Playwright John O'Keefe is a true original: a triple-threat theatre experimentalist who pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps from self-described "white trashdom" to an award-winning career as an actor, playwright, and director. His nontraditionally structured plays have touched on topics as varied as his troubled youth in the Midwest (Shimmer, a monologue later expanded into an American Playhouse TV production); the literary Brontë family (The Brontë Cycle and others); and sex and euthanasia (The Deatherians). Recently he directed his much lauded, Holocaust-themed two-hander, Times Like These (at the Odyssey Theatre and elsewhere).
Currently in residency at the Odyssey—thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group grant—he's directing his latest play, Reapers, set in his native Iowa, opening July 16. "Think Eugene O'Neill meets Sam Shepard in a dream of Euripides," reads the Odyssey's advertisement. After that, O'Keefe will return temporarily to his studio in San Francisco to write the libretto for Chrysalis, to premiere at Berkeley Opera.
The story of O'Keefe's childhood—undoubtedly the source of his restless, searching spirit—is truly Dickensian. His mother, an alcoholic, "disappeared a lot," leaving him with others, who periodically turned him in to authorities. What about his father? "Which father?" he retorts.
He lived in orphanages, juvenile halls, and foster homes—where he was abused and sexually molested—often thrown in with juvenile delinquents, although he'd never broken a law. At 12 he could barely read or write, the result of having to switch schools about every five months.
He finally broke a law, though, by running away from a juvenile home and enrolling in a high school, where he met a drama teacher who changed his life. He was soon acting in a school production of Arms and the Man and singing bass solos in The Messiah. With five scholarships in voice, he went to Missouri State Teachers College as a music major.
But other interests beckoned: existentialism (he earned a B.A. in philosophy at the University of Iowa), Jungian psychology, medieval literature, and, finally, theatre. When the then-new Magic Theatre decided to produce the two plays he'd written for his University of Iowa M.F.A. thesis, Chamber Piece and Jimmy Beam, O'Keefe headed to the Bay Area.
He arrived in Berkeley in the 1970s, the "golden age" of experimental theatre. He and two colleagues from the Iowa Theatre Lab—David Schein and Bob Ernst—formed the seminal Blake Street Hawkeyes, a physically based ensemble that created its own material. It operated out of the Magic Theatre's former scene-shop warehouse. Whoopi Goldberg joined the group later, but O'Keefe had gone off on his own by then.
Since that time he has written nearly 30 dense, theatrical, language-rich plays, developed and/or mainstaged at such places as the Padua Hills Playwrights' Festival, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, the Sundance Film Institute, Cinnabar Theater in Northern California, the Magic, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre—as well as in Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Canada. He has also garnered many awards and grants.
O'Keefe prefers to direct his own work and scoffs at naysayers who insist it's too taxing to wear multiple hats. "I've been doing it for 35 years and have never been overwhelmed," he declares.
"John understands what it is to explore," says Los Angeles actor Tina Preston, who appears in Reapers and has been in several other O'Keefe plays over the past two decades. "He sees things on lots of levels: He's fantastic at movement; he's gifted vocally and musically." Preston finds O'Keefe's directorial approach freeing and creative. "He doesn't mind improvising physically, and he doesn't worry about the sense or the reason for it. He helps you get out of your head and surprise yourself," she says. She finds his plays "unique, transcendent," and admires O'Keefe's adventurousness and courage as both playwright and director. "He's electric, alive, very in-the-moment," she says.
Former Magic Theatre artistic director Larry Eilenberg describes O'Keefe's authorial voice as "deeply personal." His aesthetic, says Eilenberg, is like that of poet-playwright Michael McClure and "a challenge to mainstream theatre."
Paul Codiga, former theatre program director at San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle, "O'Keefe was a hero to us young upstarts [in the late 1980s]." The Intersection for the Arts has presented several of O'Keefe's plays.
O'Keefe is plainspoken, iconoclastic, and benignly cantankerous. A committed nonmaterialist and longtime champion of small nonprofit theatre, he complains that plays these days are too stodgy, too politically correct, and downright dull. They should be about "capturing the ineffable, not defining things," he says.
About his theatre-gypsy way of life, he says, "My work carries me wherever I can actually do the art. I don't care where that is. I'm not a lifestylist, I'm an artist."
Indeed he is.
On writing from his roots:
I love that Faulkner wrote from a specific locality in his memory. And Stephen King does that for Bangor, Maine. So I began looking at a combination of fantasy and memoir. My memory may not serve me well, but my fantasy does. Nor is it important that I get memories exactly right.
In Iowa there's less of a population, so the movement of humans is more clearly etched out than in urban areas, where what passes for sophistication is really just noise—people waving their arms and talking loudly…. In Iowa nature is an entity that can make itself known. Zeus still has the power to hurl lightning spears, and gods inhabit the tornadoes.
[Imagine] a Greek drama set in Iowa. What in Greece would be an island, in Iowa would be a farm. And the farmer is the king, his wife is the queen, his daughter the princess, his son the prince. It's closer to a kind of Spartan world than an Athenian world: warlike, deeply agrarian. It's not American naturalism, it's fantasy—but not fantasy as in fantasy literature…. It's about a huge storm that will actually spell the extinction of the human race…. I've done a simple, direct, tight narrative interspersed with poetic "vertical" parts. I call the narrative structure "horizontal" movement, the poetic aspect "vertical" movement. Many times plays indulge in poetry, which isn't necessarily bad, but doesn't always keep [the audience] awake. So the idea was to combine both. It's one of the largest pieces I've done. When you're 64, you figure you better get done what you need to get done before you die.
On the essence of theatre:
I don't like the rhetorical nature of theatre. I find it amazingly boring. Theatre always seems to be about something, but my theatre is the thing….
I think all families are basically dysfunctional. But I really don't understand families, and I'm glad I didn't have to live in one.
Yes, I was sexually abused. I'm not the picture of mental health, but I'm not insane, either. I'm a functioning human being. We live in a culture of victimization, a litigious society that wants to be victimized rather than going forward saying, "Life is naturally hard, and then you die." We deify victims. So I don't have great sympathy for people who don't move on with their lives.
On the Blake Street Hawkeyes:
We tried to continue the physical work influenced by Peter Brook and Grotowski. Also contact improvisation was really great at that time, and tai chi chuan, which helped us move from Eurocentric gymnastics to a much more Asian-oriented movement style, using gravity rather than force…. We were broke. I was living in my camper. We did a lot of martial arts…. If we got more than 20 people, we thought we were selling out…. It's strange; we had a big influence, but we never felt we were influencing anybody at the time.
Don't like it at all, never have. I was forced to do it because I couldn't afford to pay actors.
On other writers:
I'm just now discovering Philip K. Dick, this kind of science fiction/gnostic writer. He wrote Blade Runner. I like his ideas a lot.
On the theatre community:
Theatre people are primarily suburban and are a different class from me—they're upper middle class. They're mostly suburbanites or urbanites. Urbanites are really suburbanites but with a bigger population.
On Los Angeles:
I think maybe L.A. is the future of theatre. It probably has the largest acting talent pool in the country.
Actors love the art so much they're willing to do it for nothing—as long as I am, too.
On how the next generation should approach theatre arts:
With individuality. Look at theatre as an art form, not a career opportunity. Be adventurous and explore theatre any way you want to, disregarding what is considered right or wrong. Don't go according to some model.
On his life so far:
I consider myself a very, very lucky person. BSW
"Reapers" will be presented by and at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd., L.A., Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m. Jul. 16-Sep. 18. $10-35. (310) 477-2055.