Beckett at 110 in Oregon: Celebrating A Famed Poet Through Theatre
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is the only year-round festival theatre that employs 90 actors and over 300 employees in America. Located in Ashland, Oregon, OSF offers a diversity of experiences that feel like a Festival event. It includes nine plays in rotating rep, new play readings, backstage tours, park talks, lectures, classes, workshops, pre-and post-show conversations and a free Green Show before the evening shows.
Revolutionary in multi-diverse casting and subject matter (both daring versions of Shakepeare and bold new plays,) the festival celebrates in its seven theaters by showcasing timely and brave works in American theatre and the classics. Nestled in the gorgeous mountains of Oregon amid bright blue skies and bleached white clouds, OSF does outdoor theater in a Globe Theatre which replicates the one Shakespeare used in 16th century England and indoor theatre in a variety of in the round, proscenium, and multiple use stages. In 2016 a giant state-of-the-art rehearsal space will allow many productions to be in rehearsal simultaneously.
The season of this not-for-profit professional theatre founded in 1935 runs from February through early November, in the village of Ashland. OSF offers eleven different plays that include three or four by Shakespeare and seven by other classic writers, as well as modern and contemporary work and world premieres.
Famed poet Samuel Beckett would have been 110 this year and OSF - now 81 - is dutifully celebrating the once maverick playwright with an experimental staging of a play that was inspired by his remarkable life. Following in this path of heralding new works, company actor Barret O'Brien has organized a workshop of Rosary O'Neill's play titled Beckett at Greystones Bay. Hence, it is not simply a reading but an “OSF Midnight Project” which is a company-driven branch of the theatre that supports experimental plays-in-progress. Barret O'Brien stars as Beckett and Susan Lynskey plays all the voices in Sam's head: Mother, Brother, Father, Edna, and Margaret.
Samuel Beckett was one of the most regaled poets of all time and playwright Rosary O’Neill--who is well-known for writing plays concerning real life, long dead, public figures--found his life’s story to be fertile ground for her own creative writing. The multi-published and award-winning playwright subsequently penned Beckett at Greystones Bay, a one-man play that is set in Ireland in the 1930s and offers some factual information about Beckett’s life.
Beckett at Greystones Bay features one single actor--who happens to be Rosary’s own son--who plays the role of a young Samuel Beckett. Only 27 at the time that the play takes place, Beckett is visited by various ghosts from his past and is close to having a nervous breakdown as he struggles to write. Essentially, the play focuses on the actual turning point in Beckett’s life where he had to choose between abandoning his writing or choosing to go into therapy in London to save his mind.
Like most of Rosary’s work, this play beautifully blends historical fact with artistic experimentation and it is due to have its French debut in Paris this September. Fittingly, Rosary was inspired to write the play whilst she was in Paris on a Fulbright. “A colleague said he had the perfect topic for a play on Samuel Becket: the point in his life where he had to choose between his writing or therapy,” Rosary explained in a recent interview. “I had no idea that Beckett went through such a torturous time right after his father died nor that he had failed so astronomically in his youth as a writer before his ascent into fame, nor that he had to leave Ireland and all he held dear to find himself as a writer. I felt his story could inspire others as it did for me, a writer who had recently left New Orleans and moved to Paris when Hurricane Katrina destroyed her past.”
During the course of her research, Rosary was interested in the fact that Beckett was a college professor who taught in Paris and at Ireland’s Trinity College yet he felt very alienated in an academic environment. “The fact that he spoke five languages and received many honors; the fact that he was James Joyce’s assistant and lost him as a mentor because his deranged daughter fell in love with him - all of that was fascinating!” Rosary declared, “Also the terrible experiences he had in love; namely the young girls who betrayed him and the cousin of his fiancé who died pining for him. His mother’s fierce jealousy and cruelty to him was also shocking. Beckett’s life was a stream of stony hurdles but his commitment to his writing was awe-inspiring. I wanted to get to know him more and stage his ascendency.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspects to Beckett’s personality were his unwavering devotion to his writing and to France. He also never lost his willingness to experiment nor his insatiable curiosity about life. In his older years, he even forgave - and tried to visit - a thug who had attempted to kill him. Such a historic figure certainly deserves a well-produced show. “I would love to stage my Beckett play in a way that is very cinematic and visual with ghost pictures of faces from Beckett’s past on curtains, keening music and even smoke,” Rosary explained. “Since throughout the play Beckett talks to and is visited by the ghosts from his past and future, the use of mystery in the staging would be pivotal.”
Barret O'Brien, who will play the role of Samuel Beckett, spent most of his childhood at the Southern Repertory Theater in New Orleans that his mother founded. Rosary was also the person who most inspired him to become an actor--something he is grateful to her for. “I like being constantly pushed out of my comfort zone,” Barret stated. “Every first rehearsal I feel like my daughter at the first day of preschool, standing by the door with my lunch box, nervous and eager.”
When asked specifically about how he prepared for the role as Beckett, Barrett cited a strong desire to know the histories and personal preferences of the historic figure. He explained, “With real-life characters you get the gift of limits. Beckett admired Keats: check. Beckett was plagued by his relationship to his mother: check. Beckett was artistically ambitious: check. These answers are there and don't need to be overly-debated. Then one can move to adding layers upon those layers - that’s how I prepared for the role.”