December 2, 2021

How Deirdre O’Connell of ‘Dana H’ Turned a Broadway Star, With out Saying a Phrase

11 min read


Will probably be exhausting, Deirdre O’Connell says, to say goodbye—for now no less than—to Dana H. on the finish of this week. The off-Broadway play, which transferred to a reopened Broadway alongside Is This A Room? to create a repertory double hit on the Lyceum Theatre, will shut on November 28.

O’Connell is making ready for a level of separation anxiousness from her alter ego, Dana Higginbotham, the playwright Lucas Hnath’s mom whose expertise of kidnapping and violence by the hands of a deranged psychopath O’Connell brings to distinctive life on stage in Hnath’s play. We hear Higginbotham’s voice recite her personal searing, deeply disturbing testimony, which O’Connell lip-synchs.

As an viewers, we don’t take our eyes off O’Connell, whose face tells us as a lot as Higginbotham’s phrases. It was a shock, given the common crucial reward for each exhibits and response of audiences, that the closing of the exhibits was introduced, then an equally shocking reprieve, extending their stage life to the top of this month. Many will probably be hoping for an additional miracle so their lifespans is likely to be prolonged additional. Tony nominations for the exhibits, together with their leads O’Connell and Is This A Room’s Emily Davis, could be well-merited.

O’Connell, a dedicatedly downtown actor, says she by no means had expectations of any Broadway success. On TV in recent times, The Affair followers would acknowledge her as Athena, Alison’s (Ruth Wilson) hippy-dippy mom. With Dana H., she feels grateful to have been “caught within the crosshairs of many geniuses. I used to be a powerful participant in making the piece. I used to be not a puppet on this. However the imaginative and prescient and readability of the artists concerned is an incredible amalgam, and one which none of us knew would work.”

“Will probably be exhausting to say goodbye to her, and that’s not at all times the case with characters,” O’Connell says. “I’m normally fairly good at saying goodbye to my roles. I’m not sentimental like that. However Dana H. has gotten underneath my pores and skin, and throughout the course of of making this drama, an odd factor has occurred to me. I really like this character a lot it is going to really feel like a little bit little bit of a demise. That’s exhausting. I really feel protecting of her. I really feel it is my job to guard her, and her toughness and spirituality.

Even when we really feel these conditions couldn’t occur to us, Dana is keen to do the sort of work that we aren’t, and keen to show herself in methods lots of people don’t.

Deirdre O’Connell

“That is sort of outstanding to me as a result of I don’t know if I’ve both of these issues in myself to the extent that she has. Her willingness to place this story out there’s wonderful, given so many individuals say, ‘How may have this occurred to you?’ ‘What’s incorrect with you?’ I believe it’s because it’s terrifying to us. Even when we really feel these conditions couldn’t occur to us, Dana is keen to do the sort of work that we aren’t, and keen to show herself in methods lots of people don’t.”

For the play first to be canceled had been shocking for O’Connell given the nice and cozy reception of audiences and critics. “We had been all extremely unhappy. I felt like an abject failure. Then once I came upon we had been extending, I used to be beside myself completely happy. It was a Thanksgiving miracle. It was additionally earned, for each exhibits.” Whereas the top is in sight, O’Connell says she wouldn’t thoughts if it prolonged once more by February. Theater followers will cross their fingers.

“I used to be hesitant, as a result of I questioned if I’d hate to do it”

O’Connell has additionally been completely happy to be again within the theater after a 12 months and a half of making theater on Zoom. “Wants should” and all that, however O’Connell says she at all times discovered herself feeling “very self-conscious and really embarrassed afterwards. It took me 24 hours to recuperate. Zoom makes it really feel such as you’re turning an performing machine on. We’re pretending to have interactions, not exhibiting off our capability to interpret materials and have emotional vulnerability.”

Making Dana H. was, at first no less than, its personal minefield. It’s a distinctive piece of theater, with O’Connell’s memorization of the textual content, her silent habitation of the lead character, and her means to lip-synch and interpret Higginbotham’s phrases in real-time—she has them piped into her ears; we take heed to them on audio system—the keys to the success of her astonishing theatrical tightrope stroll.

O’Connell mentioned she was nervous for her personal “egocentric causes, that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know if I had an affinity for it. Would it not really feel claustrophobic, the alternative of creative freedom? Would I really feel like an automaton to this factor? It was going to take so lengthy to be taught and rehearse it, and I used to be signing on to do it at a number of totally different venues. I used to be hesitant, as a result of I questioned if I’d hate to do it. So, there have been these fears, however as soon as we had been doing it in rehearsals, I knew I liked doing it. And we, as an organization, knew we liked doing it.”

It’s like being a live performance pianist. When it’s going nicely, you are feeling actually clear.

Deirdre O’Connell

For O’Connell, the important thing to performing the piece was to memorize sections, after which “give in to the bizarre give up of it.” She has it so down pat and technically exact that she is aware of if she is the slightest bit forward of Higginbotham within the lip-synch, or behind. She finds herself generally considering, “Oh shoot, I want I may have gotten that final part a bit higher,” “I’m a bit nervous of the part arising,” “Oh good, I like this part arising.” Her thoughts must be “actually clear,” she mentioned. “It’s like being a live performance pianist. When it’s going nicely, you are feeling actually clear.”

On the outset, O’Connell mentioned the crew knew that Dana H. was “odd and attention-grabbing” to do. Rehearsals had gone nicely. However the fear remained that when an viewers noticed it, they might stroll out saying, “What is that this?”

This reporter questioned what her intention was: an act of mimicry, lip-synching, an inhabitation? O’Connell says the efficiency has modified as time has gone on, certainly adjustments efficiency to efficiency. At first it was a technical train to grasp, and O’Connell turned “very unforgiving” of herself when her timing is a little bit off. “My requirements at the moment are very excessive for what an ideal technical present is. However an ideal, technical present shouldn’t be actually my aim, although I like them to be like that. It’s fairly an unpredictable experience in what comes up for me. It’s at all times taking me someplace I didn’t count on.”

Deirdre O’Connell in “Dana H.”

Chad Batka

Higginbotham has been to see the present thrice, mentioned O’Connell. The primary few occasions she was nervous about what Higginbotham considered her. “I used to be considering, ‘What offers me the balls to assume I may do that? What proper do I’ve, in mild of this already having occurred and he or she sitting within the room in all probability being re-traumatized by me doing it?’ However one way or the other, when I’ve performed it nonetheless many a whole lot of occasions, it felt proper to do the piece. I didn’t essentially really feel that at the beginning if she was there, however I’ve a unique degree of possession of the character now.”

The primary time Higginbotham noticed it she advised O’Connell, “I’m happy.” The second time she noticed it, O’Connell says, she mentioned, “Now it’s yours,” which felt like “an enormous knighting of me,” says O’Connell. When she got here to the Broadway manufacturing, sheer numbers of individuals prevented the ladies from talking. O’Connell laughed that when she first received the function she had needed to go to go to Higginbotham to talk to her and absorb as a lot of her life as attainable. “There was at all times a scheduling downside stopping me from taking the journey. Finally, I used to be like, ‘OK, I’m giving up. All the things I must know will probably be on this tape.’”

Dana noticed inside a closed door, and got here again to us to inform the story.

Deirdre O’Connell

This critic and others have raised questions in regards to the real-life occasions round what occurred to Higginbotham that the play doesn’t clarify—how she stayed lacking for thus lengthy, whether or not there have been searches for her, whether or not Hnath knew his mom was lacking, and what occurred earlier than and after sure conditions we see. O’Connell, with out wishing to elaborate on specifics, says she was “given entry to extra materials which answered a number of the questions I had. It turned clearer and clearer to me.” For Hnath, it was a fatefully excellent storm of occasions, which allowed her assailant to have entry to Higginbotham.

His actions, mentioned O’Connell, had given her a window into the “blood and protein” of white supremacists, and their hyperlinks to regulation enforcement. “Dana noticed inside a closed door, and got here again to us to inform the story,” mentioned O’Connell. The play, in graphic phrases, makes clear how imperiled Higginbotham was. “Like folks in dangerous marriages know, the worst second is the second if you determine to go away,” says O’Connell. “He turned extra unhinged as time glided by. He received crazier.”

O’Connell is at all times happiest when she reaches the final passages of Dana H., the place Higginbotham’s path to security swims into view. She too feels “smacked round” by the textual content, each—as Higginbotham herself has performed—“negotiating methods to inform the story, and in addition surviving telling the story on the similar time.”

It is such a novel factor to stage, the manufacturing crew went to quite a few Broadway levels to determine the most effective match final summer season. The Lyceum works, says O’Connell, due to its intimacy. The play, “an empathy machine,” as she places it, hits the viewers most instantly in such a small, contained house. She will really feel the stillness of us watching her, even when the intense lights imply she will’t see a sea of masked faces. “I really feel the focus of the viewers,” she says.

I used to be by no means somebody who was like, ‘I need to get on Broadway’

The present is a profession excessive. O’Connell grew up in Massachusetts, having fun with performing in native theater from a younger age. In her early 40s, she says she thought she ought to generate profits, so she moved to Los Angeles, the place she performed “the sidekick or a finest good friend” in made-for-TV films. However she turned so artistically disenchanted that she moved again to New York. Frugality is her good friend. As she has aged, she has grow to be extra conscious of “the athleticism of being an actor” in an effort to do the most effective work, particularly doing eight performances every week.

“I used to be by no means somebody who was like, ‘I need to get on Broadway.’ I needed to be an actor, and have gotten to do this for longer than I anticipated. I didn’t have a way of being denied one thing that I deserved or had earned. I didn’t have that feeling in direction of Broadway. But it surely’s been very good that it’s proven an experimental piece of theater could make it on Broadway, and that we must always not underestimate Broadway audiences’ sophistication.” O’Connell thinks Broadway is not going to solely survive however with the profitable examples of Is This A Room and Dana H. begins to evolve in what it exhibits.

Deirdre O’Connell in “Dana H.”

Chad Batka

O’Connell laughs as she recalled ready for her cousin, not close to the theater, and being acknowledged by a stranger on the road. She has “by no means imagined being in an eligible class for a Tony award,” however could be. “I’m very completely happy the piece has received a lot recognition,” she says. “The actual fact it occurred throughout the pandemic feels significant too. It’s been such a darkish time.”

She is going to discover out if Dana H. brings an elevated vary {of professional} alternatives—the following play she has within the diary is one this coming summer season. There’s not a paucity of roles for older feminine actors on stage, O’Connell says, though “with movie and TV I don’t count on a hell of quite a bit.”

You might be watching this unusual act which is extra than simply pretending. It’s a science experiment!

Deirdre O’Connell

After I ask if she has grow to be proprietary of Dana H., which has up to now been solely her function to carry out, she says, “If anyone else does it, they’ll understand anybody can do it, and in the intervening time everybody thinks I’m the one one who can do it! In the course of the pandemic, it felt like treading water questioning if I’d carry out it once more. I questioned, ‘Am I by no means once more going to do a kind of performs the place you learn the traces, fake to have ideas, and say them?’ However as soon as we began working in it once more, I simply felt extremely grateful that we had a bit to rebuild, fairly than construct from scratch.”

The “empathy machine” O’Connell employs night time after night time to transmit the story requires totally different ranges of simpatico with the supply materials, she mentioned. She recalled seeing Fires within the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith’s theatrical piece in regards to the 1991 Crown Heights riot, and the way her inhabitation of so many characters “was like watching a religious act. Anyone placing themselves by that leads to empathy. It was like science. She was turning herself right into a petri dish. It was thrilling to me. There wasn’t simply this factor she needed to speak, she needed to place herself by the toothpaste tube of different folks’s language. I hope for related causes Dana H. is compelling—you might be watching this unusual act which is extra than simply pretending. It’s a science experiment!”

“I really feel extraordinarily fortunate and very completely happy proper now, that’s the essential feeling,” says O’Connell, laughing once more in farewell. “If I can’t be completely happy proper now, I would want critical treatment.”



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