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The Key Ingredient of Collaboration? Generosity.


Playwright Robert O’Hara (left) and director Colman Domingo

Theater is undoubtedly a collaborative art form. One of the most significant points of collaboration on a new play exists between the writer and the director. Some of the great writer/director collaborations in theater history include Elia Kazan’s direction of both Arthur Miller’s and Tennessee Williams’ plays. He is credited with helping to shape what those modern classics ultimately became. More recent examples include Lloyd Richards’ direction of August Wilson’s work, Les Waters’ affinity for Caryl Churchill and the longstanding collaboration of Donald Margulies and Daniel Sullivan.

Writers learn to entrust their work to specific directors and once these artists have established a common language, their desire to collaborate time and again is understandably strong. In the case of Robert O’Hara (playwright) and Colman Domingo (director), they have worked together on numerous projects in a myriad of ways. Because they are both actors, writers and directors (among other things), the experience they bring into the process varies greatly from that of a traditional writer/director partnership. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Robert and Colman about working together on Barbecue.

It’s a rare occurrence for a writer and a director to “swap” roles. Robert, when you directed Colman’s play Wild with Happy, what was it about the collaboration that made you keen to have Colman directBarbecue? And Colman, same question to you in terms of changing roles.

Colman Domingo: I don’t really consider these roles as opposite. Robert is a brilliant collaborator whether it be as a writer, director, dramaturg or actor. He is one of the smartest, most passionate people I know and his work is incredibly relevant and necessary. It’s a collaboration that just makes sense to us.

Robert O’Hara: What Colman said… it’s a pleasure to know that you are putting a new play in the hands of an artist you trust and that can be as a director, actor, writer — Colman and I don’t have a problem moving from one role to another. The process is fluid because we can communicate about the work.

Robert, what was the spark that inspired you to write Barbecue?

RO: I was commissioned by Steppenwolf to write a new play and in our initial conversations about the project, there was a desire for the focus to be on race. In other words, what did black people want to say about race? And although I kept that in mind, it wasn’t driving me to a story. Around this time I was watching A LOT of that show Intervention. [Intervention is a television series that follows one or two participants per episode, each of whom has a substance dependence or other type of severe addiction. The subjects believe they are being filmed for a documentary on their problem, but their situations are actually being documented in anticipation of an intervention by family and/or friends.] I was struck by the fact that in each of these episodes, the people being intervened on were mostly not middle class and mostly not black. It led me to questions about the nature of storytelling. Who gets to tell these stories and how do they decide which stories to tell? Who is getting “intervened” on? So class was in the conversation now, too. The story sprung up from there.

And Colman, what attracted you to the play?

CD: I was initially involved with it as an actor. I was in a very early workshop of the play as James T and it was laugh-out-loud funny. These characters are written with such bite and humor but they are also brutally honest. It’s the best kind of character to play. So when I was approached to direct this, there was no question about it. What appeals to me most about Robert’s work and this play in particular is that he goes straight to the heart of these very broken, desperate, striving human beings who are such a part of our cultural zeitgeist right now. Whether he’s looking at the entertainment industry or elsewhere, he’s touching on an open sore of our humanity. But in that, he finds gravitas and humor and employs searing, rich language to tell the story.

And you feel these qualities are consistent in Robert’s work on the whole?

CD: Yes, absolutely. This is true in Robert’s work because of his ear and how he hears people. Like any amazing writer, he writes from what he knows but he’s able to lift it into this heightened, theatrical sensibility that forces us to really examine the subject — but still, always with a wink.

What does each of you seek in collaborators?

CD: Generosity. If you surround yourself with generous, talented people, the work is always stronger. I’ve found that generosity in collaboration is more important than anything else as theater is totally dependent on the work of everyone involved in the process.

RO: I need to feel comfortable leaving my “child” in the room with someone and knowing I’m not going to come back to find a dead kid. I’m a believer in the idea that you need to be careful who you go to bed with because that’s what your children are going to look like! Surround your play with the right people and it’s much easier to let them do their work and get the play up.

Barbecue is truly an ensemble piece wherein the success of each actor is totally dependent on the other people onstage. When you were casting the play, what specific things did you seek in actors?

CD: It’s important that people who came in to read weren’t playing at the character but that they really had a sense of who these people are and a knowledge of where they’re coming from. They are all very human and — in that — very fractured. The actors had to be unafraid to get in the mud and play the stakes rather than playing at personas.

RO: In comedy, there’s a tendency to play the joke and it’s always far more important to play the truth of the moment.

CD: The actors really need to lay off of Robert’s language, meaning that they can’t know how funny they are. With a piece this funny, that’s not always easy. But as Robert said, it’s all about playing the truth.

Working on a new play (or even an old play), I’m always surprised how much I learn once I’m in the rehearsal process. Colman, what, if anything, has surprised/delighted/confounded you about this play now that you are in rehearsals?

CD: Robert’s work is such that, on the surface, you think you understand it, and then there are complications that continually arise. The things you thought were so black and white are now really grey because he leaves room for interpretation. The challenging thing is that you’re dealing with an ensemble of ten people, which means ten different sets of needs, wants and points of view. In rehearsal today, we are going to revisit the question, “what do you think this play is?” Because we’ve unpacked the play so well, it’s possible that we’re all looking at it from different perspectives. So we have to incorporate all of these ideas and boil it down into one: identify the motor of the play, how it moves, how the second act varies from the first. And because this play really does break form, we all need to be comfortable with that. All of these questions and complications are part of what makes for a great play.

By Amy Levinson

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