Robert O’Hara on Directing ‘The Totalitarians’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

The notion that a single state could suddenly become a Totalitarian governed state here within the United States of America without anyone noticing is completely absurd. Right? Or is it? The witty political satire The Totalitarians at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company as the final offering of Season 34— America’s Tell-Tale Heart— discusses just such a notion. Sitting down with Director Robert O’Hara, we get the inside scoop of what it’s like to direct political satire here in the political capitol of the USA.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Robert. Please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us about your work with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. 

Robert O’Hara: I am a writer/director and my name is Robert O’Hara. I am a company member here at Woolly. I have directed a play that toured to Woolly called The Continuum. And then I wrote a play that Woolly produced about five years ago called Antebellum. And then I wrote and directed Booty Candy here at Woolly about three seasons ago in 2011. I’m really bad with dates, they all mesh together for me but I know all of this happened within the last ten years. I have directed at Arena Stage, I directed their production of The Mountaintop last season and I’ll be directing 5 Guys Named Moe this coming fall there as well. And right now I’m in the middle of directing The Totalitarians here at Woolly.

What was your interest to want to direct The Totalitarians here at Woolly?

Robert O'Hara. Photo courtesy of Mr. O'Hara.

Robert O’Hara. Photo courtesy of Mr. O’Hara.

I’m a company member. I’m actually in residence here, I’m the Mellon Playwright in residence at Woolly. The Mellon foundation picked 13 playwrights to embed into the senior staffs of theatres around the country. I was chosen after applying to be a part of that program here at Woolly Mammoth. For three years I am a part of the senior staff. I get full salary and health care and get to write plays for them while here. 13 playwrights around the country are doing this and so I go to all of the Artistic Staff meetings, the board meetings, I’m involved with a bunch of things here at Woolly because of being in residence and it gave me a chance to familiarize myself with the work before getting involved.

This play in particular was presented to the company members, the company members are allowed to read the season’s plays to see what they’re really interested in. I really loved and dug this play and asked if my hat could be put into the ring for it. I thought of the play as a vicious satire on politics which is so exciting to me. I attached myself to it as fast as I could. And that’s how I got involved and I’m very happy to be so.

Tell us a little bit about The Totalitarians.

The Totalitarians is a play about a woman named Penny Easter running for office in Nebraska. There is a conspiracy theory that she may be a part of a Totalitarian regime. That she wants to turn Nebraska into a Totalitarian state. So it is a satire on how politics and reality sometimes mesh in very interesting ways.

How do you feel The Totalitarians fits with Woolly Mammoth’s theme of Season 34: America’s Tell-Tale Heart?

Well I forget exactly how Woolly is marketing it as a part of the season, but for me it is that there is all this stuff underneath our American history and our political system that comes out when people run for office. It’s about what you hide in your heart that everyone who is challenging you is trying to get out. Whatever secrets you have, your opponents are trying to expose those secrets. In many ways a political campaign is a battleground marathon in a way.

The Tell-Tale Heart is a play— wait, it’s a story, a story about a man who hears this heart beating. And The Totalitarians ties into that by attaching the question of what is in your heart? What is important to you and can you overcome your morals and values to run for office? That’s where the play lands. You know most likely people who run for office do have to overcome those morals and values in order to succeed in the vicious world of politics. I would say that the majority of people running in politics have to compromise. In order to get the vote, you have to compromise, and that’s how you make it by getting those votes. You can’t please everybody. I think it’s quite obvious that people have changed their values in order to make it in politics, just look around us.

This play comes right on the heels of another recently politically-charged piece here at Woolly, Arguendo. What is it like directing a political satire right here in the middle of Washington, DC where politics is the central focus of the city you’re in?

Well Washington is a political satire. This city is a political satire to me.  So actually this is perfect play for this location. Woolly is known for pushing the envelope, and they are known for outrageousness. I can’t think of a better place to be directing this play. The playwright, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, is having three world premiers. This is actually part of what’s called a rolling world premier. This is the second production, the third one will happen a bit later in San Francisco. These three showings are all happening within the same year, the first of which happened in New Orleans at Southern Rep.

I think that it has more of an impact here in Washington DC because the audiences here will be different from the audiences you would get in New Orleans or San Francisco. Most people see politics on their television. You see the president and the white house as something viewed on your screen. Here it’s down the street. The buildings are all around you. The political center of our country is here. I think what those people carry into the theatre with them is different than if all they see of politics is the 6 o’clock news. It’s going to be very exciting to see the reactions of the audiences here.

What was the approach for casting this show?

We have two Woolly company members in the show. Dawn Ursula and Emily Townley. They’re both wonderful people to work with. They’re also completely and totally out of their minds. This sort of show requires people who are out of their minds. So we have those two company members and then we have two men. One was in the play that I directed, Booty Candy, and he will also be in a play of mine that is coming up next season. His name is Sean Meehan and I know he is someone that Woolly is very interested in and I find him to be quite an exciting and interesting actor.

The fourth man is a young actor by the name of Nick Loumos. He is a man out of Chicago. He is brand new out of college and a very exciting young actor. I knew him from when I had worked at his university a few years ago I was there doing a project. He stayed in touch and he auditioned— he and Sean both auditioned outside of Washington. We had people inside of Washington audition and then we had people outside of Washington audition. We never saw them on person, it was all done on video tape. But I had worked with them both before and I felt it would be a fabulous fit. And that’s how I found my cast.

What is the overall message you are hoping to send out with this production of The Totalitarians?

I don’t really think in messages when I direct. I’m in it, you know what I mean? I think the writer would have a better answer for you or maybe the publicist will have a better answer for you. But I guess for me the message we’re working with is how utterly insane and ridiculous politics is. That you sort of have to be slightly mental in order to go into politics. It is a profession where are always in front of people and those people regularly denigrate you. There is regularly a bunch of people standing around throwing rocks at your face. Who in their right mind would want that? You have to have some problem within your person in order for that to be something that you actually want to walk towards.

Then there is that embodiment of, “If I give you the right speech and put you in the right room you can be as stupid as you want to be and still be considered a leader.” So it’s about how stupidity rises, and how mediocrity floats. It’s also just hilarious. The play is just funny and dark. It’s like The Cohen Brothers doing a Richard Prior sort of Mad House…Animal Farm…shoot, what’s the name of that movie? Animal House? It’s like that. It’s insane behavior of politics on display.

As an artistic creative do you find yourself trying to gravitate away from politics or are you more invested?

Oh I’m completely invested. I write a lot about the ridiculousness of politics. I write satire a lot. I write political satire, I don’t know that I would consider myself to be a political satirist because I write all different kinds of things. But the one thing that I do satirize is politics and history, family and sexuality, ok so I satirize everything. It’s important that I’m up to date on what exactly is going on because you never know what could be new material. Washington DC is such a rich place for material. When you think of the amount of African Americans who are in the city, or the amount of homeless that are here in the city. You think all these things, how there’s taxation without representation, the poverty that’s in the city. And you think of the wealth too. I’ve always thought that DC is a place where politicians go to do the things that they can’t do in their home state. Very few politicians actually live in the city and this becomes almost like vacation for them in a way. Tax dollars hard at work paying for political vacation. If I have to go to a different town to work it’s not my home and I can act out in certain ways. And there is a lot of acting out going on here in Washington DC.

Why do you feel politics or political satire makes for good theatre?

Theatre is about conflict and drama. Politics is about conflict and drama. It is a place where we gather and exchange ideas. We see things, we have a conversation about something, and having politics in theatre helps us to see the world around us in a different light. Certainly politics is a part of our world. People’s rights and people’s political leanings are a part of our world. If you have the right to make a law that effects my well-being then I have a right to satirize that law and satirize you for making it. I’m allowed to have a conversation about it in the form that I feel comfortable with, which happens to be theatre.

Politics is in every place on earth. People who do data entry talk about politics. Every office in the city talks about politics. You go to a restaurant and people are talking about politics. It just happens to be where I live, I do theatre so politics come into that for me.

(left to right): Dawn Ursula (Francine), Emily Townley )(Penelope). Photo by Stan Barouh.

(left to right): Dawn Ursula (Francine), Emily Townley )(Penelope). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Do you think there is a strong relativity for the play’s setting -compared to the DC audience you are performing the show for?

I think it has a lot of relativity because where did Sarah Palin come from? I didn’t know where she came from. It was some small unheard of town in Alaska. Where did Michele Bachmann come from? Some small little place nobody’s ever heard of. It’s the places we’re not looking at that can be where the craziness actually erupts. The funny part is that the only place where a Totalitarian state could actually be brought into existence would be Nebraska. Because you here Nebraska and people say “where the hell is Nebraska?” We’re not really focused on Nebraska. So that’s a place where stupidity could actually rise up. And then you turn around and say “Wait a second, are you telling me that Nebraska is a Totalitarian state now?” It’s this great “what if” and I think that does resonate because the news media needs another story. Of course we only get them once it’s too late and it’s become a big story. This is a small story about a big issue. And a crazy issue. Of course there is no Totalitarian state in our country. Well, that we know of. But if it were happening in Nebraska we wouldn’t know about it until it was a Totalitarian state and it was too late.

What are you hoping that people will take away from this theatrical experience?

I think that they should take away a sore stomach from laughing so much. That’s basically what I think. A good night in the theatre seeing things that we have seen in reality and then being forced to say “that was so stupid, but oh my gosh I’ve actually seen or heard someone say that before.” I don’t think that satire is necessarily something that has to change the world. It just shows the world for what it is so that we don’t take things too seriously but the things that are serious we recognize them for what they are.

I think people should come see it because it’s a very funny show. You put the word “Totalitarian” out there and you don’t think comedy. But if you think about Mel Brooks and his take on Hitler and how we have satirized these world leaders on Saturday Night Live and things like that— that’s where we’re living. It’s a fabulous night at the theatre with a lot of humor and you’re getting all of it in one show.

The Totalitarians plays through June 29, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company— 641 D Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

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