Turtle Soup Wins Best-of-Show at the Spectral Sisters One Act Play Competition in New Orleans
Crafting literature and performing art by blending history, fiction, and brilliantly well-rounded characters is the strong-point of Rosary O’Neill, a PhD-holding playwright whose short play Turtle Soup was awarded the title of best play at the Spectral Sisters One Act Play Completion in New Orleans, Louisiana. Turtle Soup is currently being staged in a workshop production and famed play publishers Samuel French—located in New York City—is in talks with Rosary about publishing the script.
Turtle Soup is a farce comedy about a pregnant young woman named Lucille who is in fear of losing her substantial inheritance when her very rich—and allegedly deathly ill—Aunt threatens to disinherit her, mocking her and her actor husband’s lifestyle. The action takes place in the master bedroom of the Aunt’s mansion where Lucille pays her a visit… which subsequently ends in a big surprise, an April Fool’s Day revelation, and a lot of spilled turtle soup!
The play found a fantastic venue via the Spectral Sisters company which has been led by David J. Holcombe for nearly fourteen years. Each year, the theater sponsors a Ten-Minute Play Festival and a One-Act Play Festival. Works are solicited from any and all Louisiana-related authors. Rosary O'Neill has long been associated with theater in Louisiana, being one of the founders of Southern Rep out of New Orleans. She submitted a one-act, entitled Soniat House of which Turtle Soup was the first scene. Due to time and actor constraints, always a problem in a rural, under-educated region such as Central Louisiana, the production committee made a decision to retain Turtle Soup since they had two wonderful actresses who brought the characters to life in one of the only humorous plays in our selection.
As a member of the board (and past President, past Treasurer and current Secretary), David J. Holcombe hopes to highlight local and regional creativity in a region not known for its artistic innovation. That being said, the Alexandria area of Louisiana is like a tramp steamer in the middle of the Indian Ocean on which the passengers are pretty much on their own. Two hours from any other metropolitan area, Alexandria has developed its own artistic and theatrical scene which astonishes by its vibrancy.
A number of Rosary's full-length plays have been produced at the venue including Kate Chopin and Black Jack, both dealing with Louisiana themes. Rosary also was a visiting playwright for a workshop in Alexandria, well attended by Central Louisiana standards. In short, Turtle Soup, even as a selection of a longer piece, fit the bill as an amusing, dynamic short piece that benefited from some of the region’s best actresses.
It is not surprising that talent is attracted to the works of Rosary O’Neill. She is an incredibly successful writer who has been lauded for many of her plays via a series of awards, accolades, and media publications. Yet she was especially delighted to announce her play’s success in her home state of Louisiana. Although she has lived and worked in New York City for many years, and maintains a home there, Rosary was born and raised in New Orleans and is currently residing in her native city while she works on a book about the voodoo culture that surrounds the area.
Rosary recently granted an exclusive interview where she discussed this play and the inspirations behind it.
Meagan Meehan (MM): What is the background behind how you thought of the original plot of Turtle Soup?
Rosary O’Neill, (RO): The plot for the play Turtle Soup (a farce) was inspired by my living in Philadelphia where they have great turtle soup and also a visit from my mother for my daughter’s christening when she flew up with iced boxes of turtle soup from the New Orleans Country Club insisting that this soup was better than the soup in Philadelphia! Also, during the Mardi Gras parades, parade organizations will often serve hot turtle soup to buoy the parade riders up as they get onto the floats. The soup has a long carnival tradition. It is served at the parade dens where maskers line up or in the mansions on the parade route where friends wait for the parades to pass.
In New Orleans people are total “foodies” and so when getting the recipe for turtle soup I was amazed (and also a bit horrified) by the procedure for making good turtle soup in New Orleans. I really don’t like the idea of enjoying killing some living being, but turtle soup is a comedy about an old woman who enjoys using her money to torture others.
The play was supposed to be a tragedy about a down and out actress and her miserly billionaire aunt. Being in the theatre and having been first an actress, I can totally relate to begging for money. The actress tries to get her inheritance from her only living relative her dying aunt.
Of course, the play is set in New Orleans where the rich are peculiar epicureans and only eat homemade soup at certain temperature. Conflict is the aunt feels free to demean and mock the niece because she has married an out of work actor whom the aunt suspects is after her money.
So, it's a fight for the money. Twist comes in when we find the old aunt is pretending to be dying to get sympathy, and its April Fools Day. Did I tell you New Orleanians love holidays and days when being the perverse is ordinary? My grandmother used to call me on April’s Fools and tell me my dog was dead and she thought that was funny!
MM: How did you select the city and time period in which to set the action in Turtle Soup?
RO: Most of my plays are set in New Orleans the town where I was raised. I’m sure at the time I was dealing with inheritance issues and going for beautiful walks in New Orleans by the glorious houses on St. Charles and Exposition Blvd by Audubon Park and musing what it would be like to live in one of the mansions as a poor relative. I have observed that the New Orleans rich love money even more than love, because money gives a false sense of immortality and many rich people try to control the use of their money after the grave.
MM: You have written many full-length plays, so was it tough to do a shorter one?
RO: Yes, but I was very influenced at the time by Chekhov who writes short plays like The Boar so masterfully and I want to capitulate to the world which seems to want stories in shorter and shorter bites.
MM: What do you most enjoy about the Turtle Soup characters?
RO: Their desperation and the life and death circumstances they are living under. Also, you know those glorious houses with the 20-foot ceilings and marble mantles and wall-to-wall oriental rugs just call for stories. I was recently in the Beauregard Keyes mansion here in New Orleans on Chartres Street (it had been a home of the general Beauregard—now kind of disgraced because his statue has been removed in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art because he fought on the wrong side of the Civil War). Anyway, that mansion was bought by the great female writer Frances Parkinson Keyes. She was so drawn to it; she moved here to live there and restored the house and grounds. The point is these big houses have their big desperate stories to tell. All have their gracious dining rooms and ballrooms, and so by using one ritual, a ritual of Turtle Soup we can offer a peek into that world, not into the whole dinner but into the aperitif, into one glimpse and that fascinates me. I hope to pass on in some small way this legacy of my family and m people and of these great mansions of New Orleans.
MM: How did you find out about the Spectral Sisters One Act Play Completion and what was it like to stage this play there.
RO: The Spectral Sisters have staged two other plays of mine, The Awakening of Kate Chopin and Blackjack the Thief of Possession, and I have received two fellowships to give workshops on playwriting at the Hearn Theatre. Theirs is a brilliant theatre company steered by David Holcomb who is particularly interested in Louisiana writers of which I am one.
MM: How did you find your actors and did they add to the dialogue at all when they “got into” the roles?
RO: Fortunately, I didn’t have to cast the show. Two wonderful actresses, Victoria Ortigo as the niece and Nys Weimar as the older woman, have sterling reputations as comedians and were cast by the theatre. The painting on the stage set is one by the Secretary of Spectral Sisters, David Holcomb. The painting is of an anonymous Confederate general in front of a burning plantation. David is quite a wonderful playwright and painter, and his paintings have been used in programs and stage designs of my work.
MM: What was the audience reaction to the play?
RO: Apparently, it was wonderful. Huge laughs and full houses. I’m always thrilled when I can bring joy to people especially during the chilly rainy months in Louisiana.
MM: When did you realize you had won, and what was your prize?
RO: I got a call from David Holcomb a couple of months back inviting me to the show. At the time I was in NYC so that was a particular thrill to get a call from down home!
MM: You have lived in NYC for many years, but you are originally from New Orleans, so was it really special to have this award-winning play staged in your home state?
RO: Yes, because the artists really “get” the people. They understand poverty and desperation. The average income in Alexandria where the play is done is $24K! Also, I love creating roles for young and mature actresses having witnessed as an artistic director how women are the spine of regional theatre. When I ran Southern Rep, I would get twenty-times as many actresses as men auditioning, so the quality and sheer choice of talent was great.
MM: You are working on a book about voodoo right now, what inspired that and how is the writing coming along?
RO: Just finished my five chapters I’m co-writing the book with Rory Schmitt of Arizona State. Oh goodness, the book is going so great! I had fantastic interviews with three voodoo priests here and am getting a reading where you put your questions in your pocket, the priest goes into trance, and then she answers your questions. I have learned so much about God and the need for altars and places in our homes that remind us of the afterlife. The book comes out in October of 2018 with Arcadia Publishers (formerly the History Press).
MM: Are you working on any other plays or projects at the moment that you want to talk about?
RO: Well yes, I’ve just finished a three-person farce on vampires called Voodoo Vampire New Orleans, which I hope to perfect at HB studios in June. I’ve also completed a TV series on New Orleans which a producer colleague is starting to sell in LA, and I’m finishing a book of Narrative Nonfiction on “Degas in New Orleans” which is based on artist Edgar Degas’ scandalous visit here in 1872 to save his relatives’ cotton business.
To learn more about Rosary O’Neill, Google her name and visit her official website.