This Friday, Hart House Theatre will host the Canadian premiere of The Great American Trailer Park Musical, directed by Will O’Hare. With a lengthy and impressive resume — including a 2008 appearance as the Fool Hart House’s production of King Lear — O’Hare has traveled all over the world, directing, acting, and instructing in the theatre arts. We sat down with him to talk about his latest endeavour and what it’s like to be the Hart House ambassador of trailer trash.The Varsity: How did this production come to Hart House? How did you become involved as a director? Will O’Hare: Yeah, right, okay, so: Great American Trailer Park Musical. Jeremy [Hutton], the artistic director, contacted me last spring about directing the opening show for the season. So we started reading through a whole bunch of comedies because we thought we would kick off the season with something really funny — just get people to have a good time. We were looking for something high energy. And the music director, Kieren [MacMillan] , and Jeremy, came up with doing The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Kieren had seen it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival [in 2008]. It had also played off-Broadway in New York and a few other places in the states, but it had never been done here. And my sense of it is that Hart House, over the past couple of seasons, has been doing these edgy, high energy, almost irreverent musicals like Jerry Springer: The Opera and High Fidelity. This seemed to fall into this area that Hart House has been exploring.
I was assistant director to Woody Harrelson on Bullet for Adolf when we started talking about this, then I read it and thought, “this is pretty funny!”; then I listened to the music and there was this great rock and roll score. It was all about creating a world that was vibrant, edgy, kitschy, and fun. And that’s how that came about as far as selecting it. I also think that because I’m an American — I’m actually from the South — [Jeremy] thought, “well, if someone is going to direct The Great American Trailer Park Musical, then it has to be an American.”TV: This performance marks the first run of The Great American Trailer Park Musical in Canada; what’s the pressure like in directing the “national premiere” of something?WO: Oh yeah, that’s an interesting one. Well, I think that there’s this thing where you’re expected to be an American or southern expert. You feel like you’re representing the country or, especially coming from the South, a region. Being from the South, I’m often turned to as the authority on trailer parks. But this play takes place in northern Florida and one of the things I’ve tried to impart on the cast is that I come from Tennessee, and the way that Tennesseans look at the world projected in this play is like the way Canadians see the South in general. It is a bit foreign, a bit like, “oh wow people really live like that.” I also think that Canadians really enjoy finding moments where they can laugh at their southern neighbors, and I think that this play does that in the best spirit. It’s actually a celebration of everything that’s “trailer trashy.” This musical is about finding that kitsch element and highlighting it, as opposed to the darker elements of [this world]. TV: Would you say that the play perpetuates or breaks American trailer trash stereotypes? WO: It definitely does do that, but it also points out how these are real people who go through their own [real] problems. There is a number in the play called “The Great American TV Show,” which is this nightmare dream sequence that parodies all those talk shows like Sally Jessy Raphael and Jerry Springer. By seeing those characters on TV, people tend to go, “oh well, I’m not going to feel so bad about myself and how messed up my life is, because these people [are so much worse].” The play does function in that way of “oh let’s look at this world,” but it also has this heart to it; which is what I think is really the key. There is all this kitsch, and it’s so over-the-top, but at it’s heart is a family that is getting reunited and a couple that is rekindling the love in their marriage that over 20 years has faded away. I feel like we’re all set up to laugh but at the same time there’s that moment that makes us go “ah that’s us.” TV: The synopsis describes “hysterical pregnancies,” “death row hi-jinks,” and “chain smoking Camels.” How do you approach those stereotypes to make them more real and relatable? WO: I think that part of it is acknowledging that each of those stereotypes or the things you read in the description are put in there for laughs. We are setting it all up as funny. But when that joke that is so ridiculous and over-the-top is over, that’s when the central characters stop and actually look at each other. That’s the part that is real. Everything doesn’t have to be big and broad and funny, “boom!” Take this couple Jeannie and Norbert, they’ve lived in the same trailer [for twenty years], but she’s agoraphobic and can’t come out of her trailer. That’s the big problem with their relationship. She has never left this tiny space and even though they’ve been in that cramped space forever, they don’t really look at each other. In this play, they’re forced to examine their relationship. TV: Do you have a favorite character or one you enjoy working with the most? WO: [laughs] It actually rotates every rehearsal. The chorus are these three women, “the wives of the trailer park,” who act as guides. They set everything up and then become characters that interact with [the other main characters]. They change in and out of that, but they have their own personalities as well. One, Lin, she’s great, her husband is on death row in prison and she’s seen just about everything in life, so she doesn’t put up with any BS. She cuts down anything that’s too happy. You know, she’s kinda sardonic. She just cuts through everything. Then we have Betty, who’s the “momma.” She runs the place and takes care of everybody. Then there’s young Pickles who’s only seventeen-years-old, and always thinks that she’s pregnant. She’s eager about everything but isn’t quite as sophisticated or as knowledgeable of the world. I find that they are just a lot of fun. TV: Is there one character you would want to play yourself?WO: Well there are only two men in the play. One’s Norbert , the husband, who is a toll collector. He’s been in this marriage for 20 years, and his wife won’t leave the trailer, so he’s a bit at the end of his rope. Then he happens to meet this girl at a strip club, and it makes him feel more alive than he’s felt in a long time. And I can certainly identify with somebody who feels like they’ve fallen into a rut and needs a spark or something like that, but in terms of pure fun, I’d want to play the character of Duke. So the stripper, Pippy, is on the run from her ex-boyfriend [Duke] and here’s this guy who rolls into town looking for her. He has a particular addiction to sniffing markers and is a little bit psychotic, but because he’s the kind of character that is just always on the edge, on the fringe — the actor, Justin [Bott] who is playing him is just fantastic — there is this freedom to make really interesting choices. [Duke’s] not a character you run into everyday. He’s a little dangerous, and is just strange. You never know what he’s going to do. I think that would be a lot of fun to play for sure. TV: What do you think it is about this material that makes it perfect for musical theatre?WO: I think there is this great send up with musical theatre. We imagine that with musical theatre we’re in a world that is beautiful, almost perfect. It’s “boy meets girl” and “boy loses girl.” They’re singing songs and there are some beautiful dances. Then you have [The Great American Trailer Park Musical], and you’re in this place that is so stark, it could be the most depressing environment being in a trailer park, but [the musical] flips that on its head and says, “how can this be spectacular and beautiful and brilliant?” It’s that celebration of everything that is trailer-trashy. It’s the same feeling if you go to a theme park that was built almost 50 years ago. I know that Scott Penner, the stage designer, did a lot of research looking at trailer parks. What I found particularly fascinating is that you see these signs for them, and they all have this aspiration of the American dream. It’s kinda cool. You imagine that gloss, that sheen, and although the sign might be rusty now, these people are still chasing their dreams, they’re trying to improve themselves and trying to better their lives. I think that idea is very attached to what the American dream can be, which is something particular to [musicals]. TV: You’ve worked on Shakespeare productions quite a bit in the past. Is directing something like Shakespeare’s Macbeth different from directing something like this? How do you address the differences in focus and audience?WO: It’s true! It is absolutely different, but there is a function that is also really similar. In Shakespeare and classical work the text is very heightened, but so is it in the musical world. Sometimes there is something that a character in Shakespeare can’t express unless they go into verse, usually when they’re incredibly emotional that they switch from prose into verse, and it’s the same thing with musicals. You’ll have a scene between two characters and one character needs to express something to the other character, or share with the audience what they’re going through, and at that moment, at the height of that emotional moment, [in Shakespeare] they go into verse, but in musicals they go into song. Usually, the structure of a musical song has a lot of similarities to the structure of a Shakespearean monologue. The first verse or the very beginning deals with a problem in the moment: “this is what I’m facing.” Then through the song finds a solution or makes some kind of decision like, “this is what I need to do,” or “this is how my story can move forward,” which is VERY similar to how a Shakespearean monologue works. I find [the similarities] remarkable in that regard. The sensibility and tone in a play like Macbeth is very, very different [from The Great American Trailer Park Musical], but there is still this need to share with the audience, and this play knocks down the fourth wall a lot. Like I said, you have these chorus figures that directly bring the audience along with the story. Shakespeare does that too, the fourth wall rarely ever exists [in Shakespeare]. Those for me, have been my hooks as a director as how to approach it. TV: You’ve worked in both New York and London — how does Toronto compare? Are there particular things you like or dislike about the city? How is the theatre scene different between the three?WO: [Laughs] How many words do I have to answer that one? I love Toronto, as a city and as a theatrical city. I think what I really love about the theatre scene in Toronto is that it’s very accessible. We have an incredibly talented group of people working on this play, from designers who work at Stratford, to performers who work in New York, Japan, and all over the place doing incredible work. Here you have people who are just beginning and are in the early part of their career, maybe right out of school, who are working side by side with veterans and professionals, putting stuff like this together. I find that a place like Hart House is not something that would necessarily be able to exist in New York. I feel like wherever I go in this city and work there is this feeling.
I spent a lot of time this summer checking out the Fringe [Festival]. The entire theatrical community seems to come together for the Fringe. Whereas in New York, the theatre scene is incredible, but there is kind of a Fringe festival going on off-Broadway 365 days a year. So when they have their [official] Fringe, I don’t know if the city even notices because there is so much going on [all the time]. Here, I like the fact that people are aware of what shows are going on and what people are doing. It makes me feel a real sense of a close knit community, which is fantastic. In New York and London, the energy is great, but you feel like a lot of things can also get buried.TV: The subject matter you deal with in this show is definitely unconventional. Do you have anything you’d like to say to people who are maybe hesitant or skeptical about The Great American Trailer Park Musical?WO: The goal is to have a good time and have a great night out. The show is irreverent, the humour is irreverent, so it’s the kind of thing that is not done all the time. It’s not polite. It’s all about a willingness to come and just have fun. There are these great cultural references from the eighties from Lifetime television, to Meredith Baxter-Birney and Sally Jessy Raphael, as well as other talk shows or ads that I remember from TV when I was a kid. I think the older generation will get a kick out of those. The composers really riff off of the past 30 years of pop culture entertainment. TV: So you want people to be brave?WH: Yes! Come come! I encourage you to dress up in your best trailer trash outfit, have a good time, join us at the bar. It should just be a lot of fun. The Great American Trailer Park Musical opens at Hart House Theatre Friday, September 23 and runs through Saturday, October 8.