Blaire O’Leary is an Irish American theater artist whose talents range from acting to dancing, singing to directing. I recently saw O’Leary perform in Secession, a dreamy and deep immersive production staged this summer in an abandoned cottage on New York’s Governor’s Island by the Exquisite Corpse Company.
O’Leary serves as a producing director and the director of development for the company, which has made a name for itself in just a few short years with plays at the New York Fringe Festival and the HERE Arts Center, in addition to larger-scale immersive events – from a reinterpretation of The Odyssey in an old hospital building in Brooklyn to this summer’s production, which told the stories of the artists of the 1897 Vienna Artistic Secession throughout a gallery displaying pieces inspired by their lives and their works.
In Secession, O’Leary was captivating – first in a piece that brought Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” hilariously to life, and then as a Alma Mahler, a composer in her own right who inspired many famous men of her day - among them, her husband Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius and painter Oskar Kokoschka. He was so taken with Mahler that when she ended their affair he commissioned a life-sized doll version of her. O’Leary toes the line – literally in toe shoes – between Mahler as an independent being and Mahler as a work of art and inspiration.
Between this and, after the show, being treated to a condensed version of her Irish-great-grandmother’s whirlwind life story, I had to find out more. The following is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
What got you interested in theater initially?
I actually started as a ballet dancer, and studied until I was about 17 years old. I loved dance, but as I got older I realized that a career in ballet lacked longevity and the opportunity to explore other paths. Success as a ballet dancer seemed to me to require total immersion into that world, while theater allowed you to study a variety of subjects and combine other artistic mediums. This appealed to me. I did all the school plays, got involved in community theater, and eventually went to Marymount Manhattan College, where I earned a B.F.A. in acting. As I got more into theater, I discovered that I really enjoyed the process of studying, understanding, and retelling a story from the multiple perspectives of the characters. I liked that I was able to dissect and get to know characters in such a deep an intimate way. Once I got into the more experimental world of theater, I was able to integrate my movement and dance training into my work.
Tell me more about your Irish heritage!
I’m Irish American. My families on both my mother and father’s sides came from Ireland. I was raised to appreciate both my familial history and my heritage, and I still do. My parents deliberately chose very Irish names for my sister and for me (Quinn Erin O’Leary and Blaire Ryan O’Leary). If I ever have kids, I’ll continue this tradition. It’s nice to feel like you are connected to and can take pride in a culture larger than yourself with such a rich history.
I was always entranced, specifically, by my Great-Grandmother’s story. She seems to have been the Forest Gump of Irish immigrants - name one famous thing that happened at the turn of the century and she was there. She was an Irish step dancing national champion; almost came to New York on the Titanic - but cashed her tickets in at the last minute; and, when she did arrive in the US, legend has it she swam the Hudson River to avoid Ellis Island. Once here, she worked as Irving Berlin’s housemaid, ran a boarding house for Irish Immigrants (which was later knocked down as it is now the mouth of the Holland Tunnel); made bathtub gin during prohibition; and died a millionaire.
I like to think of her as someone to look up to.
What have been your favorite projects to date?
I have a few. They are all so different, and they stick out to me as favorites for such different reasons. Below, Exquisite Corpse Company’s first production, holds a special place in my heart. Tess Howsam, now the Artistic Director of ECC, and I decided we wanted to put up an original play that she had written. We entered it into the NY Fringe Festival on a whim and we got in. The play was selected for an extended run out of the Fringe, and the company grew from there. Below was focused on the themes of identity - creating and re-creating yourself based on the world around you. It was a perfect debut piece for a young company and one that I still feel connected to as a young artist.
My favorite non-ECC piece I’ve worked on was a production of Titus Andronicus in which I played Lavinia. Lavinia was an unexpectedly challenging role, and one I’m happy to have had the opportunity to take on. But, again, what really made that piece special was the group of people I was working with. The director, Matt Minnicino, did a phenomenal job of pulling together an incredibly talented group of people, both on and off-stage. The cast and creative team of Titus became the core of my theatrical community. This show, I met multiple people who I am lucky to call (and will continue to call) collaborators. Many of them have now worked with ECC, or I have worked with them in other contexts. It was pretty magical to in one place with so many talented people, working toward a single goal.
And then Secession 2015 – ECC’s current production, which just wrapped up in New York but is traveling to New Orleans soon - is also, to date, one of my favorite projects. I get to play so much in this show, and really explore very different aspects of performance. I go from high comedy to poetic drama to full-on ballet (in pointe shoes)! It’s such a treat as a performer to be able to work in this way.
Which playwrights and actors inspire you the most?
I hate to sound corny, but it’s really the people around me - the people that I have the honor of working with. I am constantly surprised and impressed by my fellow theater makers. Some of my favorite up and coming playwrights include Exquisite Corpse Company playwrights Matthew Minnicino, Laura Zlatos, and Blake Bishton. I’ve also recently become acquainted with the beautiful work of writers Alexis Roblan and Simon de Carvalho. I’d love to keep naming names, but ECC has worked with and exposed me to so many skilled playwrights that there’s probably not enough room to print them all.
I count myself lucky in that Exquisite Corpse Company prides itself on extreme collaboration. Every project involves multiple writers. Additionally, ECC has just started a new bi-annual program, called Writer’s Lab, in which we welcome seven new writers to develop a play with the company. That means I get to meet and work with at least 14 new playwrights a year. That’s a great thing. We did the first lab this past Spring, and all of the writers we brought in are people I hope to have the chance to collaborate with again.
In terms of actors - I guess I could rattle off the usual movie stars that people list. Obviously the Meryl Streeps of the world are masters of their art, and inspiration should be taken from them. But again, I’m even more inspired by the actors I get to work with. Most of these people are working anywhere between two to 325 jobs and still managing to find the passion, time, and energy to do theater, and do it well. Most of these actors are also writing, producing, directing. They are constantly moving from one project to the next and creating new work. This work is the fabric of the current theater scene, and even if it is on the fringes (or seems to be), it is important. It’s pretty amazing.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I just wrapped up Exquisite Corpse Company’s run of Secession 2015 on Governor’s Island. True to the company, it is staged non-traditionally, in a house has been converted into a stand-alone art gallery featuring the work of over 20 current visual artists, inspired by the artists of the Vienna Secession - people like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt.
Each of the six artists selected by the company were paired with a playwright, who used the artist and a seminal piece of their work as inspiration for a short play. Tess Howsam, Tara Elliott, Katie Lindsay, and Ashley Monroe co-directed, weaving the pieces together into a cohesive experience that ended up offering quite a feminist perspective on the subject matter.
What's next for you?
I was recently asked to join the New York ensemble of PopUp Theatrics - an international company that produces really cool site-specific work all over the city, under the direction of Tamilla Woodard and Ana Margineanu. I’ve gotten to work with them for the past two years on a series called Broken City, which explores a specific NYC neighborhood every summer. They are a really innovative group of artists, and they offer an environment where emerging artists are able to explore and create in a fantastic way. I’m looking forward to working with them more.
In terms of ECC, we’ll be taking Secession to New Orleans, and then the next few months will be centered on growing the company through the end of the year and into the next. We’ve got a lot of prospects on the horizon, and a packed 2016 season ahead. I’m most excited about some of the potential collaborations with other companies and artists that are currently in the works.
In the nearer future, our Writer’s Lab and attached reading series (Drinks & Drama) are coming up in October and November; our party Series will start back up; and a smaller scale production will most likely close out the year.
Visit the Exquisite Corpse Company’s website for further info.