Woolly Mammoth’s Robert O’Hara gets Mellon playwright grant

January 15, 2013

There are a couple of things you should know about Robert O’Hara.

The newsworthy thing is that he’s one of 14 people who each received a $185,000 playwright residency grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant will fund a full-time position at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where O’Hara is a company member, through 2015.

The other thing to know about O’Hara is that he has this thing about zombies and the American government. Specifically, he has a thing about zombies being in the American government. He’s been working on a play, “Zombie: The American,” in which he imagines a United States of the future that has zombies at the helm.

“Our country is in negotiation during wartime and is being run by the walking dead,” O’Hara said. (Feel free to insert a joke about what an improvement that would be here, depending on your political persuasion.)

“Zombie: The American” had an early reading about a month ago. The play was commissioned through Free the Beast, Woolly’s $4 million fundraising initiative, long before this Mellon grant came along, and O’Hara’s completion of the script will be just one component of his work at Woolly.


Robert O’Hara will write and direct at Woolly Mammoth. (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

While going through the application process, O’Hara said, he and Woolly “had to make [the residency] into something I would find interesting. For me, just a playwriting residency is not that interesting, because I don’t think I have to be in a residency to write a play. . . . So we came up with this wonderful, unique thing where I would write and direct.”

In addition to the one-two punch of writing and directing, O’Hara will serve as an ambassador to other playwrights who come to Woolly, be a part of the season planning process and shadow Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, “because I’d love to, at some point in the future, be an artistic director, so this is a great opportunity to . . . sit in [Shalwitz’s] shoes, see how he works, and work through the different departments of the theater,” O’Hara said.

O’Hara’s got plenty of history with Woolly: He wrote “Antebellum” and “Booty Candy,” which were world premieres in 2009 and 2011. Something like the Mellon grant “gives me a whole piece to work with, as opposed to trying to eke out a living,” he said. “It kind of feels like, you’ve been told that what you’re doing is valid. And, usually, you don’t get that as a writer.”

Modern ‘Minotaur’

Are you eagerly awaiting Woolly’s take on zombies? Are you wishing you could get your fill of monsters immediately? Fret not, readers: Rorschach is producing “The Minotaur.”

The production is a joint world premiere; Rorschach is sharing premiere rights with Synchronicity Theatre in Atlanta. “The playwright gets the opportunity to revise and work on the play twice,” learning things from the first production and changing things for the second production, said Randy Baker, who is directing the play at Rorschach. Synchronicity’s production wrapped up in November, and Rorschach’s will open Friday.

The story of the Minotaur is an ancient one that has seen its share of remakes, most notably in “The Hunger Games,” which swiped its “kids selected by lottery are thrown in an arena to die” plotline from the tale.

“I’ve found that adaptations tend to be either super-serious and reverent and people screaming with bloody hands,” Baker said. “Or it goes in this direction where it’s really super-hip and modern with cellphones and guns.”

This script, by Anna Ziegler, “is modern. They talk about Facebook, and they play Connect 4,” Baker said. There’s a chorus, as in the Greek tradition. “There are these elements that feel very Greek, while it is simultaneously modern and fun and filled with contemporary concerns. And the relationship at the center of it is very contemporary.”

The original myth requires that Theseus slay the Minotaur, get the girl (Ariadne) and then . . . abandon her on an island so he could return to Athens a hero. This is typically how these heroes roll (see also: Aeneas, whose beloved burned herself on a funeral pyre as he departed for Rome).

However! To a modern/not-terrible audience, Baker pointed out, that version of events begs the question: “What happened to Ariadne?” This play “definitely answers that question. It does focus a lot on Ariadne’s story, on her choices and what it means to fall in love with a guy like that.”

Myths, Baker said, “every time they get retold, tell us much more about ourselves than they do abut the era in which they’re written. . . . So with this one, I think that [it addresses] the notion of what it means to be a hero in the modern era, what are the choices you have to make?”

The production “is not really very realistic at all,” Baker said. “But the human relationships are very realistic.”

He added: “It’s not avant-garde with black turtlenecks. There’s a beginning, middle and end. No matter how kooky it gets, it’s still about a boy and a girl and the monster they have to kill.”

Friday to Feb. 17, 1333 H St. NE, www.rorschachtheatre.com, 202-399-7993

Attention: Funny girls, boys

Washington Improv Theater’s annual March Madness-style improvisation battle, the Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament (FIST) is accepting entries for this year’s competition. Teams can enter at the WIT Web site. Teams must have three players (check the rules for details; puppets may count as players). The games begin March 14.

For information, visit
washingtonimprovtheater.com

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