For O’Connors, Blair Theatre is much more than a show
By Kevin Adler
Rehearsal at a Kelly O’Connor theater production is like any other rehearsal—if that other rehearsal has two casts, a full orchestra, ongoing set construction, a dozen volunteers racing around, and the director’s husband, mother and father onsite.
That’s a typical Saturday afternoon for Kelly, a Takoma Park resident and the director of the Blair Theatre Program since 1998. She is directing this month’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”
While the lead actors and ensemble run through the song “To Life,” Kelly is backstage, working on costume fittings. Former Blair student Vera Belaia, visiting for the weekend, directs the 30 actors, and former student Brandon Crabtree leads the stage crew
Then Kelly, a sprightly blonde who looks scarcely older than some of her actors, returns to the stage mid-song. When it’s finished, she demonstrates a flourish for the dancers and asks the construction crew to move a house at a sharper angle to the audience.
Meanwhile, the understudies take their places for their run-through of “To Life,” and Kelly confers with Vocal Director Jennifer McGinnis. During the song, Kelly exchanges whispered observations with husband and collaborator John O’Connor before dashing backstage again.
“How does it come together? As Philip Henslowe says in the movie ‘Shakespeare in Love’: ‘I don’t know. It’s a mystery,’” John says.
Mystery, but it works. “I tell my students in my theater classes that you have to take risks…like speaking in public or singing. These skills will have benefits for the rest of their lives,” Kelly says.
“It’s not about making great actors,” adds John, though the O’Connors have inspired dozens of students to major in the performing arts in college. “It’s about learning teamwork and meeting deadlines. And it’s about equipping the students to understand theater, to be prepared to read a play and understand a play.”
Directing and acting are year-round activities for the pair, with fall and spring plays at Blair; writing, directing and acting in Lumina Theater’s adult group; and a summer Shakespeare course in Oxford, England.
“I tell my students in my theater classes that you have to take risks…like speaking in public or singing.”
Each spring, Blair’s musical fills the stage with casts of 40 or more, plus a live student orchestra. “Fiddler” is the weekends of April 24-26 and May 1-2.
Each fall, Blair does a “black box” performance of a drama or comedy, with bleacher-style seating for about 200. Last fall was “Treasure Island,” but two out of three years are Shakespeare. “Shakespeare isn’t easy, but it’s so important for students to start to get hold of that language. And when they get hold of it, it stays with them forever,” Kelly says.
And there are practical reasons, too. “No royalties. Lots of speaking parts,” John laughed.
Plus, in both spring and fall, the students in Kelly’s Blair drama classes perform scaled-down plays from scenes stitched together by John. On May 21-22, they will be showcasing British comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse, free to the public.
Preparation for every show begins with a close reading and discussion of the text, often led by John, a Shakespeare scholar and professor. (Kelly and John met when she took his Shakespeare summer course in Oxford and returned for several years to join his acting company, Cakes and Ale, in England.)
“We ask the kids what questions they have about the scenes they have read. Often what they think is the dumbest question is the one that gets to the heart of the play,” he said.
From there, Kelly works on concepts for sets, costumes and on-stage blocking, backed by legions of student and parent volunteers. This year, for example, Blair senior Dio Cramer took almost complete charge of the set design for “Fiddler,” evoking Cubist artists such as Georges Braque.
Even when rehearsals begin, change is in the air. “We don’t impose blocking at the start. We watch what the actors do, and our job is to say, ‘I really like what you did, keep it in,’” John says.
“We watch what the actors do, and our job is to say, ‘I really like what you did, keep it in,’”
This level of openness extends to welcoming Blair students from every part of the giant school, magnet programs to ESOL. It means giving new actors big roles earlier than they might expect, and graduating students from ensemble to lead roles over the years.
“Kelly and John will give an opportunity to a student that you just don’t see other programs doing. It can be adding a student to the ensemble, or making unexpected choices for lead actors,” said Joan McFarland, a parent volunteer whose daughter Samantha Chyatte is one of the leads in “Fiddler.”
Langston Cotman was given the role of Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls” as a ninth grader, in the first play for which he auditioned. “I went and hammed it up and smiled my butt off. The O’Connors took a chance on me,” he said.
From this start, Cotman was in six plays in four years. “They coach you up, and it’s more than just learning your lines. They spent a lot of extra time with me,” said the 2014 Blair graduate.
Now taking a gap year before starting college in the fall, Cotman got his first chance on a semi-professional stage through the O’Connors. He was in Lumina Theater’s adult production of “Our Mutual Friend” in February. Naturally, Kelly played one of the female leads, and John wrote the play as an adaptation of the Dickens novel.
Whether at Blair or Lumina, professionalism is a byword with the O’Connors. Rehearsals start on time; costumes and dances are authentic to their period; actors understand their characters. It even comes down to the smallest detail, like an onstage kiss. “We teach them the ‘fivesecond rule’ for kisses,” said John. “If they hold that kiss for five seconds, it looks real.”
Remarkably, however, neither Kelly nor John have college degrees in drama, though Kelly minored in theater at Catholic University. “I’ve learned by doing,” she said. “I love the rehearsal process, of it all coming together…of seeing what students respond to.”
One way the O’Connors incorporate so many students in the musicals is to use “over-studies” and understudies, basically two sets of lead actors. The understudies are guaranteed one performance. For the fall play, the O’Connors build two separate casts, in order to maximize participation.
“It takes a lot of extra work and dedication on their part,” said McFarland, who is one of two vocal directors this spring and is a professional choral conductor and singer.
Inclusiveness doesn’t just come in numbers, either. “The O’Connors are not afraid to take students who don’t have the typical stage ‘look’ or presence, and work with them,” added Judith Arbacher, president of the Blair Theatre Boosters and parent of Rachel, who is the grandmother in “Fiddler.”
“It’s marvelous because kids come to the play and see someone onstage who looks like them, rather than what you see on TV,” said Arbacher. “For some kids in our community, this might be the only live theater that they see, so it’s even more meaningful.”
Brothers Audrey and Fridien Tchoukoua, who moved to Silver Spring from Cameroon as teens, are examples of how inclusiveness can change lives. With limited English, neither would have seemed to be a likely theater star, but John and Kelly saw something special. Fast-forward a few years, and the brothers are at Sewanee University on full scholarships, Audrey studying theater.
“I was taking ESOL, and my goal was to learn English, to think in English, to be culturally immersed in it,” said Audrey. “I can hold a tune and sing with passion, but I had never acted, never seen a professional play.”
His singing audition wowed Kelly, and Audrey instantly became part of the Blair Theatre extended family. “Kelly worked with me to learn pronunciation of American vowels. And they taught me so much about the importance of the collective work of the theater. Those were some of the most meaningful and memorable moments of my life,” he said.
The program’s support went a step further when Audrey was a senior and cast as “Les Miserables” star Jean Valjean. With family finances tight, Audrey’s mother wanted him to take an after-school job rather than the play. Instead, the Blair Boosters funded a “fellowship” for him that was the equivalent of what he could have earned that spring. “I’ll never forget it,” Audrey said.
It’s all part of the “no detail left unattended” attitude that drives the O’Connors.
Kelly admits she’s obsessed with costumes, and she’s forever sewing and tailoring for the perfect effect. She, her parents and John haunt local thrifts and craft stores for costumes and props, the latter of which take up residence in the O’Connor home. “We have a phonograph in our living room that we bought at Value Village that has probably been in a half-dozen shows,” says John.
Their house on Tulip Avenue in Takoma Park is a tribute to the written word. Busts of poets and playwrights, packed bookshelves, and theater posters – as well as umbrella stands, medallions, teacups, and many other curiosities – are the perfect backdrop for occasional theatrical readings and a steady flow of visits from students.
Add it up, and it’s a package that has influence far beyond a few kids for a few high school years. For 2004 Blair graduate Jordan (McCraw) Thorley, Kelly is a model for her career as a high school drama teacher in Gloucestershire, England. “Everyone wanted to be around her,” said Thorley. “It was a happy place to be in high school.”
Thorley said that she applies the lessons she learned acting and on stage crew, from how to run auditions to the importance of giving students a voice. “I love how Kelly gave us creative freedom. It’s particularly important in England, where academics are so examination-based, even in drama,” she said.
A few years ago, Thorley brought some of her students to the U.S., and they watched the Blair performance of “Taming of the Shrew.” “My students were awed. They thought there would be no way these Americans would understand it—because my students have trouble engaging with Shakespeare. But Kelly and John have the ability to make classical works relevant for 15 year-olds. It’s a gift,” Thorley said.
That gift goes both ways, as the students inspire the O’Connors just as much as they inspire the students. “There’s something that young actors bring to the stage. I think it’s the heart-on-the-sleeve emotions that are a part of teenage life. Even if a professional actor is more technically proficient, the way that kids are living in the moment adds a special quality to the plays,” Kelly says.
This article appeared in the May 2015 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.