political act than film, because film is very dictatorial, because with film you have a director who decides everything that will be shown, and it is the same every time you see it, and when you go to see a film, you go and sit in a dark room, alone, and you watch it, and you are sort of away, and you are trapped into watching this one vision, whereas with theater every time you see it, it is different, it is not that dictatorial, it could go anywhere, you are in this room with people, molecules are being exchanged in the air, mirror neurons are actively engaged and I like to think it can create a butterfly effect that could literally change the people in the room.
Krubner: I don’t know if you will agree with me, but I’d say some of the most effective political theater I’ve ever seen is imaginative re-interpretations of Shakespeare. For instance, they take Julius Caesar and set the play in modern times, where it is a fascist empire, Caesar is establishing himself as a fascist dictator, they are not wearing Roman togas, and it forces the audience to think again about how current some of this material is.
O’Donnell: Yes, so, it plays with your expectations. When most people think of Shakespeare they have very strong, often misguided, expectations of what their experience is going to be. In the case of Caesar, it’s guys wearing togas.
Krubner: Right. And I’ve seen some of the classic versions that are also good. But at the same time, it is some of the more imaginative attempts to re-interpret the material that sticks with me, I’m not sure why that is, maybe just because those versions defy the stereotypes forces me to think, or perhaps the directors and actors know, if they are trying to change the material, they have to work a little bit harder. Whereas, if you’re just doing Roman togas, you can just fall back on tradition. Especially in the USA, we study it in school, so we already know some of the lines.
O’Donnell: That’s probably right. I think Caesar was the first Shakespeare I read in high school. Followed by Romeo and Juliet.
Krubner: When I hear politicians speak and use political metaphors, when I hear theater quoted, I think most of it is Shakespeare. Some of that is just that Shakespeare is such a large influence on the language. But also, Shakespeare is very classic in form, and the work has a lot of political metaphors. Perhaps he explored the limits of how political you can be while still staying with the traditional theater forms?
O’Donnell: I also feel like he is the first Western writer to create the human on stage, in a new way, in a fully fleshed, complex flawed way, and it is so exciting, because we can look at his canon, and we can see his growth, and we can see how he came to develop a more mature, complex understanding of what a human being is.
Krubner: That’s true. There is a big jump from Comedy Of Errors to King Lear. And for all of Europe, he represents a big shift. Just 50 years earlier the characters would have been named Chastity, Sloth, Greed, Virtue, it was all still Christian parables till the generation before him. And that is a big paradigm shift. In fact, that must be one of the biggest paradigm shifts in the history of theater. And in some sense, you and me, right now, we are closer to Shakespeare than Shakespeare was to what came just 50 years before him. Because he had that idea of the naturalistic human, and we still have that, but they didn’t have that two generations before him.
O’Donnell: Wow, that is true. A lot changed. Another thing about political theater and why I think theater is a very powerful tool for changes is the simple fact that when you’re watching a play, a good play, you’re watching changes. Any good actor is changing and transforming before our eyes. A lot of times you can look at a stage and you can say, oh that actor is good, but that actor is not good, but what does that mean? I think the one actor is more dynamic and is making more choices. And, as we go through our daily lives, we constantly change throughout the day, we have different personalities and different masks and faces that we wear. So, there is the me that is talking right now and trying to sound like I actually know what I’m talking about with you, and then there is the me with my wife, when maybe I’m a little sillier. Or the me with my parents, when I’m maybe a little more deferential, and the power is different. So that is what is fascinating, watching someone on a micro level, on stage, actively navigate all the changes that are happening to them, which are happening at all times. The music changes, the light changes. We are getting pretty deep here?
Krubner: But it is true, we are acting all the time. I think that is part of the fascination with actors, when we look at a professional actor, it’s not that they have a skill we don’t have, it’s that they are much better at it than we are. There was that sci-fi show Orphan Black, where Tatiana Maslany played something like a dozen different roles. Partly people were impressed that she could go so far with it, different body language, different accents, different clip to her voice, and to some extent, that is a skill that everyone wants, we want to be better able to communicate.
O’Donnell: And we want to be chameleons, we want to be able to exist in every space we walk into, we want to be able to feel comfortable and master every room we are in, not necessarily to control, but just simply to live in it, to not feel any kind of awkwardness or dysphoria.
Krubner: I’ve known a lot of people who describe themselves as introverts and they go into theater, so often when they are young they feel they have no social skills, and so for them there is this fascination, they say to themselves, here is this thing that I need to learn, need to understand, need to know more about, I’m going to devote years to studying it, I want to be able to walk into a room and — exactly what you just said.
O’Donnell: It is fascinating.
Krubner: So, let me shift gears a little bit. You’ve been in the world of the arts, in one form or another, a long time, from when you were very young.
O’Donnell: My whole life. Since I was a kid, observing my mom’s choreography.
Krubner: And yet it is only recently you decided to pursue an MFA.
O’Donnell: Right, later in life.
Krubner: So I’d like to ask you about that. What brought you to the decision to pursue an MFA?
O’Donnell: On a purely practical level, I decided to get the MFA because I wanted to have more potential for opportunities such as teaching at the university level, which is something that I’m really interested in doing, and the connections that an MFA at a great school like Columbia could provide to me. But also, on an artistic level, I was really drawn to Columbia in particular because of the training there, because of the faculty, I was very impressed with the work of a lot of the graduates that have come out of there, and I’ve always had a weird curiosity about Columbia ever since I moved to New York. It felt like that shining city on a hill that I was not a part of and never would be because I was not made up like that, not like those well-to-dos. And also, on a personal level, I was feeling very stuck, very stagnant. And some of this has to do with Flux, and my relationship to it. It felt like everything had become a slog. I lost touch with who I was as an artist and what I wanted to say. In fact, I found myself more concerned about what other people thought about me, or I was more concerned with making other people happy.
Krubner: Was that new for you?
O’Donnell: Yes, but it was a slower process. It was a progression. Or a regression, however you want to look at it. But, let’s say, I felt like I had hit a wall. And I needed a change. In the back of my head I had always thought about going back to school. And I thought this was a great time in my life to do it. So, those were the 3 reasons why I went.
Krubner: Can I ask you who were some of the faculty who excited you so much about Columbia?
O’Donnell: Oh, yeah. Every faculty member so far has been great. And, no offense to my lovely Catholic education I had. It was great, but I almost feel like I’m getting a real education for the first time. Our main teacher, and certainly the main draw to the program for me and a lot of other people, is Anne Bogart, who is a teacher and a working director and really a sort of theater philosopher. She was doing theater in America and in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. She co-founded a theatre company called SITI Company where she still serves at the artistic director. In 1993 she started teaching at Columbia and running the MFA Directing program. She’s created an incredible program.
Krubner: Let me try to understand Viewpoints. How is it different from other acting techniques?
O’Donnell: Well, I’m not an expert at all but, on the most fundamental level, it starts with the space, the architecture, and it is a system of training for the actor to explore the body in time and space. And how can you use time and space to create meaning. How does it affect relationship? For instance, we decided to sit here in the corner, near the window. How would this interview be different, the meaning of our relationship be different, if we had decided to sit in the center of the room, where it is dark?
Krubner: So what is the advantage of this approach? Does it help the director structure their own thinking about blocking? Or the actors? Who is it meant to help most, the directors or the actors?
O’Donnell: Both. For actors it can give you a whole sense of your self, of your body, of your instrument. You move through the space at different tempos, at different intensities, you’re using different muscles, you’re interacting with different people, that affects your breathing, immensely, yet you still have to tell the story, how do you tell the story, how do you deliver a monologue when you’ve just been running around the space for a minute? So, yes, the technique helps both. And for the actors, in particular, it really is a rigorous training for the instrument. It helps actors be aware of their role in the space, and therefore in the play, and so their responsibility to the play.
Krubner: I guess something as simple, or as fundamental, as the size of the stage, when two actors have to come in from different sides, you are already determining how far they have to walk before they can interact. A narrow stage allows instant interaction, a larger stage, they have to travel further, and the audience should watch them travel further, before they can talk.
O’Donnell: It is interesting. If two people are traveling from a far distance to each other, or if two people are traveling a short distance to each other. The difference has a great deal of meaning. Yet at the same time, I feel that you can take a small space and make it feel like they are traveling from a much larger distance, so there are ways to play with time and space, in ways that are not necessarily natural, not natural gestures or movements, not what we see everyday, it’s more of an expressive way of gesturing and telling a story. It is an interesting question, how can I take a small space and create a feeling of depth.
Krubner: You were talking about that earlier. One of the most amazing things about theater is how you can take this confined space and make it a whole universe?
O’Donnell: Make it a whole universe, yes.
Krubner: So, tell me if I’m wrong about this. I have a friend who came to theater from a strong dance background, and they felt that the starting point of all acting was with the body, and the movement of the body. And, it seems to me, there is some overlap with the Viewpoints technique? Because thinking mostly about the space, and the architecture of the space, it forces you to think a lot about how you are going to move?
O’Donnell: Yes, and how the body relates to the space. I would agree with that, all acting does start with the body.
Krubner: So a diverse faculty usually has a few heretics. Maybe they disagree with the faculty director? Are there any dissenting voices you also admire?
O’Donnell: Well, we have two directing teachers, Anne Bogart and Brian Kulick. Brian is a professor and a working director as well, and he used to run this company called Classic Stage, down in the Village, for many years, he was the artistic director. Bogart and Kulick are very different. I wouldn’t say that anything heretical is happening [laughter] but they have different approaches. Brian, at least in the classes, wants us to focus on the text, dive into the text, as he says “You want to get Talmudic with it.” Something as simple as dividing the scenes into beats, structure the scene, name your units, figure out specifically what each character’s tactic is at every moment, at every sentence, what are those changes, how can we specify what those changes are through action verbs: this is classic acting stuff. And yet, he encourages us to do it with our own voice. One thing I love about the program is there is no real moulding, they are never saying there is one right way to do it, they basically say do it however you want to do it, be the director you want to be, tell the stories you want to tell, and then we’ll give you honest feedback about what we saw, we will have feedback about whether it worked or didn’t work. Now, Anne likes to embrace accident and coincidence as a part of the artistic experience, so if a glass breaks, and that really did happen in one of my scenes, an actor knocked a glass off the table, and she was like, “That was a powerful moment, if you had to do the scene again, I would keep that moment.” Meanwhile Brian, he might agree with that too, but he’s also trying to get us to be specific and intentional and to know what we want to say. So, they are a good pair. It is a great training.
Krubner: Do you feel there is any one technique that is the absolute best technique for helping an actor to achieve a role, or do you think different techniques work for different actors?
O’Donnell: Different techniques work for different actors.
Krubner: Is it up to the actor to know what works for them, or is it up to the director to know how to work with diverse actors?
O’Donnell: It is up to the actor to know what works for them.
Krubner: And they should communicate that to the director?
O’Donnell: I don’t know who said this, I’m quoting someone, but the quote is, the actor directs the role, and the director directs the play. As an actor, however you need to go in there, to get there, if it’s working then it’s working.
Krubner: That’s true.
O’Donnell: And if it’s not working, then it’s not working. Now, it’s an interesting idea, because what we say is working in one culture can not work at all in another culture.
Krubner: What do you mean?
O’Donnell: I think our ideas of what constitutes good acting, or effective acting, is something that varies from culture to culture.
Krubner: Well, certainly, over-acting. What is the cut off line for melodrama? I’ve been forcing myself to watch a bunch of films from Bollywood, from India, and wow, their tenor is so different, from a Western point of view, the acting is ridiculous, and yet the stuff available on Netflix is the big hits, the big successes, this is the stuff that people in India love. The kind of over-acting that we used to associate with soap operas, back when those were a big thing here in the USA. But in India, even with the big budget, high-production value movies, if you have some guy who is in love, he is really, really in love. You’ve got 40 year old men acting like smitten 15 year olds, falling down, crying, shouting, singing, dancing, it’s all so over-the-top.
O’Donnell: Yes, he’s really in love. It’s pretty obvious. Maybe even more interesting, now that we have film, we can actually document the history of the acting, we can see the evolution, we can see how acting styles have changed, when we look at movies from the 1930s, we look at that style, and to a lot of us, that style seems so phony.
Krubner: I just watched a Marx Brothers film from the 1920s, and two things struck me. First of all, I did not realize how often modern comics reference the Marx Brothers. I’ve seen some of those riffs re-used in recent movies. But, second of all, the style of the acting was so ridiculous. And not necessarily in a comic way.
O’Donnell: Right, but, at the time, that was considered really good, and in some of those movies the acting was considered very good, and believable, and real, and profound, and people had experiences and they wept and maybe there were changes that occurred. So, I think what we say works now, maybe 100 years ago people would think of as totally bizarre. It is tough to say what is good and what is not good. Does it evolve and get better as humans evolve and theoretically get better? I don’t know. I often wonder how much film has influenced acting on stage. Has it driven us to a more realistic way of acting? How much has film changed the way we tell stories on stage? Transitions, lighting. The introduction of film, the talkies, was a huge sea change in the form. It immediately made things intimate. Suddenly you don’t have to use your voice to project. The audience is right there in the room with the actors, in a different kind of way.
Krubner: You can whisper.
O’Donnell: You can whisper. You can tell exactly the story you want to tell and guarantee that the audience is going to see what you want to see. And also with the introduction of electric lights. How that must have radically changed theater. To be able to very acutely control lighting, color of lights, the transitions, dimming lights, speed of lights, to take us from location to location, and to understand that vocabulary, that on stage left the light dims down, and on stage right the light dims up and we are now in a new location. That is really radical.
Krubner: It’s a whole other level of control.
O’Donnell: Whereas if you jump back in time to 500 years ago, to pre-colonial America, or Britain, I’m not sure how people would react to that, if they had this technology. Well, I guess they’d be blown away or feel they’d seen some kind of God, or decided there was some kind of magic to it. But once they got over it, and realized it was just a technology, would their brains comprehend stories the same way we do?
Krubner: It is fascinating watch people build a new vocabulary around some new technology. Over the last 10 or 20 years it has been interesting to see emoji becoming an actual, accepted part of the language. I mean, now we have the President of the United States who posts on Twitter “Witch Hunt! Sad!” and then a sad emoji character. I mean, wow.
O’Donnell: Yes. That doesn’t give me a lot of hope.
Krubner: Well, they are something new.
O’Donnell: Emoji can help with context and tone. “Can you send me that document as soon as possible” followed by a smiley face, versus “Can you send me that document as soon as possible” followed by a period. However, “Can you send me that document as soon as possible” followed by a smiley face might be the single most annoying text that you can get.
Krubner: Sure. Emoji is abused all the time. Passive aggressive use of emoji is basically what this Presidency is all about. I think the defining foreign and domestic policy of this Presidency is just, basically, passive aggressive use of emoji.
O’Donnell: Yes, it is really weird, and not only does he have acolytes doing the same thing, but the opposition is now like, well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, or do what they do in order to win. I see a lot of people on the Left adopting similar strategies, and I’m like, c’mon, you’re better than that.
Krubner: The idea that the lack of civility is a winning formula?
Krubner: That’s actually one of the worst lessons that I worry people will take away from the fact that Trump won the election.
O’Donnell: It’s gotten out of control. More than ever, I feel like we need that political philosopher, that umpire par excellence, that we were talking about, to help us solve these issues. I personally feel that moderates are more important than ever. People who are able to step in and see both sides, think about the dialogue, and find some kind of path to compromise, so that we can live in some kind of civil society.
Krubner: Without killing each other.
O’Donnell: Without killing each other.
Krubner: So, in school, I assume you are learning a great deal about directing right now, not necessarily acting?
O’Donnell: Well, as a director, the thing we do is work with actors.
Krubner: Right, right, I realize it is a thin line.
O’Donnell: And my favorite part of directing is the time I have in the room with the actors. It’s a fascinating experience, and not many people are in the room for it. There is a kind of mystique around it, which is a little silly, sometimes people are like, oh, what is happening in there, as if there is some kind of voodoo happening, but it’s really not that, it’s really about managing the room, making people feel comfortable, making people feel like they have a voice, that their voice matters, their ideas matter, they are a creative force. And that everything that happens on stage means something. And it is really about finding the meaning, helping the actors find the meaning, working as a team to figure out what we are trying to do and say, what we are trying to figure out, what is this play, what is it trying to say? I rarely enter the first rehearsal like “Oh, I know exactly what we are doing, so do this and this and this, and done!” No. A lot of times I come in and I don’t know what this play is. I have some hunches, some specific ideas, a few images in my head, but we work together as a team to figure what it is that we are trying to say. And then the best part is when the play doesn’t really need you anymore, the actors don’t need you anymore, and then you can step back and just watch it. So, I think you do learn a lot about acting, because you have to put yourself in their shoes. I would never ask an actor to do something that I didn’t think I could do myself.
Krubner: Have you had the experience of an actor having a very difficult time figuring out what the role is about?
O’Donnell: Sure. That happens a lot. It’s interesting because everyone has their own process. Some people can get it right away, from day one, they’re really sharp, but then when the show happens, it’s like, wait, what happened, where is all the stuff we worked on, where did that go? Other people are like, it’s a battle, it’s a process, the whole time, a struggle, they get better, they get deeper, but then when the audience arrives, that actor is amazing, and you can see the fruits of that struggle. So everyone is different. Everyone has their own process. You have to understand that. People are individuals. Everyone comes from a different place, a different culture, everyone brings something unique. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model. You have to learn to work with all of that in the room, and make it into a cohesive whole. Find a way to make the differences the interesting thing.
Krubner: So interesting!
O’Donnell: But you want it to be all in the same world. You have to create rules that are consistent within the world you are creating. You can’t create a naturalistic world and then all of a sudden a talking elephant walks in. But you can absolutely create a world that has talking elephants, totally. And then what does that mean? This is an absurd example, but the point is you have to have consistency. You have to have boundaries, you have to have limitations on what that world is. But that world can expand. You can find that those boundaries change as you are developing the work. But you have to get to a point where the world you are making is cohesive and has its own logic.
Krubner: And the actors have to feel that. They need to be comfortable with the rules of that world.
O’Donnell: They have to feel that, the rules of that world. And they learn that through repetition, through digesting it, and sometimes through having a tough rehearsal and then going to bed and sleeping on it and then waking up and suddenly getting it. One thing I love about the rehearsal room is that you have the opportunity to create the world under the structures that you see. As a director, you can say, “I see the world working this way, I see human relationships working this way.” I have the opportunity to create that, at least for a few hours every day, in a little room.
Krubner: As a director, how much do you feel tied down by the actual text of the play?
O’Donnell: I think it depends on the text. With some plays and playwrights, the text is the thing, you need to adhere to it, my job is to uncover the text, and make it resonate. My job is to allow the text to be heard, allow the text to be understood, and to create a room where everyone is thinking about that. Empowering the actors so that the text can be heard and seen and experienced the way that the text says it should be.
Krubner: So, perhaps, in some productions, your focus is more on discovering the intent of the author, whereas in other productions it might be on discovering something new in the text? I know with Shakespeare people are often trying to find new things in the text. But at Flux, when you’re working directly with the playwright, on an original work, there the focus is more on discovering the intention of the author?
O’Donnell: It is, and one thing about Flux that is really great, I think that good playwrights have the ability to create strong plays that create the conditions of success, yet they also are able to let go of certain moments and say “I don’t really know what this moment means. I know I wrote this, and I know they are supposed to say this, but I don’t know exactly how it should be done.” Not all the time, because there needs to be specificity, but a good playwright allows that conversation to happen. Otherwise, you’re just walking into the room, as directors or actors, and you’re just mindlessly coloring in the lines, it’s like a little coloring book, or a connect-the-dots thing.
Krubner: But ideally the actors might have a great chemistry, or a great ability to discover things, so the bring out something that the writer put in almost subconsciously.
O’Donnell: Subconsciously, yes. Or sometimes things come up and if the author is in the room they can go, “Oh, that solves that moment for me, that scene never worked for me, but you found a way, you just solved it, let’s change it, let’s re-write this.” That happens a lot.
Krubner: So, as an example, a scene where mother and daughter are thinking about dad’s birthday party, and the scene is just filler, setting up the next scene, but then the actors bring such chemistry to it, and the writer realizes there is a lot of tension between the mother and daughter?
O’Donnell: Well, a good playwright will always be thinking about relationships, and tension, and also, the scene, if there isn’t a reason for the scene, then why is it there?
Krubner: Sure, but two different actors could take the scenes in different directions? Just the tone of voice could change the meaning of the text? Maybe that’s a bad question. Let me put it like this, is it ever appropriate for a director to allow a scene to change so much, away from what seems like the plain meaning of the words? Should you allow an actor to take a scene in a direction that seems to be at odds with the text? Like the text says “I’m really enjoying this interview with you” but the actor wants to play as very angry.
O’Donnell: It depends on the play. I think if you’re talking about an original work, a world premiere, then in an ideal world, you want to have the playwright present in the rehearsal room, so you have a collaboration, and you’re working to be sure that the play is heard the way the playwright wants. If you can’t do that, then there is not going to be a lot of playwrights who want to work with you. Well, maybe, once in a while, there will be a playwright who are like, “I want it to be fucked with, I like the idea of the play changing as it passes through different hands.” But, for me, I think it is my job to think about what they want. And sometimes an actor will be like, “No, I think in this moment it needs to be X, Y and Z.” And meanwhile you and the playwright are thinking, no, this moment needs to be A, B and C. And that can be tough. How do you resolve that? That is where the real art of directing comes in. How do you talk to that actor so they can get onboard with the play. And if you get a difficult actor who won’t change, that is tough, and maybe you don’t want to work with them again.
Krubner: So, is it always the case where the actor is being difficult, or is it sometimes the actor is loyal to a particular vision of the character, and they are defending the integrity of that character? So, the actor argues “Hey, this character is much stronger than that, they wouldn’t break down and cry just then.”
O’Donnell: It really depends on the situation and I think you need to pick your battles, and you have to allow for a certain amount of risk and uncertainty in order to find out what does and what does not work. So it really depends. Some moments might be really critical, and you as a director have to know what those moments are, where you have to dig in and say, no, this moment has to be this particular thing, which doesn’t mean it absolutely has to look and sound and feel exactly like something, but it needs to go in this particular direction, and right now it is going in the wrong direction, we are losing track of the map of the play, and we need to stay on course. Sometimes as a director you have to put your foot down, and have those conversations. Other times, it’s like, okay, I’m going to let this one go, and you hope they figure out that the way they are doing it is just not working. And that’s fantastic when it happens. And then, sometimes I’m wrong, I really think a particular moment should go one way and then the actor does something different and I realize what they did was good, I’m like, that is what this moment is.
Krubner: That’s the collaborative element of it.
O’Donnell: Yes, so you have to be open to everything, and it’s not all about you. Sure, there is a hierarchy, and you’re in charge, and you’re the one who is like, go, stop, forward, backward, but ultimately, it is a collaboration among people.
Krubner: So, going back a bit, you said you were feeling personally stuck, and so one of your personal reasons for going back to get an MFA was to become unstuck. And you said you found yourself being nice, and being worried about how other people thinking of you, and you felt you were losing a part of who you were as an artist. Was that a situation, where, over time, you were playing the role of peace maker, so you were increasingly compromising so as to avoid warring factions?
O’Donnell: Maybe at the beginning, but then I became one of the warring factions. I wanted the company to go one way, and others wanted it go a different direction.
Krubner: What direction did you want it to go in?
O’Donnell: That is a big conversation!
Krubner: Well, what was the heart of the disagreement?
O’Donnell: I think the most difficult thing for a company is the egos that are involved. When you’re working toward a consensus, there are always going to be people who are disappointed. And most of often, the person who is the most charismatic and articulate gets their way. Consensus building is a double-edged sword. So after years of a consensus that was always something less than what I was hoping for, it tended to wear on my creativity. I started thinking, why am I doing this, I tended to lose motivation, to start feeling resentful, and that’s not healthy, or fair to anyone.
Krubner: If you back down once or twice, that’s fine, but if you do it twenty times in a row, then you start to wonder if consensus is really what you want?
O’Donnell: Yes, exactly. In the quest for consensus I feel like I lost my sense of my self, and my sense of my value, I no longer felt like I had was a valuable part of team anymore.
Krubner: Consensus is really tough. The organization that I know of that has gone the longest with a consensus structure is the Quaker church, but they have many rules in place to help make it work, and they have a lot of conscious training to help make it work. I think people nowadays underestimate how difficult it is, for all of the reasons that you mentioned, the strong egos, and the way the most articulate overpower the less articulate. And then, if one person or one clique wins all the time, it is damaging for the overall organization, who alienate good people. So, I apologize if this is a difficult topic, but can I ask for an example where you backed down, and allowed some compromise, and yet you feel certain that the compromise was weaker than what you had wanted, you felt that your vision would have been a better choice.
O’Donnel: Yes, and it is a difficult topic, because it involves specific people, who I care about, and love, and who I believe in. One of the biggest examples is based on a fundamental disagreement about what the life blood of the company is, what the heartbeat of the company is. Are we an ensemble that is built on consensus and opportunity for all, or a company that can sometimes find a show, and do whatever is necessary to make that show successful? And, with nearly every play we produced, the clash between these two different approaches was manifested in casting decisions. For example, Flux will only produce a play if a certain person is cast in the role. But what if the playwright disagrees with that casting choice for good reasons? Then you have a problem. Then the playwright can pull out and bring their play to another company. And I know that this happens at every level of the industry. It’s part of the business. It’s all about interpersonal dynamics, but that happens a lot, in different ways. And a lot came down to casting, it came down to making sure that everyone in the ensemble is always happy and satisfied with the artistic opportunities they were given. It’s a lot of mouths to feed and there isn’t a lot of food. And it just wore on me after awhile.
Krubner: That is absolutely a tough situation to be in.
O’Donnell: And it makes me look like the bad guy.
Krubner: To the playwright?
O’Donnell: No, to the ensemble. It puts a divide between me and everyone else in the company. They go, oh, you’re not valuing the ensemble more than you value yourself. It causes friction, it makes you feel like an outsider and it is frustrating. And every time we did a play, there was a little bit of that. And that’s just the way it is, it’s a constantly a negotiation, it’s people, we’re talking about collaboration between humans.
Krubner: Relationships are tough. Relationships between two people are tough and relationships between 10 or 20 people are exponentially more complicated.
O’Donnell: Having said all that, Flux is still around, for a reason, we are good at communicating, we are good at respecting each other, and we developed techniques that helped us problem solve and help that people’s voices are heard.
Krubner: Right. And that is the number one thing I wanted to talk to you about. The question that interests me the most is, why do so many artist scenes die, and are there techniques that would allow them to last longer? Flux has lasted longer than many, especially for an organization lacking steady funding, so what techniques have allowed you to last?
O’Donnell: We have a lot of rituals, that I think are important. People thrive on rituals, we love em!
Krubner: The number one thing that the Catholic church got right?
O’Donnell: Totally, I always loved the Stations Of The Cross. So, I think rituals help. Certain protocols help. Expectations that feel safe, so you know when you walk into a meeting you are going to start it one way and you are going to end it one way, and maybe in the middle there are going to be some tense moments, but you also know how the meeting will end, and it will be okay.
Krubner: The great thing about rituals is, if it is one that they like, they know they have those 2 minutes of every meeting that they know they are going to like, no matter what else happens.
O’Donnell: And I can tell you what some of our rituals were, but I also want to say, rituals are not necessarily transferable, you can’t necessarily bring the ritual into the process of another group, because then you’d have to explain what the ritual is, why it has meaning, why you do it, and they are just kind of like, uh, what? I find it is not usually successful. It is more successful when you bring other people into your rituals, into your group. So, in that sense, I don’t know how helpful it is, from a career standpoint? These rituals don’t always transfer – or maybe rituals work best when they are birthed from an ensemble for that ensemble. So one of the rituals we had was about talking. We found that we were often talking over each other, we were not hearing each other, and so we started raising our hands, to make clear that we wanted to speak next, and we had someone who was in charge and who would be the referee and determine who would speak next, so you would raise your hand, and the referee would see you and nod, and that meant, okay, they got you, they know you will speak next. But we had these really long meetings so our arms would get tired and our hands got lower and lower, until they were resting on our heads, which sort of looks like a shark fin, right? And so, over time, that became its official name: a shark. So the referee would say “Okay, so Heather has a shark, and then Kelly has a shark.” And usually these are nice sharks, right, they are not deadly sharks. So sharking became a thing. And it was funny at first. But then, after a while, sharking wasn’t really a gimmick anymore, it wasn’t fun anymore, it was just a natural part of our communication, and the sharks could get really intense, so if you disagreed strongly with something, and you’ve got something you really want so say, that fin would just fling up decisively to your forehead. And occasionally, if someone says something controversial, suddenly you see a whole sea of shark fins suddenly appear. [laughter] So sharking was one. And another, which is not unique to Flux, was a thing called check-ins, which works sometimes, sometimes they don’t, but before you start a meeting, you each take 30 seconds to explain where you are coming from. It might be something like, hey, I was just stuck on the train for two hours, and I’m feeling a little irritated, so you guys need to keep that in mind, or maybe someone says they just lost their job. Or someone just got a great job. Someone is like, I feel great. I just went on a date, everything is awesome. And then at the end we do a check out, we talk about what we are taking back out into the world. And often people’s check out is very different from their check-in, so there is a transformation that has happened, which is interesting, and we recognize and thank people for that transformation. Another ritual is our annual retreat, which we’ve done every summer for 12 years.
Krubner: I’ve seen all the photos on your website.
O’Donnell: Yes, it is one week, when we leave the city, we live in the woods, basically, with bad wifi connections, bad cell phone, mostly cut off from the outside world. So that was very helpful because there was an expectation that we would talk about things at the retreat that we would not ordinarily talk about. Big picture stuff, like visions, mission statement, self-evaluations, post-mortems, we’d say this is what my year was like, this is what I could have done better. There is good and bad in that. A lot of things get brushed to the retreat. Like someone will say “Hey, we really need to talk about this.” And someone else will say “No, no, no, that’s a retreat conversation, wait till the retreat.” But by the end of the year you’ve got about 35 major items to talk about at the retreat, and there isn’t enough time to talk about it all. So then those things don’t get discussed and they don’t change.
Krubner: Are there any other rituals that you think have helped Flux?
O’Donnell: Another ritual that has helped us, and again, this is not unique to Flux, but we use a method of critical feedback called the Liz Lerman technique, created by Liz Lerman. We want to be able to give critical feedback and talk about things that didn’t work so we can do better in the future. Liz Lerman uses four steps for her critical feedback process but Flux only does three. So after each production, we do a review, a postmortem. There are three steps. In the first step, you start off talking about what resonated with you. For example, I would say to you, “This one moment really resonated with me, I thought it worked very well.” And you try to point out why it worked well. In the second next, you ask people neutral questions, and the questions can not be judgements. You can’t ask, “Why did you choose such a hideous color for that one outfit? Why did you, screw up that one moment there.” It can’t be like that. It has to be a real question without passive judgment or an opinion embedded in your question.
Krubner: You shouldn’t ask, “Why are you so incredibly stupid?”
O’Donnell: Why are you stupid! Right. Not that!
Krubner: Something reasonably open ended?
O’Donnell: Something reasonably open ended. It can be, hey, I was confused by that one moment, can you explain that moment to me? Or, I noticed in this moment, this happened, can you explain why you all did it that way? It is a request for clarity. And the person being asked can consider the questions, and maybe answer in an environment that feels safe. And the other part of this is that you have to ask consent first. So the person asking the question might be like, “Can I ask you about that moment with Samuel?” And the person answering might feel they know exactly what is about to be asked, and they don’t feel comfortable talking about it just then, so they defer the question. And so you table it. But you do need to come back to it later, and talk about it. And 99% of the time, people just say yes, of course. And so finally, the third step, it is the most dangerous step and we avoided it for years, it is an opportunity for direct feedback, where people can say, that moment did not work for me, and here is why. And again, you should ask for consent before you offer your feedback. This when you have a direct back and forth, and it is about assuming good intentions, it’s about being honest and transparent, and it is about everyone else in the room being very active in what is being discussed, so it doesn’t become a war.
Krubner: What does it mean, “very active”?
O’Donnell: Carefully referee what happens between the two who are talking. These feedback sessions can be very intense, and people can cry, and occasionally people can argue, and get hurt, and then eventually quit. But overall, these feedback sessions were very helpful. And I think that is because we followed this process.
Krubner: And you felt this was a big part of keeping Flux on the right path?
O’Donnell: I think it is. And in a way, if there was any tension or animosity, it was brought forth, and it made it easier for people to decide if they wanted to stay with the company. Cause it was all out in the open.
Krubner: I can see that being useful. Because there is always going to be some tension. So you might as well handle that in a structured way.
O’Donnell: And not allowing it to simmer. You want the tension to be brought to light. And the other thing that we tried to avoid, though it is inevitable because everyone is human, but we tried to avoid cliques and talking behind people’s back. We tried to avoid forming little alliances. If you do that, then you start having conversations where you are like, hey, they are going to come in and talk about X so we need to respond with Y, present a united front, but then you get into the room and your ally changes their mind and you feel betrayed. Those kinds of cliques, that kind of politics, you don’t want to go there, it’s just not fair to anyone. So trying to keep as much as possible as out in the open as possible, and trying to call out alliances when they happen, knowing that of course they will happen, because we are all human, and sometimes it is totally okay if those alliances to happen, but we want to be transparent about it.
Krubner: These are fantastic tips for keeping an art scene stable and sane for the long-term.
O’Donnell: Another thing too is giving recognition to the people who actually do the work. Those who do the most work in an ensemble should be rewarded with something in return. If you don’t have money, if you’re not paying well, if they are artists then they should be getting artistic opportunities, the artistic opportunity becomes the currency. And that is tricky.
Krubner: Though in the case you mentioned a few moments ago, the whole ensemble was willing to go along with a given play, if a particular actor played a specific role, but then the playwright vetoed the whole thing and walked away?
O’Donnell: Sometimes the ensemble is the thing, and sometimes the play is the thing. And I felt that in this case, the play was thing. And others felt, no, the ensemble is the thing, this isn’t the play for this ensemble right now.
Krubner: If you don’t mind me pushing back a little bit, about the notion that the play is the thing. If you really feel that the play is the thing, then it seems a more hierarchical organization might be more in keeping with that vision? Right? What do you see as the advantage of the ensemble?
O’Donnell: The advantages of the ensemble are numerous. Among other things, you develop a way of working relationship and a short-hand language of how to work together, so you save a lot of time. You go in, you feel comfortable with each other, you understand each other, sometimes you don’t even need to finish sentences, you know what the person needs, so you get work done quickly. It’s efficient. Especially if it is a healthy ensemble that’s clicking. There’s also a power in many, there is a power in many voices that can not be denied. And if you have a group of people, and they care about one thing together, and they put that one thing above themselves, and if everyone is satisfied with that, and everyone is happy, then it works really great. Once people start to become unsatisfied, then I think it can break apart. Once you stop communicating clearly with one another, then it breaks apart. I think the advantage of having a hierarchical structure is the recognition that in every group there is mostly likely a person who has the most articulate vision, there is a leader, you have a leader in that group. Maybe you have two leaders and you find that is not going to work, so one of them steps down, maybe they start their own thing. I don’t see anything wrong with it. You recognize the truth, this natural dynamic that happens, that some people are better leaders, some people are better at persuading, some people want to be leaders, and some people don’t want to be leaders. Hierarchy allows you to recognize this, instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist.
Krubner: There is an honesty to it.
O’Donnell: There is an honesty to it.
Krubner: I already mentioned, in the tech industry, where I work, this has become very common, to deny the existence of hierarchy. I have a friend who works at Parsely and if we were being honest we would describe him as the head of devops at Parsely, but Parsely is officially a flat organization, so he’s not allowed to say that, and he’s not allowed to put that on his resume.
O’Donnell: So if he goes somewhere else, if he goes to an interview, and they are like, what did you do there, and he says what he did, they are going to ask why it isn’t on his resume? That could be awkward.
Krubner: Exactly. Or a tech consultant is brought in, and wants to know who is in charge of the software architecture, and the official answer is “no one”. So then the tech consultant has to start asking questions, like, who is the most experienced, who detailed the current plans, and so on, they have to ask 20 questions to discover the truth, instead of having someone simply tell them the truth. As you said earlier, there is something a bit Orwellian about it. There is a general abdication of responsibility. I think some of the leadership has grown up during an era when popular rhetoric insisted that leaders were bad. And now they are leaders, but they don’t want to be bad. So now they no longer feel comfortable declaring themselves to be a leader.
O’Donnell: Right, hierarchy is evil.
Krubner: Right? And it allows leaders to shirk their actual responsibilities, because they are no longer calling themselves leaders.
O’Donnell: Now, I’m trying to be skeptical of everything, even my own assumptions and biases, so I wonder, what we are now saying, are we just products of the mechanisms that have been created, and are we just subjects within this capitalist system, or whatever you want to call it, I don’t know what this is today, I don’t really think this is a capitalist system, it’s some weird new thing that we haven’t named yet, they’ll name it 100 years from now when we are all dead. [laughter] So I wonder, are they right, when they say the future is flat? I don’t know.
Krubner: So, I’d like to wrap up this interview. I’d like to ask what is in the future for you?
O’Donnell: Oh, god.
Krubner: I didn’t mean that in a frightening way, I meant that in a happy, positive way. I could see the tension rush into your body as soon as I asked that.
O’Donnell: I can only live in the now. If you ask me about the future, I tense up, if you ask me about the past, I’m like, oh god, do we have to go back there?
Krubner: Can I asked what you are most excited about this summer, or this semester?
O’Donnell: Yes, we are doing a political theater class. Bertolt Brecht, Caryl Churchill and Heiner Müller. 3 playwrights whose plays I’ve never worked on before. It feels out of my wheelhouse, like water I’ve never swam in before. So I’m excited about that. And, in the rest of my life, continue to be married, continue to learn how to be a better partner.
Krubner: How long have you been married now?
O’Donnell: 7 years. It’s crazy. It’s about to be 7 years next month. So that is exciting. No, wait. It will be 8 years. Oh god, I hope Kristy doesn’t read this. But yeah, I think it’ll be 8 years.
Krubner: Any final comments?
O’Donnell: There needs to be more theater. I want to bring theater to places where there isn’t enough theater. You know what would be a great place to do a play? In a WalMart. In middle America. Go to aisle 13 in WalMart, see the play.
Krubner: What kind of play would you do there?
O’Donnell: You have to start with the space.
Krubner: Aisle 13, that is an evil number?
O’Donnell: It’s mysterious. No one knows what is there. It turns out it’s all soap. Maybe we will do a play about soap.
Krubner: Maybe Death Of A Salesman?
O’Donnell: Oh, yes, that could work. But, yes, I want to bring theater to a WalMart in Appalachia. In New York City we are spoiled with options, but out there, theater can have such an impact. It can bring real transformation. And I think no one thought about Appalachia until Trump won the election, and then suddenly people were like, who are these people, why are they so weird? Some people get angry with them. I’d like to bridge that gap. I think theater can help bridge that gap.Source