Playwright/Director Glyn O’Malley, Measuring the Heartbeat of the American Theater
For all you theater wonks and aficionados out there, here’s another piece of mine from a years back, this one based on an interview I did with playwright/director Glyn O”Malley. Not many months after I spoke with him he passed awat, lending a poignancy to his comments about the future of the American theater, for which he held out great hope. He came to Omaha, as so many leading theater figures do, for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. The 2011 event runs through June 4. I am posting stories I’ve written about the event, some its many luminaries, and other aspects of Omaha theater. O’Malley is not the only Great Plains guest artist whose loss has been felt. Actress Patricia Neal was a regular and much-beloved fixture at the festival, and she’s gone now. Founder Jo Ann McDowell was also close to other giants of the American theater, namely Arthur Miller and August Wilson, and they too are gone. The point is though their work lives on, as does the theater.
Playwright/Director Glyn O’Malley, Measuring the Heartbeat of the American Theater
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Playwright/director Glyn O’Malley of New York epitomized the distinguished guest artists here for the Great Plains Theatre Conference that closed last Saturday. Over the course of the eight-day gathering O’Malley, a Fellow at the Cherry Lane Theatre and a faculty member at Lehman College/SUNY, joined other major figures of the American theater in considering various aspects of stagecraft. They addressed everything from the work of new and established playwrights to the role of playwrighting in society to the richness of Omaha’s theater community, whose artists presented plays in lab readings and staged performances.
For O’Malley, just as for Edward Albee, the esteemed playwright whose imprimatur is on every aspect of the conference, it is neither a lark nor a vacation, but a working event that puts them through their paces. “There’s an awful lot to do,” said O’Malley. “I came in earlier to do a preconference workshop with 39 playwrights and then there are morning and afternoon panels and evening programs. So, there’s always something. It’s very intense, very packed.”
Artists use the occasion to measure the health of the American theater, whose state Edward Albee lamented at a Great Plains salute to the late Arthur Miller and August Wilson when he said, “our losses seem to keep outweighing our gains.” But O’Malley said the promise of a vital theater could also be seen in the conference.
“I have hope. There are new young voices emerging that, while they perhaps don’t have the gravitas yet to handle some of the larger questions, they’re touching and pulling up small pieces of the turf and handling it in ways that certainly exhibit an ability to grow into that. There’s work all along the fringes of Broadway that’s hopeful and inspiring. It’s simply a matter of time here in terms of maturation. Everyone who keeps doing this long enough and well enough carves out a place for themselves, a specific niche, and one can stay in it or move on,” O’Malley said.
Events such as the Great Plains, he said, showcase “an abundance of all sorts of plays and playwrights at different stages of maturation.” He added playwrights “all have things we’re attracted to and lean to — plays that are basically captivating enough to pull us into their orbit because of how they approach their subjects.”
What he’s seen of the Omaha theater scene gives him more reason for optimism.
“Well, I think it’s phenomenal. I’m thrilled you’ve got so many good people here — so many good theaters. I can’t believe how much theater there is,” he said. “I guess I’m surprised there isn’t a dominating professional regional theater here, but that may in fact be one of the reasons Omaha has such an abundance of different sorts of theaters that address specific missions and specific visions. I’m extremely impressed by that. There’s a lot going on here and I’ve wondered why it’s stayed relatively off the radar, because I would never have known about it had this conference not moved here.”
As home to the conference, reconstituted here from Valdez, Alaska, Omaha’s now at the center of the American theater’s process for new play development, which at its “core,” O’Malley said, “creates an environment where young playwrights just finding their way on the page can have discourse with people who have done it, done more of it and taken some of the risks they want to take. I think the only person who can really speak to a playwright in terms of really helpful sorts of response is another playwright, a director or an actor. It’s a very specific craft.”
He said if theater is “to gain, we’re going to have to do this right and keep it going” via events and programs that nurture new artists and new works. “These are all really important because otherwise the opportunities for new plays in the commercial market are very, very slight and they get slimmer each year. I think persistence is something we need to encourage. Not everyone’s going to have the trajectory in their careers that Edward Albee’s had. He’s a phenomenon. There is hope as long we encourage and promote responsible thinking and courageous, daring, bold, innovative plays…as opposed to merely good entertainment writing. There’s an abundance of that. There’s a lot of people who can do that. But there aren’t a lot of who can move an audience and cause them to turn over a thought in their mind, to walk out of the theater with it and discuss it over dinner, and let it haunt them for days after until they’ve made up their own mind about it.”
O’Malley, a one-time assistant to Albee and a leading interpreter of his work, agreed with remarks his mentor made at a May 29 Miller-Wilson salute, when Albee said: “Both Arthur and August understood playwrighting is a deeply profound social, philosophical, psychological and moral act. A playwright may not lie because a playwright at his very, very best is believed and must tell whatever truths he knows as clearly and in as tough a fashion as he possibly can. They understood what playwrighting is all about. They understood a play has no excuse for being merely escapism…merely frivolous. They understood the act of creating the play is holding a mirror up to people in the audience and saying, ‘Look, this is who you are, this is how you behave. If you don’t like what you see, don’t turn your back — change.’”
O’Malley embraces the weight Albee attaches to playwrighting, saying, “Plays need to open up worlds that other areas of society have concluded about, so that we can go in and personally experience them and begin to ask questions for ourselves. Most of the time we relegate somebody else to answer these things for us. But it’s always about the next question. I think that’s what one has to do. I’m led by that. That informs my choices of subject matter and how I write about it. I’m not interested in what’s known and concluded. I’m interested in finding my own way into things and then I find how I feel about them as well.”
He said Albee’s work “has always been” about probing, challenging the status quo, “and my own view is very much in agreement with that. I have very little patience with the merely frivolous. Obviously we have a great deal invested right now in our society into the pulling away from reality. If you come to New York and go to the theater you won’t be asked to think very often. You’ll be certainly entertained.”
Echoing something Albee declared in 1988, when he was last in Omaha and said, “If we prefer ignorance to dangerous thought, we will not be a society that matters,” O’Malley’s own play Paradise “was stopped from reaching production in Cincinnati. People were afraid of its power and what it would do. It examines how a 17-year-old Palestinian girl was coerced into becoming the third female suicide bomber. It is a very dangerous play because it is right on top of both…an Israeli and a Palestinian position. People want this very much to be an answer play, and it’s impossible. I don’t have the answers. It’s a question box play. It’s a play full of them and they’re all questions we need to be asking ourselves.”
Theater’s capacity to “be dangerous” and “an impetus for change,” O’Malley said, stems from its “immediacy. Theater is very much the vehicle by which we still gather together and view in the first-person with real live people. There isn’t the detachment one has with film. where you can sit back because it happened before and was put together before.” Or, as Albee likes to say, “film is then, theater is now.”
O’Malley, Albee and the rest are expected back next year for Great Plains II.
- Attention Must Be Paid: Arthur Kopit Invokes Arthur Miller to Describe Great Plains Theater Conference Focus on Playwrights and Their Work (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Q & A with Edward Albee: His Thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and Preparing a New Generation of Playwrights (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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- Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Q & A with Playwright Caridad Svich, a Featured Artist at the Great Plains Theatre Conference (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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