Much ado about Kelly O'Connor

Oct. 27, 2005, midnight | By Anna Coughlan | 15 years, 2 months ago

Blair's own Shakespeare expert returns to teach and direct

The wind howls and waves lap up against the deck of the ship. Crewmembers struggle to control the sails while staying on their feet. The ship tips to the left and half of the sailors stumble onto their knees, fighting to stand up again. Suddenly, the scene ends and the actors relax on the bare stage, dropping their arms at their sides and steadying their legs. Kelly O'Connor brings the performers back to reality to take questions and comments about the first scene in "Twelfth Night."

It is Friday afternoon and O'Connor, formerly known as Kelly Newman before her recent Sept. 10 marriage, holds a play practice in the auditorium. She tells the actors, "The thing that makes a tempest at all believable is that you guys need to sell it." O'Connor mimics how a mariner would move in a storm: she sways her arms, shakes her legs and fakes a fall. "This is where your mime skills come in handy," she says.

O'Connor returned to Blair this fall after working toward her PhD in costume design at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, England. After the yearlong sabbatical, she has resumed teaching English and theater, and is directing the fall play "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare.

The adjustment

The time off served as a much-needed break from seven years at Blair and a previous three years at Takoma Park Middle School. "It was such a battery recharge," says O'Connor, laughing when she remembers that an "early day" in England was waking up at 9 a.m.

O'Connor finished one of three years of research for her PhD in England and she hopes to continue studying while working here. However, the Shakespeare Institute does not want her to work full time, and Montgomery County offered her only one year off. "It's all up in the air at the moment," she says. For now, O'Connor is wrapping up "Twelfth Night."

A unique "Night"

"Twelfth Night" is the fourth Shakespeare play that O'Connor has directed at Blair. Her previous productions include "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Pericles" but she says that "Twelfth Night" is much more well-known than "Pericles," and has a more serious tone than "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "Every Shakespeare play I've done is different," says O'Connor.

The play dramatizes the story of Viola, a shipwrecked maiden who disguises herself as a man when she gets a job for a nobleman named Orsino. Chaos ensues when Viola falls in love with Orsino and when a royal lady named Olivia takes a liking to Viola, who she believes is a man.

Unlike in other Shakespearean comedies, tragedy and violence set the tone for the opening storm scene in "Night" when Viola becomes estranged from her brother in the tempest. However, the play includes the usual love triangles and miscommunications common in Shakespeare. Nonetheless, O'Connor calls it a more "intellectual comedy" than "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The inclusion of live on-stage musicians will also distinguish "Twelfth Night" from previous productions.

"It's almost like she never left"

Junior Erica Irving, who worked with O'Connor in "Pericles" in 2003 and participated in the 2004 spring musical "The Merry Widow," says she can hardly differentiate between the past and present O'Connor. "It's almost like she never left," Irving says, "It almost feels the same to me."

Actors in "Twelfth Night" call O'Connor's directing style organized, passionate and precise. "She told someone to do a specific facial expression on one line," says junior Shaagnik Mukherji, who also worked with O'Connor before she left. Junior Max Lockwood, who plays Orion, says that O'Connor is open for discussion and questions, and does not intimidate the actors. Irving appreciates O'Connor's interest in making the actors work their full potential.

O'Connor enjoys molding the plays to her liking and even calls herself a bit of a "control freak." "When you direct, you have a sense of what the play is going to be," she says. When acting, O'Connor sometimes feels frustrated when she doesn't agree with the director's choices. O'Connor especially loves forming her own cast from Blair's diverse student population.

After directing plays at Blair for almost a decade, O'Connor reflects on the memorable moments she has had. "It's fantastic when you get to see a kid who has never been on stage just shine," she says. O'Connor mentions Febe Huezo, a 2003 graduate, who played Maria in "West Side Story" in 2003. Casting Huezo was risky because even though she had a strong voice, she had never been on stage before. Yet Huezo led the cast in what became a best- selling performance, according to a 2003 Silver Chips Online article.

O'Connor also fondly remembers testing the guillotine in a rehearsal of "A Tale of Two Cities" in 2000. Because O'Connor had wanted to know how the guillotine worked, stage crew sponsor John Kaluta recommended that she try it out herself. The entire cast was cheering as she rode to her doom. When O'Connor tucked her head into the opening, two wooden pieces in the machine came together with a clunk and the blade, which was pulled back up with a spring, appeared to have sliced her head off. Applause rippled throughout the auditorium.

Shaping her career

O'Connor began her higher education at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (CUA), where she majored in English and minored in theater. CUA "had an outstanding theater program" says O'Connor. She then received her Master's of Art (MA) degree at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford and later worked in the education department at the Folger Library in D.C. Yet O'Connor wanted to teach, so she returned to school at the University of Maryland and subsequently taught at Takoma Park Middle School.

O'Connor met her husband, John, at a summer Shakespeare course in Oxford two years ago. John O'Connor is a Shakespeare scholar himself and he encouraged O'Connor to pursue her PhD. He also started his own small Shakespeare company that performs at gardens and museums and donates the profits to Hospice.

After studying at the Shakespeare Institute again last year, O'Connor began to miss teaching literature in her English classes. "I love to read . . . I love to talk about books," she says matter-of-factly. As a teacher, O'Connor also values getting feedback from her students. "The coolest thing is when years later, a kid comes back, and says how much it [my class] meant to her. What is important is hearing the student acknowledge the teacher in her life," says O'Connor.

Last December O'Connor returned to the U.S. for Christmas break and auditioned for the Shakespeare Theater in D.C. The Theater had previously seen her audition for the League of Washington Theaters where representatives from different troupes come to watch hundreds, sometimes thousands, of actors for two minutes. O'Connor was thrilled to get the call back but was too busy to get involved at the time. "It was really fun," she says of the audition for the Shakespeare Theater. "If I were ever to become a professional actor, that's where I would be."

With a future full of possibilities, O'Connor is taking one step at a time. She has transitioned into the methodical lifestyle of being a teacher and is preparing for the fall play's opening night. Yet whether O'Connor continues teaching Shakespeare at Blair, researches full-time again for her PhD or performs onstage with the Shakespeare Theater, Shakespeare's works will remain a fundamental part of her life.

"Twelfth Night" performances begin on November 4 at 7:30 p.m. and continue November 5, 11 and 12. Tickets are $4 for students and $2 on opening night and $6 for adults.

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Anna Coughlan. Anna is a CAP junior who can't believe she's an upperclassman already. She likes to run Blair cross-country and track, do yoga, play soccer, and chill with fun-loving people. Anna is a big movie fan and loves the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Star … More »

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