Behind the Scenes of ‘Breathing Under Dirt’ at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company: Part 1: Playwright Michael O’Leary

In Part One of a series of three interviews taking you behind the scenes of Lower Shore Performing Arts Company‘s production of Breathing Under Dirt, meet Playwright Michael O’Leary.

Although the faces are familiar, the dynamics will shock audiences as the complex plot of Breathing Under Dirt takes bafflingly turns through a seeming house of mirrors where dark illusions of generational family dysfunction come crashing to reveal harsh truths. Known for more than 25 years as Dr. Rick Bauer on CBS’ Guiding Light, Michael O’Leary has reunited the cast of the longest running scripted drama in broadcast history in his world premiere play to be performed on Maryland’s eastern shore August 13th and 14th after having won the 2016 Manhattan Repertory Theater One Act Play Competition.

I talked to the playwright this week to get a glimpse of what it’s like behind the scenes of his new play, now expanded in length, and the innovations they are using to bring it to the stage.

Cynthia: You’ve launched rather innovative marketing strategies for Breathing Under Dirt. Tell us more about the promotions people can get involved in before and after the performance.

Playwright Michael O'Leary. Photo by Sharon Knipple.
Playwright Michael O’Leary. Photo by Sharon Knipple.

Michael: Part of the marketing strategy is getting the community invested. One of the first things we did to tap into the local community was to cast locals. Casting sessions were held with mothers and daughters and word of mouth began building our local awareness. Next, our idea for building fan loyalty came from the fact the acronym for Breathing Under Dirt is “BUD” and fits perfectly with our event strategy, so now we fondly refer to our audience as “Buds.” Also, we felt it important to have an event where people could volunteer so we created the Bud Rally. We have breakfast at IHOP, then blanket the community with flyers and reconvene at the Market Street Inn in Salisbury for happy hour in a way that allows fans to interact with the actors they have watched and loved over the years.

To get venues invested, we offered tickets to restaurant staff where we are holding events. The result is they bring their families to our show and we have a successful marketing strategy that integrates the community and our show in a meaningful way. Audience members can also purchase tickets to a Meet & Greet after our performances.

Your strategy of integrating the community is reminiscent of Guiding Light in the way the fan base consistently would say they felt like “part of the family.”

You are exactly right. So how do you get people involved who don’t know you? You give something back to them so they feel part of it, rewarded and invested. The whole idea of branding and adding a fun quotient to it is key. People want to have fun! Take your project and surround it with fun and people will show up.

What do you plan on doing for the actor’s workshop?

I will focus on good decision making regarding agents, photographers and how you present yourself as an actor. You never know who your boss might end up being so you must treat everyone in the way you want to be treated. It’s karma. Karma remembers all the addresses. Anyone you work with could be in a position to hire you one day. And, don’t just be an actor. Go to producer and writer workshops. Get out and do projects of all types or perhaps a web series.

There is a definite familiarity and affection for the actors involved in the show that starred on Guiding Light for so many years. What will be familiar to returning fans of Guiding Light and what will be new and exciting for the regular attendees?

What is familiar will be four people who starred on Guiding Light for decades coming back together nearly seven years to the day of our last taping. But then, we have a bold dynamic interaction with theater that TV never had. This is a reunion of sorts, but will deliver a daring new punch of the unexpected everyone can relate to.

As you are getting close to the curtain going up, can you tell us what you admire most about your cast performances?

Cynthia Watros is a transformative actor, bringing a multi layered character. After rehearsing in LA for four days, Director Grant Aleksander, typically reserved, was boasting about the strength she shows in her approach to the role of Patience. Cynthia brings a sort of Blanche DuBois to us. She is so broken, yet there is such power. Patience is a complicated part to play and Cynthia has the gravitas and deeply thoughtful methodology to execute this role. Can you tell I’m very excited to have her?

Thank goodness for the power of social media! Facebook has helped us launch the play and it was also how I connected with Cynthia to bring her on board. In fact, Facebook is how we connected with the Lower Shore Performing Arts Company to bring the play to Maryland. So we are redefining protocol of play production in a sense by the way we are cooperating with this new nonprofit group. Producing a play is a gargantuan task, but collaborating with a nonprofit theater group opens up so many doors.

So you are both helping each other launch in a sense.

Yes, we are working together for the greater good of both the launch of our play and their theater company. It’s a beautiful connection of the arts.

What does the title of the show mean?

It’s about forgiveness while we still have life, no matter your thoughts on the afterlife. The things that you hold onto, bitterness or lack of forgiveness, is you “breathing under dirt.” The idea is to breathe while you still have life. Breathing means forgiveness and reconciliation while you still have life.

When did you write your first play and when did you begin writing Breathing Under Dirt?

I wrote Red Rain in 2006-2007 and we did readings of it with Jordan Clark and Tom Pelphrey. I put it to bed not knowing what the next steps would be. That play sat in my computer for years before we did a reading. An artistic director in New York encouraged me to explore the lead character more. So I went back to the drawing board and wrote her monologue to create her back story. She became Patience.

In a bold opening scene, it is 1952 in the south. Patience is wandering a dirt road and stumbles into a black Baptist church after just discovering her father dead. Secrets are hidden for most of the play that reveal what is really going on with Patience. The juxtaposition of a white female distraught and walking into a black church in 1952 and delivering a sermon of her own is dramatic.

Which scene or scenes make you say, “Boy, I did a great job writing this scene?”

The relationship with Cynthia Watros and Grant Aleksander’s characters, their love affair and courtship and what happens in the bar for sure. How these scenes develop and are revealed is an interesting turn of events. There is intensely bold symbolism in revealing the truths.

What have been some of the challenges you faced while writing the play? Any surprises?

Whether comedy or drama, you have to go to where the pain is. Once I did that, I couldn’t back away from the broken relationships. I did change the ending from the original. The story is a mixed bag of struggles, but that is real life.

If you were riding home in the car with an audience member after the show, what do you think they would be talking about?

They’ll be crying over the reconciliation between mother (Tina Sloan) and daughter (Cynthia Watros) at the end. I don’t expect a dry eye in the house.

Who is Michael O’Leary in a word? What is the essence behind the famous Irish smile?

Optimistic. That’s me. And gratitude. My essence? I’m known for my mischievousness. I guess I’m a bit of Leprechaun.

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Breathing Under Dirt?

For each person to receive a calling for examination of what it is in their life they have not reconciled.

Are you working on any other plays or upcoming roles?

Red Rain, my play that gave birth to Breathing Under Dirt will be workshopped. It is also set in the south and is about war and peace during the 1968 Vietnam era. There is something so poetic about the south. I find an affinity for the south as a writer, perhaps from my Irish heritage. There is a lyricism about the south that calls to me that I am not done connecting with.

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Breathing Under Dirt plays on August 13, 2016 at 2 and 7 PM and on August 14, 2016 at 2 PM at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company, performing at the Ella Fitzgerald Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – 1 Backbone Road, in Princess Anne, MD.

OTHER EVENTS:

Michael O’Leary is conducting an Actors Workshop on Sunday morning, August 14th at 10:30 AM also at the Ella Fitzgerald Performing Arts Center. For tickets, to Breathing Under Dirt purchase them online. Premium tickets include priority seating, meet-and-greet and autographs after the show.

There is a ‘BUD RALLY’ on August 9th at 9:00 AM at IHOP – 2732 North Salisbury Boulevard, in Salisbury, MD.

There is a Meet & Greet on August 9th at 6:00 PM at Market Street Inn – 130 West Market Street, in Salisbury, MD. More details are on Facebook.

LINKS:
Behind the Scenes of ‘Breathing Under Dirt’ at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company: Part 1: Playwright Michael O’Leary.

Behind the Scenes of ‘Breathing Under Dirt’ at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company: Part 2: Director Grant Aleksander  by Cynthia Bledsoe.

Behind the Scenes of ‘Breathing Under Dirt’ at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company: Part 3: Actors Robert Forester and Tina Sloan.

Watch an interview with Michael O’Leary and Grant Aleksander.