By Khaleel Herbert
For 14 years, Rebecca Gorman O’Neill has taught the drama writing workshop class in the English department at MSU Denver. She’s the only person certified to teach the course because she holds a Master of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing.
Life in Akron
Before her life in Denver began, she was just a child dreaming of theater in the rubber capital of the world – Akron, Ohio.
“Akron was, and is, a blue-collar city that suffers economically. It’s not the most beautiful or culturally rich city in the world,” O’Neill said. “But because I was lucky enough to have a very stable and loving family life, it will always be home.”
In Akron, she focused on singing and acting. She performed in her high school productions of “The King and I,” “Pippin,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Kiss Me Kate.” Before heading to Dartmouth College, O’Neill got a mild case of mono, which took a toll on her singing voice. However, she remained dedicated to acting.
Actor Turned Playwright
While at Dartmouth, O’Neill chose to double-major in English and drama. At 20 years old she studied drama abroad in London at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“I saw 56 plays in four months. The RSC teachers were hard – really hard – but I still use things I learned that semester in my teaching like vocal projection and posture,” O’Neill said. “It was the first time I spent time in a major city, experienced a diverse culture, and really immersed myself in what would later become my career.”
O’Neill learned a lot about herself. Most importantly, she discovered that she didn’t like to act.
“The moment I knew I couldn’t be an actor was in a movement class in London, which was being taught by a woman who wore a unitard and lots of scarves,” O’Neill said. “She would say things like, ‘You are yellow! Be yellow!’ and ‘Be the number three! Go!’ I was very much not into that. I’m pretty sure she hated me.”
Although O’Neill fell out of acting, she tumbled into playwriting after receiving a life-altering phone call.
“I get a call while I’m in London from my best friend back in New Hampshire,” O’Neill said. “He says, ‘you won.’ And then I’m like, ‘What did I win?’”
The first play O’Neill wrote developed from a three-person scene for a playwriting class. The scene turned into a one-act play titled, “Well Wishing…” The play is about a princess who decides to rebel against the prince she’s arranged to marry and leave her castle, never to return. She goes to a wishing well, with an unknown figure inside, contemplating the next steps of her life.
O’Neill submitted “Well Wishing…” to Dartmouth’s Eleanor Frost One-Act Play Competition. The winning play would get produced by the Dartmouth theater department. She described how opening night for “Well Wishing…” sprung her into her permanent playwriting role.
“Opening night changed my life. I paced in the back of the theater and the lights went down,” O’Neill said. “An actor came on the stage, said something and 222 people all laughed at the same time. I was like, ‘That’s it. Never acting again.’ I found a thing that I could do in the field that I loved that wasn’t acting.”
Tom Stoppard, Martin McDonagh, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the legendary William Shakespeare are all of O’Neill’s favorite and influential playwrights. Her mentors included Peter Parnell from Dartmouth College and Milan Stitt at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in Dramatic Writing in 1999 after graduating from Dartmouth in 1996.
When O’Neill writes her plays, the first thing she focuses on is the location.
“This works quite well for playwriting, as usually you only get one location,” O’Neill explains. “So I like to start with locations that are interesting and ready for conflict–a graveyard, a wishing well, a really lame travelling circus, a hospital in 1849.”
When theaters pick up one of O’Neill’s plays, sometimes she has a say in how the play is produced.
“It really depends on the theatre and on the situation. I’ve had plays that I’ve sent off that have gotten produced and the theatre mails me pictures and a program,” O’Neill explains. “I’ve had plays where I’ve been there at auditions and been able to make revisions to the script through the rehearsal process.
“I’ve been flown to places for opening nights, and there have been a couple plays that my mom and dad have gone to see and I never had,” O’Neill adds. “It really is a case-by-case thing. On plays I’m involved in the development of, I follow the training I’ve gotten, which is that the playwright talks to the director and only the director. The director’s in charge after all.”
Joining the Roadrunners
Before getting her MFA, O’Neill scored an internship building furniture and props for the Seattle Repertory Theatre. This internship got her a job at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder, where she worked during and after grad school. She later worked for the Denver Performing Arts Complex as a props master, buyer and artisan.
“My parents were teachers and the joke was that they always said teaching was one career my brothers and I weren’t allowed to go into,” O’Neill said. “They worked so hard and for so little money. I was working at the Denver Center and things were going well. Then 9/11 happened.”
After 9/11, O’Neill noticed that plays with big casts and elaborate sets at the Denver Performing Arts Complex started shrinking.
“I remember we were running a production of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ that had at least 20 people and a beautiful, elaborate set. After 9/11, it seemed like money got tight,” O’Neill said. “Smaller casts, shorter rehearsal times, sets and costumes took fewer people to build.”
O’Neill had the credentials to teach English, although her MFA was in Dramatic Writing. She said MSU Denver allowed her to teach English because Dramatic Writing fell under the college’s English umbrella. She walked across the street and applied to the then-Metropolitan State College of Denver.
In 2003, O’Neill was hired as an English 1020 affiliate faculty member. For the next year, O’Neill taught three sections on Tuesdays and Thursdays while still working at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. She was soon offered the opportunity to teach her passion.
The timing could not have been better because O’Neill was let go from the Denver Performing Arts Complex just a few days before her interview.
She got the job.
O’Neill is entering her second year as the interim department chair.
“I like feeling that I’m making a difference in the university, advocating for and strengthening the English department,” O’Neill said. “And most of all, serving our students and helping ensure they get the best possible education from our English and linguistics programs.”
Renée Ruderman, veteran MSU Denver English professor, weighed in her thoughts on O’Neill’s leadership as the interim department chair..
“Her work ethic and organizational skills have served the faculty, staff and students very well,” She is dedicated to making department communications transparent and fair,” Ruderman said. “It’s rather unusual to be skillful at both creative writing and the stuff of bureaucracy, but somehow, Rebecca manages to balance the two.”
Ruderman reveals why O’Neill is such a prominent professor for the drama writing workshop classes.
“I have observed Rebecca’s playwriting classroom and students love the camaraderie–the dynamic she creates during discussions and demonstrations,” Ruderman said. “Even while students groan at the amount of writing required to write a play, they love the challenges and the results.”
The Playwright Keeps Writing
Today, O’Neill remains active in the theater community. She says she learns from every actor, director, designer, and producer she works with.
Along with local theaters, Her work has also been performed in various states including California, New York and Minnesota. She even had one of her plays performed at the InspiraTO 10-Minute Play Festival in Toronto.
O’Neill also had the opportunity to work with the Athena Project, an arts organization devoted to encouraging women in the arts. Angela Astle, the founder and producer of Athena and Amelia Retureta, the production coordinator, were the main people who helped produce O’Neill’s “The Ghosts of Us” in 2015.
“She was a dream to work with. She was focused, met every deadline she had and was eager to obtain feedback and truly collaborate,” Astle said. “She was also grateful for the opportunities Athena Project provided, which was a bonus for us.”
Astle says the best quality of O’Neill’s playwriting is her modern dialogue.
“She writes real people who say real things. She knows what to keep and what to let go of,” Astle said. “When she says she’s going to do something, she does. I love working with women and men like that.”
O’Neill says the play she’s most proud of is “Mynx & Savage,” an idea that formed after teaching the English 411J class, The Graphic Novel. The play is about a comic book writer who is torn between writing lucrative stories about superheroes and a dark true story he’s afraid to let loose on the public. The Vortex Theatre in Albuquerque, New Mexico will produce “Mynx & Savage” in 2018.
O’Neill says she wants to be known as the playwright who tells memorable stories and a teacher who truly supported her students.
“I hope people remember me as a playwright who tells good stories,” O’Neill says. “I hope people will remember me as a professor who genuinely cared for her students and who did her best to teach them well.”
For more information on Rebecca Gorman O’Neill, visit her MSU Denver Page: https://webapp.msudenver.edu/directory/profile.php?uName=rgorman2
This article is also on the Metro-Post Telegraph: https://post-telegraph.com/news/the-traveling-playwright-rebecca-gorman-oneills-journey-in-the-world-of-theater/