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Culture Junkie: ‘Make weird art,’ says Tony-winning actor

One of my favorite moments of the 2022 Tony Awards broadcast on June 12 was the acceptance speech by veteran actor Deirdre O’Connell. It’s the short, sweet delivery that has since become known worldwide as “The Weird Art” speech.

Standing all-a-quiver on the stage of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, the first-time nominee had just been handed the trophy Best Leading Actress in a Play, honoring her earth-scorching performance in Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.” The play is based on the true story of the playwright’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, a psychiatric chaplain who was kidnapped and held hostage in Florida, moved from motel room to motel room for five months, by a one of her patients. The text of the riveting one-woman-show is taken directly from recorded interviews conducted by Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” “The Christians”). As conceived by Hnath and directed by Les Waters, the actor playing Dana lip-synchs her words to those recordings of the actual Dana, creating a strange blend of disconnect and intimacy that seems somehow perfect, if extremely unorthodox, for the telling of a true crime story about the survivor of intense trauma.

Still, it’s definitely weird to do it that way.

Somehow, "Dana H.“ was produced in spite of that, then ended up on Broadway, has since gone on to other productions — including one taking place a mere 70-minute drive away, through July 10, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre — and finally won a Tony for O’Connell, who caused a small sensation when she said, while accepting the award, something that a lot of us out there watching occasionally do need to hear.

“I would love this little prize to be a token,” she said, “for every person who is wondering, ‘Should I be trying to make something that could work on Broadway or that could win me a Tony Award? Or should I be making the weird art that is haunting me, that frightens me, that I don’t know how to make, that I don’t know if anyone in the whole world will understand?’ Please let me standing here be a little sign to you from the universe to make the weird art.”

Within hours, that phrase, “Make the weird art,” was trending on social media, transformed into hundreds of different memes and let loose across the wild, wild web. “Weird,” of course, means different things to different people. Shakespeare’s aforementioned “weird sisters” are so dubbed because of the word’s narrow one-time definition as “of, relating to, or caused by witchcraft or the supernatural.” According to Webster’s Dictionary, it can also mean strange, extraordinary, odd or fantastic, words that, to a life-long fan of fantasy fiction are anything but pejorative. In fact, to some, including such aficionados of out-of-the-box literature as Petaluma’s Ross Lockhart, owner of Word Horde Books and its retail operation The Book Horde Emporium of the Weird and Fantastic,“ that short five-letter word is absolute gold. I’ve seen Lockhart many times grab the attention of passersby at one science-fiction/horror conference or another, standing at a table piled with his company’s gloriously offbeat hardback and paperback books, hawking ”You like weird books? We’ve got weird books!“

In such circles, calling something “weird” is high praise, carrying zero sense of stigma.

Of course, speaking personally, as someone to whom the word “weird” was frequently applied by elementary school bullies and one or too girls I made the mistake of asking out to some upcoming school dance, I am more than familiar with the dire social implications of being so-labeled. From kindergarten up, the majority of my classmates and even a few dismissively blunt teachers, would now and then hand down the word “weird,” often expanded to the phrase “too weird,” as an explanation for why my company, or my most recent art or creating writing project, was being rejected or graded poorly. To this day, as a writer of plays and short fiction myself, I still occasionally experience how the critical appraisal “weird” is commonly employed to mean “too weird” or “too far outside of traditional expectations.” Or quite simply, “unproduceable,” “unpublishable” and “uninteresting to any producer or publisher looking for quick mainstream financial returns on their investments.”

I’m sure that “Dana H,” when first proposed, seemed like a lock to land on the “unproduceable” list. I mean, maybe not if it was proposed as a more typical one-woman show, with the actor actually speaking the lines she’d flawlessly memorized instead of having to match the cadences and individualistic conversational quirks of a disembodied voice. Not only is it “weird,” pulling something like that off, for an actor, is pretty darn hard, too.

Weird often is hard, of course, and sometimes, that’s why its so good.

Even if you take a wholly non-loaded definition of the term weird, softening its edges and presenting it as merely “rare,” or “original,” “unfamiliar” or “challenging,” it is always something of a miracle when something truly unexpected, truly “weird,” comes along. Though audiences are partially to blame, generally eschewing unknown art and artists while snapping up tickets for familiar retreads of recognizable theatrical product, it’s clear that many producers are so reticent to take risks that they forget that its the sheer riskiness of art that draws certain people to the theater to begin with - the people who tend to get really, really excited about new things.

I was in Southern California in April, and saw Christine Quintana’s astonishingly good play “Clean/Espejos,” at South Coast Repertory Theatre. A two-actor drama, the story is performed in bilingually, alternating between the characters of Adriana, a cleaning staff manager at a resort in Cancun and Sarah, one of the guests staying there during one very difficult weekend. Whenever Adriana is telling her side of the story, actor Lorena Martinez (Lorena Martinez) speaks in Spanish, while Sarah (Nell Geisslinger) speaks exclusively in English, with translations projected onto the set (the walls, the furniture, wherever) throughout the story. While one would probably not call this approach “weird,” it is definitely somewhat unconventional for the theater, and because of that sense of bold inventiveness, felt thoroughly thrilling.

The next weekend I made my way up to Ashland, Oregon, for the opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where I saw Mona Mansour’s “Unseen,” directed by Bay Area theater-maker Evren Odcikin. In the play, which runs through July 31, the stage runs straight through the center of the theater, with the audience seated on one side or the other to watch the tale of an American “conflict photographer” Mia (Helen Sadler) in Istanbul, recovering from a warzone massacre she was clearly present at - she was found unconscious and near death at the scene - but has no memory of. Telling the story of conflict while dividing the audience into two camps was, again, perhaps not “weird,” but was definitely new.

“I wanted one side of the audience to see the other side, to see the faces of the audiences across the room, at all times,” Odcikin told me during a phone conversation following the show’s opening weekend. “I knew it would be jarring, and perhaps a bit uncomfortable, but it’s a play about uncomfortable things, and that sense of conflict - one side against another, one perspective against another - is obviously a big part of the story. So I liked the idea of portraying that in a very clear, very visually striking way.”

Asked if there were any concerns that such rule-breaking staging would upstage the play itself, Odcikin said something I’ve been thinking about ever since.

“I’ve always believed that it’s the art that breaks the rules, the art that that is willing to take a chance and try something totally new, that we end up remembering long after we’ve forgotten all the other safe, familiar art that did what everyone else was doing,” he said.

And of course, he’s right.

Because I haven’t been able to forget it.

Just as audiences at “Dana H.” will never forget watching O’Connell on Broadway, or Jordan Baker in Berkeley, lip-synch to another woman’s voice telling a story that changed the real Dana H.’s life forever. Because sometimes, weird is good.

And it probably always has been.

David Templeton’s “Culture Junkie” runs once a month or so in the Argus-Courier. You can reach him at david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

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