Deirdre O’Connell On the Rewards of the Off-Broadway Life

O’Connell in ‘Dana H’ at Lyceum Theatre, October 1, 2021. Chad Batka

Since 1986, Lucille Lortel has additionally been an award, one which salutes excellence in New York’s Off-Broadway enviornment. Come this Sunday, the 37th batch of Lucille Lortel Awards can be handed out—18 in all, amid a lot ceremony—on the NYU Skirball Middle. One of the recipients already recognized seems to be one in every of Off-Broadway’s most fiercely devoted. As George Forbes, Government Director of the Lucille Lortel Theater, reasoned: “It would have been hard for us to find a more deserving actor than ‘Didi’ O’Connell to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Didi did all of it proper, alright! The titian-haired, 68-year-old actress—in any other case billed as Deirdre O’Connell—spent 5 many years toiling contently and creatively within the low-budget vineyards of Off-Broadway. Her final winery was the Winery Theater in Lucas Hnath’s 2020 Dana H. That obtained her an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Lortel for Excellent Solo Efficiency—plus a Particular Quotation from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. It transferred uptown to Broadway’s Lyceum.

A long time actually separate O’Connell’s three Broadway appearances. She debuted there in 1986, enjoying Mollie Malloy, the wanton floozy who leaps out of a pressroom window, in a two-month run of The Entrance Web page at Lincoln Middle. In 2012, for an unexpectedly quick one-month run on the Longacre Theater, she was mother to basketball’s Larry Hen in Magic/Hen. Then—final October and November—as Dana H., she mentioned not a phrase however lip-synched 75 agonizing minutes to a recording.

This recording was of a lady (the playwright’s mom) recounting to a priest the 5 months of abuse she endured from an ex-con who kidnapped her when she was attempting to convey him again from suicide makes an attempt because the chaplin of a hospital. The docu-drama retelling of this occasion was wholly the playwright’s thought.

“Lucas saw me in Maria Irene Fornes’ play, Mud, at the Signature 1001 years ago,” O’Connell immodestly estimates, “and he was struck by how much I reminded him on a visceral level of his mother. He and the director, Les Waters, knew what the piece should be and had workshopped it a bit before they came to me. They sat down with me and described what they wanted to do. I had no idea whether I would be able to do it, number one, or how claustrophobic and terrible I would feel doing it, number two. I had to dive in without ever having seen anybody do it and without ever knowing I’d actually enjoy the feeling of it. I couldn’t tell. I knew I was going to have to do the labor of learning it before I knew whether it was something that I would like performing at all.”

Studying the textual content was no day within the nation—or month, for that matter. It was “several months,” by her depend. “I put the dialogue on a page—that’s how I’m used to learning it—then I learned it in my ear. The interesting, horrible, sorta neurological fact was I could spend a day learning two pages and then spend a day learning that equivalent by ear, and, when it came time to take everything and put it together, they would cancel each other out, shatter each other in my brain. I’d be left with nothing and think ‘This is an impossible thing.’ Then, gradually, my brain learned how to do it.”

A lip-synch coach (and someday magician), Steve Cuiffo, helped her by means of it. “He was like a singing coach. He would sit patiently and listen to me do it—a lot—then he would point out really specific problems in trying to catch this lighting in a bottle. It was a million tiny technical things.”

O’Connell was Dana H. at 4 totally different venues—in L.A., Chicago, and at last New York on the Winery and Lyceum, every gig punctuated by intervals of forgetfulness and arduous relearning. 

She admits she’s amazed Dana H. made it to Broadway. “That didn’t seem possible. It didn’t even seem like a goal. Getting to the Vineyard was the goal, but, in the context of the pandemic and stopping for a year and a half, it was a delicious way to finish it. I didn’t feel like I was going back to something. I was walking straight into something I didn’t know anything about.”

The expertise of this play has left a stunning afterglow together with her, little doubt from the actual fact she met a problem with a triumph. Such is the stuff that triggered the Lortel Lifetime Achievement prize.

Belatedly, she realized how a lot she cherished Dana H. “A couple of days before we closed, I thought my heart would literally break and explode in my chest from sorrow or from the overwhelming fear of letting go of it. We can always say, ‘We’ll probably get to go to London with it,’ so we didn’t have to think this is the final time. I don’t think I could bear to think that.”

4 months on Broadway out of fifty years of theater would possibly frustrate most actors. Not O’Connell. She’s comfy with the loneliness of the quick distance runner. “I’d a lot reasonably do two new performs in a 12 months and get to work on the event course of on a brand new piece of writing than do a future on Broadway. That isn’t the life I need—to get to Broadway and make some huge cash.

“I don’t like doing things for a really, really long time. The idea of just signing a contract that would go for a year or two and know that I would be just doing that same thing scares me. I’ve managed to be comfortable not having very much money. I still have a rent-stabilized apartment, and, somehow, I’m resigned to it in a funny way. It was never my goal. Honestly, if I were a singer or a dancer, I would probably feel very differently. That would really be fun.”

She had no downside signing up for a restricted run of The Entrance Web page as a result of she may see the sunshine on the finish of the tunnel. “It was a beautiful opportunity to be with all of these character guys who had been doing this sort of thing for a million years and could do it perfectly. Plus, I got to share a dressing room with Julie Hagerty. We did a Caesar Salad Tour of the Lincoln Center area. Every matinee day, we’d try another place. There were great Caesar salads in those days.”

The rub got here with Magic/Hen, which had hopes of a future. “Do you know what a scaredy-cat I am? I could not bring myself to sign a contract for a year, so I took a really big cut in pay.”

O’Connell’s fondest recollections are situated Off-Broadway and in regional theaters. 

Etta Jenks, which she performed for the Apple Corps Theater in 1988, has remained a primal favourite. “It was about a girl who comes to Los Angeles to be a movie star and becomes a porn star instead. The porn industry is where the story’s laid, but, basically, it’s about a woman’s journey into corruption and how she pulls herself out of it. It was an exciting piece of theater—very dark and very funny, with a lot of great parts. I loved playing that character. I just loved her.”

One other abiding love is Circle Mirror Transformation, which she did at Playwrights Horizons in 2009. “I still think of that dressing room as one of the happiest homes I’ve ever been in. What a combination of actors! We were all equally invested and scared and happy. That was a beautiful family. The thing about that dressing room—I always think, ‘Why can’t we just be back in that dressing room?’ Sometimes, we’ll get together and have drinks—but it’s not like that time between half-hour and when you go on. You’re in a different state of mind. You can’t capture it.”

There isn’t any doubt about it: it’s the actor’s life for O’Connell. She loves and exudes it. “I do! I do! I suppose that’s one of many issues that I’ve actually had to consider, getting this loopy factor that has the phrases ‘Lifetime’ and ‘Achievement’ on it. I don’t fairly—actually, really, and no faux humility about it—perceive the achievement, as a result of so many individuals obtain this. You simply put one foot in entrance of the opposite. And there are such a lot of actors on the market who do this.

“I sometimes feel like I’m a petri dish. What would it be like, if everything you ever learned about life, you learned from being in plays? It’s true. I’ll run across a word, and I’ll think, ‘Why do I know what that word means?’ And then I know. ‘Oh, yeah. Because I had it in a line one time.’”


Deirdre O’Connell On the Rewards of the Off-Broadway Life

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