When I met Maeve Z O’Connor at the Fertile Ground Festival in 2019 she was 17, but she had already outshone many of the Portland new-works festival’s older artists. With grace and wit, her play Leaving Manzanita followed a group of teens scouring the Oregon Coast for a missing friend, transforming what could have been a straightforward mystery into a vortex of emotion.
In her new play, Omission—which will have its world premiere on the Keizer Cultural Center Patio on Thursday, Aug. 19—O’Connor tells the story of Rue (Julianna Gibbons), a professor who gets trapped in a jazz bar with a group of strangers during a storm while searching for her missing wife.
“I wrote about a good half to three fourths of a show that I was working on before the pandemic hit,” O’Connor says. “I’d describe it as kind of like Newsies meets 1984. And then we got to maybe mid-to-late 2020 and I was like, ‘I cannot physically write more of this.’ I started planning for Omission instead, and it’s a whole hell of a lot darker.”
O’Connor, who is now a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, spoke to ArtsWatch about writing Omission, her musical influences, and the battles that come with being a young playwright.
ARTSWATCH: Could you tell me a little bit about the characters in Omission?
MAEVE Z O’CONNOR: For me, it was always a story about Rue. It’s a story that’s so much from her psyche. She works at a fictional Ivy League or Ivy League-adjacent school called Hearst and she teaches literature and creative writing. She’s very well-spoken and she’s very charismatic, but she’s definitely got an edge to her, and she’s played by the lovely Julianna Gibbons.
Like Leaving Manzanita, Omission is a mystery. What keeps drawing you back to that genre?
First and foremost, I don’t think of myself as writing mysteries. I think of myself as someone who tells stories that often tend to be a little surreal or a little off-putting, where not everything is given to you outright. Any elements of the driving plot and any elements of surprise are secondary to what’s going on between the people in the play.
How did you decide on a jazz bar for the location of the play?
It’s most certainly not a musical, but we have these themes of music. One of the characters is a pianist—and a little bit in denial about it. This particular jazz bar, the flavor of it at least, is a little bit based on the piano bars that I used to sing at when I was a kid—I think most notably Tony Starlight’s, which has shut down the location that I frequented.
How young were you when you started singing in places like that?
I sang at Tony Starlight’s when I was about 11. I would take absolutely any opportunity to get up and sing for people. I was not a very self-conscious child. I was always very happy to entertain, because I grew up on this diet of golden-oldie-type movies—a lot of Fred Astaire, a lot of Judy Garland, some Audrey Hepburn.
But really, I watched a lot of old musicals, and I mean really old musicals—from the 1940s, primarily. I totally idealized that sound and that genre of music, and I really, really wanted to share it with people. 11-year-old me, none of my friends knew what the hell any of that was, and I was always so excited to invite them to come see me. I was really quite a nerd about it.
You have two plays, Omission and The Icarus Paradox, that involve people being confined somewhere. Was that an effect of the past year?
Well, The Icarus Paradox I actually wrote before the pandemic. I always pictured Omission as, “This show has one setting and you’re just here in this jazz bar,” but what I discovered after finishing the script was that I couldn’t even bear to put an intermission in it. You don’t get a break. You’re just there, experiencing the whole thing in real time, start to finish. There are no blackouts. There’s really only one scene change, and you are just right there with the characters in this one room the whole time.
With Omission, what did you want to say? Were you trying to communicate an idea or a feeling?
I don’t like writing morality shows. I think as soon as you’re trying to tell the audience something—as soon as you’re trying to relay an opinion or even an idea—you lose the soul of the play. It becomes something that very well could have just been an essay.
Admittedly, Omission has very little to do with the pandemic—there’s no references to it at all, it’s not a pandemic play—but the feelings of helplessness, the theme of being trapped, the idea of almost a no-exit scenario where it is you and a handful of other people stuck with each other indefinitely, I think [those things] are very pertinent.
I’m curious about your experience of being a young playwright. Do you still have to deal with people underestimating you and the bullshit of all that?
Absolutely! Are you kidding? Just on a very personal level, I think a lot of people look at me, because in person, I am even more baby-faced than my actual 19 years. I think I can come off as being even younger, so there’s a sort of tendency to say, “This is the playwright? Are we sure? Are we positive?”
I think there’s a tendency to underestimate not only young people, but to underestimate teenage girls specifically. I think there’s this really prevalent societal idea that we’re frivolous and perhaps that we do not have anything worth saying until we’re a bit older.
And I would argue that it is not the rare teenage girl who has something to say, but it is the vast majority of them, whether or not they are interested in plays or theater or the arts or movies or literature or whatever. I’ve been lucky to be able to share my voice in a way that a lot of people who are my age and gender really don’t.
Adults can talk themselves in circles so easily, and I feel like younger people have this way of getting right at the heart of the matter, sometimes almost instantly. Maybe I’m kind of naïve about that, but it’s just something I’ve noticed throughout the years.
I think my generation in particular—Gen Z, that is—really hasn’t had a chance to mince our words a lot. You scream to be heard, and you better make sure it’s something worth saying.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Keizer Homegrown Theatre’s premiere production of Omission will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, August 19, 20 and 21, on the Keizer Cultural Center Patio, 980 Chemawa Road Northeast, Keizer. Ticket and scheduling information: http://www.keizerhomegrowntheatre.org/