Steve O'Connell | Performer of the week
William Shakespeare’s Corialanus is one of his lesser-known tragedies, centered on a Roman warrior turned politician who has more skill on the battlefield than in the senate. Starring in the title role, Steve O’Connell gives a riveting, physically demanding performance in the Hypocrites’ dynamic production. Born on Long Island and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, O’Connell began performing in the church choir before discovering theater as a teenager. A student at an all-boys high school, his first role was in a musical over at the girls’ school. He received a degree in theater at Fairfield University that was not acting intensive, and after spending some time in New York City, applied to the master’s program at University of Wisconsin in Madison. He moved to Chicago for a role and has remained a regular fixture on the storefront stage, most recently appearing in productions with About Face, Stage Left, and Signal Theatre Ensemble. O’Connell talks to us about the intense fight choreography, homoerotic undertones, and what young actors should do when starting a professional career.
What was the biggest challenge of the script for you?
I wouldn’t say that a challenge leapt out right away. I’d heard negative things about [the script] before, it being this unproduced play and one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays. I think maybe the biggest challenge in the beginning was just trying to put all of that out of my mind when I sat down and read it. But when I read it, I really was able to focus in on who this guy was. I think one of the main detractions from the play is that this is a man who’s not very introspective, and he’s unlikeable, and nobody can identify with him and so on and so forth. But the first thing that kind of leapt out to me was that he was a man with conviction. A lot of people in the world of the play didn’t agree with what his set of beliefs were, but at the same time it was easy for me as an actor to wrap my mind around somebody who had a purpose and a direction and knew what he wanted.
When I started to rehearse the play was when some of the challenges crept up because it’s such a physical role, and the amount of movement and physicality in the violence that’s in the play, in the way that he speaks and holds himself, was something that I really had to train for. And to be able to sustain that over what our running time is for an hour and 45 minutes, that was something that I really had to continue to work at all the way up until the last week of previews. Really understanding what it took both physically and mentally to pursue his actions and maintain that presence that is called for in this role on stage.
How much fight choreography training do you have and how was working through those physical moments with fight choreographer Ryan Bourque?
When I was in grad school, I had three years of fight training. My teacher, Tony Simotes, who’s the artistic director at Shakespeare & Company out in Lennox, Massachusetts, he was my fight instructor. He was great. Before that I had really no training in stage combat, but I left there feeling pretty confident in my ability. That ability had not really been called upon since I moved to Chicago. I hadn’t done a lot of plays with a great amount of combat. I felt confident going into rehearsal. I knew it was in my body, and Ryan was really great at creating an environment where things weren’t thrust upon us that we didn’t feel comfortable with. He works in a really organic way. What I mean by that is he starts from a place and really allows you to have your input on what you think you would do next. You know, I think I’d elbow him in the face here, or I think I would go try to wrestle him to the ground. So it really came out of where your body was at the time, choreographing the music and then he would kind of tap you on the shoulder and jump in for you and sort of feel how it would be like to be in a certain situation or a certain grapple.
Most of the violence in this play is all hand-to-hand. It’s very visceral. Most of the fighting has been very close proximity. There are many times when people are right on top of each other. Ryan was great at walking everybody through that step-by-step, and we got to spend a lot of time in rehearsal on the fights, which really informed everything. For the first 20 minutes, much of it is [Coriolanus] fighting this series of battles. And then after that is done, he then goes back to Rome. I always joke around saying, “I fight for 20 minutes and then I have to do the play.” But he’s not a person that paces himself. So I really needed to throw myself into these fights and just have to worry about what happens after that after that. The idea of tempering the fight so I could sustain through the rest of the play was not an option because that’s not who Coriolanus is. He’s a warrior. And so through lots of rehearsal and as much training as I could do on my own, I felt like I was in really good physical shape to take on the role.
There are some homoerotic undertones in this production. Was that an active choice on director Geoff Button’s part?
Yeah, Geoff and I sat down together before the show began and we talked about Coriolanus and our ideas for what we wanted to do with him and how we wanted to humanize him and make him a human being, complete with flaws and complete with desire and with ambition and secrets and things like that. There’s an obvious relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius, who’s his chief rival on the battlefield and has been for his entire life. And I think that relationship can be interpreted in different ways, but I find it’s always interesting to find out if there is some sort of— when two people speak and talk about each other so much, whether it’s two men or two women or a man and a women, if there’s any sort of love or desire behind that relationship. Is it strictly platonic, or is something else going on, and is that person hiding that or keeping that to themselves for certain reasons?
As we worked on the play -- I think both of us started from a place saying there seems to be something else here, between these two guys, and wouldn’t it be interesting to explore that. As rehearsal started, we definitely started from that place of there being an attraction between these two men. Not only physically but just for who these guys were. There was an attraction based on the fact that they were both warriors. Aufidius is the only person Coriolanus thinks could even begin to understand who he is and what he’s gone through and what it means to lead an army and fight in battle and kill people for your country. So there’s that sort of intense emotional connection and then from that, as we continued to work, we finally had a rehearsal one day where Geoff was just like, “Are we ready to just call this a homosexual attraction? Are we ready to name it?” And both Jude [Roche] and I were like, “Absolutely.” This just makes it that much more interesting to play.
Beyond what that is—I think it’s up to the audience to take what they want after what they see on stage and extrapolate what their relationship is after they get together. There’s a scene three-quarters through the play where Coriolanus comes in to Antium, where Aufidius lives, and basically is asking for his help to turn around and take revenge on Rome who has just thrown him out, who’s exiled him, banished him. After that point, it’s up to the audience to decide what that relationship is, but that was definitely something that we didn’t shy away from in the rehearsal room.
Any advice you’d give to aspiring actors who are trying to build a professional career while trying to find ways to survive financially?
It’s hard. I think the thing you have to do as a young actor who’s trying to do both is number one, know that there’s going to be long hours and to just give over to that. And if you need to have a day job, finding one that is going to be flexible with your performance schedule and being very upfront about what is your priority, and that you are going to need time off. Nothing’s worse than sort of springing that on somebody. It doesn’t make you look good and it just is going to hurt you in the long run. I think another thing you need to do as a young actor is really pay attention to the work that you’re getting and really try to make sure that you set some goals and are always taking steps forward. I know for myself I reached a point where I had a family, I was doing a job and I continued to start getting these roles that just really were very challenging and asked a lot of me. I realized that that was the work I needed to do. And paying attention to myself and talking to people that I knew cared about me and loved me and asking them for advice.
That’s what led me to finally walking away from waiting tables and saying, “You know what, I’m going to dedicate myself full-time to this and see what happens.” I think it’s a very scary prospect, but for me this year has been the most rewarding year of my career because I took the leap, and I think you need to know when you’re ready for that and if you’re not, that’s absolutely fine but know there’s a difference between taking steps forward and treading water. And if you’re somebody who wants to make a living at it, and not everybody does, Chicago’s a really unique place. I love that people can settle into having a day job and doing theater and they’re perfectly happy with that, and then there’s other actors who are pursuing this as a full-time career, and if that is really your goal, making sure that you’re always taking steps to fulfill that and really listening to yourself and listening to those around you who love and care for you, because those are the people that are going to be there for you and help you through the difficult times.
The Hypocrites’ Coriolanus runs through April 21 at Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St, 773-989-7352). Read our review of Coriolanus.