Interview with Robert O'Hara, Part One: "Everyone is Welcome, No one is Safe"
Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback sits with Playwright/Director Robert O'Hara. This is the first part of his interview.
WALTER BILDERBACK: Let's start with the basic: What's Bootycandy?
ROBERT O'HARA: Bootycandy is the name that my grandmother and mother used for the penis when I was a little boy. After seeing the world premiere of this play in DC, my mother turned to me and actually said "It was BooBoo Candy why on EARTH would we call your penis Bootycandy?" and my response to her was "Oh Boo Boo Candy makes oh so much more sense, right???" Regardless I heard Bootycandy... all my life. So I think my Mother is making up some Boo Boo Candy ... that just sounds crazy. Now, Bootycandy... I can kinda understand. LOL...
WB: The play has been described as semi-autobiographical. I'm guessing the stress is on the "semi."
RO: When I watch the play I can see where most of the scenes come from... they are all from real life experience and most of the more surreal things are absolutely true...
WB: Bootycandy is not a conventional play in structure: although the character Sutter shows up in several scenes, there's no "one story" for the audience to follow. You've said the play was somewhat inspired by George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum. Wolfe was an early mentor of yours. How is Bootycandy related to The Colored Museum?
RO: The Colored Museum explored a conversation surrounding race, gender, history and sexuality among many other things. And just like when you walk through certain exhibits, the narrative comes from your experience rather than someone telling you “this is the beginning middle and end...” Bootycandy is also a conversation surrounding race, gender, personal history and sexuality. And yes, George was an early mentor to me and it was an overwhelming experience... He is a fierce, complicated Genius. PERIOD.
I chose to drag Sutter through the piece by way of his experiences with sex, authority and race. I don't know if there is a unifying metaphor: the one I'm using for the Wilma production is Vaudeville, but I think good plays allow many different metaphors to be found inside. Each production should find their own. I will say that on the front door of the Bootycandy exhibit is the sign, "Everyone is Welcome, No One is Safe".
WB: What’s important to you about Vaudeville as a metaphor?
RO: I think it’s really the "idea" of Vaudeville, rather than Vaudeville in reality... I like the idea of it being sort of popular entertainment as opposed to the “High Art” that theater sometimes becomes. In Vaudeville there are Acts or Sketches, there the a "Straight" man, the Clowns/Fools, Animal Acts . . . it’s all over the place. Vaudeville’s motto was "if you don't like those apples I got others." It reminds me of the Sundays after church with my granny and gramps sitting watching these different shows that made us laugh. . . like the Carol Burnett Show,which I watched religiously with my grandparents, as well as Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk. I am interested in the average person's idea of Vaudeville and what links to our contemporary entertainment it has. . . so this is contemporary Vaudeville. . .
WB: You have an active career as both a writer and a director. How did you build your career? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
RO: Trust me, it wasn't easy. But I think it was about me staying inside a creative spirit even when I wasn't necessarily being given outlets for my creativity. I found several artistic homes which helped sustain me - New York Shakespeare Festival and American Conservatory Theater were early artistic homes and remain so. Carey Perloff remains an important mentor of mine. I've been able to add Woolly Mammoth and Steppenwolf to that list as well as City Theater and hopefully now Wilma. I've tried to build relationships with each of the theaters I've worked at - some are more successful than others. Right now I have a Mellon Residency at Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC: they gave me a Desk and I was like, "wow, so this is what it feels like to come to work at a desk." I had no idea how to dial the phone, I was actually wondering how I could upload my phone book from my iPhone. There were so many small adjustments, like anyone walking pass your desk can see what you're looking at on your computer screen - THATS CRAZY... I have also had a lot of people help me through a lot of tough times... many folks that I will never know had a hand in giving me grants and fellowships and just sending good thoughts my way. Teaching has also provided me with a life line over the years.
There are many advantages to being both a writer and a director. One is that when you want a break from one job you can go off and do the other. A disadvantage is that sometimes the Playwright has to give up a few opportunities because the Director has decided to go off and work with another playwright on their work, but most times they feed one another... most times it actually helps the Writer to be able to think about something else other than the play he's writing... then when he comes back to it he can see it with fresh eyes. Iit goes both ways... writing a play gives me perspective on whatever I'm directing...
Pictured: Carol Burnett in the Carol Burnett Show