There’s scarcely a Shakespearean play that Jason O’Connell has not appeared in, either in New York City or in theaters around the country: Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard III, and others. The mesmerizing thing about him is that he can go from playing clownish to somber to tyrannical in a heartbeat, as I saw him do recently in a production of Sense & Sensibility, based on the Jane Austen novel. The man is a quick-change artist who inhabits his characters with bottomless depth. He will be showcasing these skills this month at NYC’s Abingdon Theatre in his one-man show The Dork Night, a riff on his lifelong obsession with the many portrayals of the Caped Crusader on the page and on the screen.
Brent: What's the most challenging role you've ever prepared for in terms of memorization? How did you approach it?
Jason: The most challenging roles I've ever had to commit to memory were Hamlet and Don Juan (in Shaw's “Don Juan in Hell” from Man and Superman), but for different reasons.
Brent: Let’s start with Hamlet.
Jason: In the case of Hamlet, it was still relatively early in my career, and it was the first time in my experience that a director had asked (required, actually) that the cast be completely off-book on Day 1.
Brent: So, no script in hand at all. How did you react?
Jason: Having never done that before, I was nervous to say the least. I had always associated memorization with the repetition of working on a scene with the director and other actors, up on my feet, aware of the different circumstances and goals related to the production and the process. To memorize before having a chance to explore and play in that way felt daunting to me. And, of course, there's no bigger, scarier role to do so with. I was petrified.
Brent: Being off-book must have been daunting for everyone. How did the director support you?
Jason: Luckily for me, my director worked methodically and chronologically, AND we were rehearsing in rep with several other plays, so we were only rehearsing three or four hours a day (as opposed to upwards of eight), so I was able to move scene by scene through the character's journey, committing perhaps a scene or two a day to memory before walking into rehearsal.
Brent: Was it useful that you were working on a well-known play as opposed to something abstract and less familiar?
Jason: It certainly helped that the role was so famous. I think actors have more Shakespeare (and Hamlet in particular) embedded into their brains than they might think. It actually was a very civilized way to work, and while I feared that memorization without context might have led me to develop a "way" of speaking the speeches that might be difficult to break, I actually found playing Hamlet without EVER holding a book in my hand to be incredibly freeing. I think I was probably all the better for it—though I have to admit, that is almost NEVER the way I work on roles now.
Brent: How interesting that this approach liberated more than constrained you. What about the role of Don Juan? What challenges did that present?
Jason: With Don Juan, it was a very short rehearsal process, and there were HUGE chunks of dense text—intellectual musings and rich philosophical arguments that often spanned pages without interruption. I not only had to learn it quickly, but I also had to make it feel natural and human, as opposed to a lecture on existentialism.
Brent: Right, and no iambic pentameter to guide you. Sounds tougher than Shakespeare.
Jason: That was, in many ways, more difficult than Hamlet, but the approach was pretty much the same as it is for any great Shakespearean character—I needed to understand what I was saying first and foremost, and then find the emotional core of it all. I had to make sure there was a human connection there—a palpable need to communicate these thoughts.
Brent: That you can immerse yourself in your character so quickly is a tremendous gift.
Jason: When you're on a deadline, it may feel as if there isn't enough time to delve that deep, but If I didn't, I don't think I could have memorized it. Learning things by rote is very difficult for me. Actually sitting with it and considering it and turning it over in my mind and heart was key even though the clock was ticking.
Brent: Let me ask you about the recent production of Sense & Sensibility that you starred in alongside Kelley Curran. Though it was a relatively linear story, the staging had very involved blocking, with the actors themselves changing the sets around as they performed. How did you all keep the sequence of the scenes straight?
Jason: It is incredibly involved, and specific, and (in many instances) timed out within an inch of its life. It is also very dependent on everyone else on stage. Almost nothing happens without the company as a whole making it happen. The entire piece vibrates and hums as a result, even in its quieter moments. That's one of the amazing things about working with director Eric Tucker. You are always a part of what's happening in the space, and as a result, you basically have to memorize the physical life of the show the exact same way you memorize your lines for the show.
Brent: All these components, then, have to cohere seamlessly into a single whole.
Jason: They are all pieces of one large puzzle. The show is both highly choreographed and yet pulsing with life. It's not mechanical. It breathes. The same was true of the five-person Midsummer Night's Dream I did with Eric last year. Each second you're on stage is filled with some role or function, to the point where you almost have to memorize the lines for the entire show (or, perhaps more accurately, an entire show's worth of information). Every time I get into previews of a show with Eric, I need a cheat sheet on my person, because there is so, so much that I—and all of us—are personally responsible for from the second the show begins! It's exhilarating (and exhausting)!
Brent: I’m not surprised to hear you need a cheat sheet, given the organized chaos you’re all swirling around in. On a related subject, in Sense & Sensibility, did anyone ever forget which scene came next or which character they were supposed to be? I always love to hear the creative ways that actors get back on track.
Jason: I think that with all the short, highly cinematic scenes that Kate Hamill has written into this very delicious script, it's probably easier early on—during previews, say—to get confused about which scene is coming up next or where your next appearance or costume change may be, etc. As far as the characters themselves, though, I think that once you've done the work and are up on that stage and those circumstances are unfolding around you, it's almost impossible to forget who you are in a given moment (even if you're playing two or more characters in a scene). I think the actor's instinct takes over. They may not be wearing the right vest or wig, but they can't help but wear the correct persona, the correct soul.
Brent: Do you ever use any visualization and association techniques to master your lines, or is memorization for you largely character-driven?
Jason: It's funny, because my answer would be that it's generally character-driven, but yet I do tend to "see" the words when I'm first memorizing something. I don't know if what I'm about to say has anything to do with what you mean by the word "visualization," but here goes. When I was a child, I realized that I had something of a photographic memory.
Brent: Now, that’s intriguing! How did your photographic memory manifest itself?
Jason: I'm also a visual artist and for many years in my youth wanted to be a cartoonist (I even have a one-man show, The Dork Knight, about my love for comic-book superheroes in general, and Batman in particular), so I do tend to think of things in terms of images and even formatting on a page. Comic books are written and drawn very specifically with the aim to lead your eye to a certain point on the page in a very precise fashion, which I find fascinating. Sometimes the artwork leads the way in this, but very often it's the placement of the actual words (or word "balloons") on the page.
Brent: So, does this visualization arise spontaneously, or do you have to use specific techniques?
Jason: I wouldn't say that I intentionally employ any specific techniques, but when I'm trying to learn something quickly—say for an audition, or just as a first attempt to get the book out of my hand in rehearsal—I will often “see” the page in my mind: the lines themselves, which words begin and end paragraphs, their placement on the page or in the book. I can visualize where the holes are for me. Where the peaks and valleys of the scene are. That all goes away for the most part once I know the words well, but I'm sure it's helpful in the short term. When I'm really steeping myself in a piece and am not faced with as tight a time constraint, the visual plays a much less significant role.
Brent: That’s why I remain a loyal fan of physical media—hardcover books, newspapers, magazines, paper scripts, etc. They contain so many cues—visual as well as tactile and even auditory and olfactory—to help with retention of the information. Any parting advice for my readers?
Jason: As with everything else in acting, there is no right way to do ANYTHING, so whichever memorization technique works best for you and allows you to get to the heart of the character is the one you should follow. And that will likely be different depending on the role, or the time frame you have to work on the role, or even where you are in your life at a particular moment while you are playing the role. As long as you're committed to the work and getting the results you want and need, anything is of value.
Brent: One more question, since I know that you also perform stand-up and improv: if you know your character deeply enough, do you ever intentionally improvise in a scripted play?
Jason: I have had many opportunities in my career to improvise in scripted shows. I did a good bit of it in Sense & Sensibility, in fact. But I do so ONLY when it is sanctioned by the playwright and/or the director. There is a big difference between a specific moment of improvisation in performance, and a general attitude of sloppiness when it comes to the text as written. If you've memorized carefully, the latter shouldn't ever be an issue. I feel it's a privilege to be an actor and to speak great lines and thoughts and speeches, and so I really do try my very best to always be word-perfect unless I'm specifically asked to do otherwise.
Brent: Thank you so much, Jason. You’ve let us in on so many ways of mastering material. I appreciate your generosity and look forward to seeing you on stage this month in The Dork Knight. Break a wing!
Jason: Thank you, Brent!