When Street first sat down with Brooke O’Harra, the newest faculty member of the Theatre Arts program, O’Harra suggested meeting outside of the Annenberg Center instead of the theatre arts office within the building itself.
As a graduate of Tulane University’s MFA program in directing, she has juggled her roles as an experimental theatre director and professor for quite a while now. She taught at Bates College and NYU, until she and her partner, Sharon Hayes, an associate professor of Fine Arts at Penn, moved to Philly with their daughter.
“For us, Philly is a really nice city, because you can’t kind of escape the politics,” she said, “I love New York...but you spend so much time surviving that it’s hard to be an impactful or generous citizen or an activist, and I feel like that’s a really important part of our identities. In Philly, you can have a little more choice in your life choices and property, and money spending, and community and be politically engaged, and it’s a better way for me to live in the world.”
While O’Harra actively tries to be socially and politically conscious in her personal life and choices, she has also accidentally engaged in the political with her work as well. Between 2008 and 2011, O’Harra produced, directed, co–wrote and acted in Room for Cream, a 27–episode serial produced by the Dyke Division of the Theatre of the Two Headed Calf, the theatre company she co–founded with Brendan Connelly in 1999.
She describes it as a “live lesbian soap opera.”
Taking place in the fictional town of Sappho, MA, the play featured a cast of 12 main actors who played lesbians (even if the actor was male), and invited famous gay politicians or actors to guest star in different episodes.
“It became immediately clear that there was this intense desire from the audience for this show to exist, and also this intense ownership,” O’Harra said.
By engaging in the political through comedy, O’Harra and the Dyke Division allowed for the audience to engage in a political topic themselves.
The serial tackled a lot of the nuanced issues that the queer community was concerned about, and it relied on the audience’s opinion and influence to help inform the politics of the play itself. In the last episode, O’Harra’s character was to “gay marry” another character, and the writers of the show reached out to audience members to ask for their opinion on gay marriage, something which is debated in the queer community as both a victory and a conformation of the queer community into the mainstream.
“It had a kind of inside quality, that we were unashamed of, like it was unabashed. It was like a new norm,” she explained.
Throughout her career, O’Harra has continued to explore how audiences interact with a performance, or as she describes it, how “audiences and crowds make meaning and as a maker/speaker, how you engage their imagination, or their power by not dictating the encounter, but you create a kind of space for aliveness.”
O’Harra has brought this experimentation of form and audience/maker relationship to Philly and Penn, and plans on exploring it here.
On September 17, O’Harra performed an installment of her play I’m Bleeding All Over the Place: Studies in Directing or Nine Encounters Between Me and You subtitled, So? as part of CATCH, a curated series co–produced by Philly Fringe
Arts and Thirdbird. As an
exploration of the relationships
in theater, the series has taken
the form of performances
with multiple actors reading scenes from the writers’ daily experiences.
O’Harra is also currently in the process of starting several other directing projects, potentially including another serial regarding the trans community in collaboration with former Room for Cream writer, Jess Barbagallo, a trans playwright and performer. She plans to bring back
Time Passes, an eight–hour performance piece using the book–on–tape recording of Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse performed earlier last year. O’Harra is also currently working on Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England by Madeleine George, a Pulitzer Prize nominee. “It’s queer,” she stated simply, “It’s very queer, but it’s also recognizable, structurally, as a comedy, so it’s not alienating for a more broad audience. So people should audition or come see it.”