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A Glorious Train Wreck

by Aaron Carter

Aaron Carter: Let’s begin with a little background about your career. Did you start as a playwright or a director first? Robert O’Hara: I trained as a director. My MFA is in directing from Columbia University. But I was always a playwright. I actually started off as both, because the thing that launched my career was my thesis in directing, which I also wrote. It was sort of a calculated move because I knew that if I didn’t get work as a director I might be able to get work as a writer. So I was trying to put myself out there as a person who could do two things at once. AC: How did you first get interested in Marie Antoinette? Have you worked with David before? RO : I have never worked with David, but I’ve been a fan of his work for some time. I’m the Mellon Playwright in Residence at Woolly Mammoth, so I sit on the senior staff and administrate season planning. And we selected Marie Antoinette to open their season. I was the engine interested in it as both a fellow writer but also as a director, but ultimately I didn’t direct the production at Woolly Mammoth. AC: So what made you suggest it as a project for Steppenwolf, and particularly for Alana? RO : Well we knew we wanted to have a very interesting and exciting female lead because Alana is both those things. And in the play, the central character has to have a sense of humor, but she also goes to a really dark place. I actually didn’t think of the fact that she was African American until later. I just wanted to do the play because it’s period and funny and big and outrageous. And political! It has a sort of dirtiness to it, in that it plays fast and loose with how we think royalty is supposed to act. To see Alana—who is a very well put together individual—to see her go through all of this madness I thought would be quite exciting. AC : So, even though it wasn’t part of your initial impulse, do you think the fact that Alana is an African American actress will play into the meaning that is created by this piece? RO: I do. First of all, we don’t see black royalty. And when we do it’s because they’ve created an R&B song, or a hip hop song. We see it in the entertainment industry, but we don’t see it by birth. The choice of nontraditional casting is so immediate in this play, because it’s not like you could even pretend Marie Antoinette was remotely African American—it feels a little bit off. But Marie was a little bit off. She was a woman out of her own land, having to pretend to be something she was not: a French queen. That could actually be really exciting to parallel in terms of Alana being an African American playing a French queen. It’s like an Austrian playing a French Queen. AC : That’s such a great perspective, because the play itself is a very contemporary riff on historical events. How do you balance the play’s contemporary feel with historical accuracy? RO: Well I think that what David has written is a critique of historical accuracy. I don’t really know what that means, “historical accuracy,” because we’ve already debunked the idea that she said “Let them eat cake” and that was the big thing that everyone believed she said. And then somehow used that to justify her execution. I don’t want people to come into a theater and think they’re in 18th century France, that’s not interesting to me. I would like them to think they are watching something that is speaking to them right now. AC : Why do you think Marie Antoinette as a figure continues to have such a hold on popular culture? RO: I think we’re in love with train wrecks. And she was a glorious train wreck. It’s like the Titanic, or the Great Chicago Fire, or the earthquake in San Francisco—we’re fascinated with tragedy. Watching someone who we put up on a pedestal fall down is thrilling. It says something about our own humanity actually. So I want people to walk in to this world of royalty and make it a sort of high-end event. It will be beautiful— we’re going to wreck it, but you’re going to enjoy it. It’ll be like all the people who dressed up to go aboard the Titanic. You’re going to crash into an iceberg, but you’re going to have fun before that. AC : Do you think we’re fascinated by train wrecks because it’s comforting to know that we’re watching from safety? Is it just a vicarious thrill? RO : I think it’s actually a subconscious feeling that we are a train wreck ourselves. We all know in some way that the train we are on right now is going to crash. There is going to be another9/11, the environment is going to be destroyed, a bridge is going to fall down. You know it’s all going to blow up. And I live in New York City, I get on the train— it’s like, this suspension of disbelief. Like we’re just going to get through this moment. I think it is American anxiety, but also moral anxiety that attracts us to watching someone else in trauma. AC : Do you have a sense of how rehearsals are going to unfold or is your directing process something you discover as you go with each text? RO : I don’t know what the process is going to be, butI do know that I like rehearsals to be a creative environment where anything can happen—and then we all light upon something that speaks to all of us. There’s something about it being done at Steppenwolf, there’s something about it being done by a black woman, there’s something about all the women in the play are black, there’s something about, you know, a French queen. I’d like to see what it is that those things stir up. I like to challenge what is on the page, and what we’re going to interpret from it being on the page, and why is that necessary, why it is done that way. AC : Well that was my favorite thing and simultaneously the most frustrating thing about working with you as a director on my play The Gospel of Franklin. You wouldn’t let anything rest; you’d either improve it or cut it. RO: Right! Otherwise go home and read it to your wife and kids. AC: Well, I’m excited to see what you stir up.