Brooke O'Harra is behind "I'm Bleeding All Over The Place."
Brooke O'Harra is behind "I'm Bleeding All Over The Place."
Photo credit courtesy of Brooke O'Harra, used with permission.

“I’m Bleeding All Over The Place: A Living History Tour” is a theatrical show that was conceived and directed by Brooke O’Harra, the co-founder of the OBIE Award-winning group Two-Headed Calf which was started in 2000.

Guided by ten performers, audiences at “I’m Bleeding All Over The Place” move through a series of theatrical encounters where bodies, biography, performance tropes, and original text come together to create an unforgettable experience that probes the potential of spectatorship. Stepping into the emotional landscape of everyday conflict, this work examines how gender and sexuality, story, conflict and resolution fuse in the dynamic space between performers and their audience. On this tour individual histories, the culture at large, even the formal apparatus of theater become part of the transformative energies that implicate the actor into a political body.

Recently, Brooke O’Harra spoke to AXS about her experiences working as a playwright and her hopes for the future:

AXS: How did you get interested in theater and how did you break into the theatrical industry?

Brooke O’Harra (B.O.): I did not grow up with much theater, and I never had the opportunity to participate in plays or anything while I was growing up. I was an athlete. I went to college for mechanical engineering and ended up in a theater class as an elective. The theater classroom is such a seductive space and for many people it’s a freeing space. Theater is very special – it allows for an open way of being in the world and with people that is a gift. Theater training offers a person space to see themselves as living people being with each other. Because I teach theater at the college level I see how not extraordinary my “discovery” of theater was. People do it all the time – a football player shows up in an acting class – at first he jokes around with his jock friends and makes fun of the activities. And the next thing you know he’s working super hard – he wants to partner up with the kid who is awkward socially but who comes alive on the stage. And then two years later our football player is going to a conservatory to study opera singing. I broke into the industry simply because I gravitated towards artists with similar interests (Brendan Connelly the composer and co-founder of the theater of a Two-headed Calf being one such person). We moved to New York from New Orleans and we made work wherever anyone would let us. And we saw work all the time. We just entered the downtown theater scene like we belonged there and then we did belong there.

AXS: You have won an Obie. What was that experience like?

B.O.: With the The Theater of a Two-headed Calf I developed and directed a Kabuki play Drum of the Waves of Horikawa. This was an intense collaboration that took over two years to develop. Brendan Connelly created an original score for a live punk rock/hard core band. The actors and I worked to develop a very specific physical vocabulary based on the incidental or accidental moves of punk rock or hard core singers. It was so much fun but so labor intensive. It had a great run in NYC after several runs outside of the city. We were invited to the Obies as a company and I knew actress Heidi Schreck was being given an Obie for her performance in that show. But people keep saying we should also prepare for also receiving an Obie because the Obie committee we really insistent that we all be there. And they were right. We got an Obie Award Grant which is given to the whole company and given for all of your work not a single project. It was joyful and celebratory. It was wonderful to be acknowledged in that room full of people who are so talented and know what it takes to make work happen.

AXS: To date, how many roles have you played and what has been your favorite?

B.O.: I am not an actor. I am an experimental theater director and an artist. But in this new project, which is a tour not a play, many of the actors perform me, Brooke O’Harra, as a figure in the Living History Tour – the non-fiction historical Brooke is the creator and director of the events of the tour, the guide. I can’t choose favorites among my projects. Each one involved so much “blood” – so much giving, so much opening up to collaboration. Making these works is an extreme act of generosity on everyone’s part – even the audience who is the final point of contact of creation.

AXS: What inspired you to start Two-Headed Calf Productions and why was that specific name chosen?

B.O.: Brendan Connelly and I were already making work together and we understood that we wanted to continue to work together. So we felt we had to have a name for our collaborative presence - thus the two-heads. We were working on our third Witkiewicz play at the time. He had a play called the Metaphysics of a Two-headed Calf. So we borrowed from him. Brendan is working as a sound designer and composer on this project. BUT this is not a Two-Headed Calf project. It is part of a larger individual project that I have been working on called “I’m Bleeding All Over the Place: Studies in Directing or Nine Encounter between Me and You.” I did three parts of this project at the New Museum two years ago. This part four, A Living History Tour, has the most formal production values – and has many performances. I have yet to decide what part five should be – each part happens in response to the last.

AXS: What kind of plays do the Two-Headed Calf favor? Do you ever work with playwrights? If so, are you currently accepting submissions?

B.O.: We’re experimental theater artists. We do plays, operas, serial dramas that create the possibility for dialogue – whether that is dialogue about form, or gender or sexuality. We do not take submissions. Every project comes from a little seed of desire to try something new with an audience. We work with living playwrights quite a bit. We commissioned playwrights to write original librettos for our new music opera You, My Mother. We also work with playwrights who died in the 1700’s (is that possible?). I have been working very closely with playwrights in all parts of “I’m Bleeding All Over the Place.” The Living History Tour has a script that has text from four playwrights, all women and all people who I invited to contribute to the project.

AXS: How do you find actors to star in your shows? Can performers sign up to become part of Two-Headed Calf and/or work with you on occasion?

B.O.: Crushes. Directors have actor crushes. Someone who is really present in a room and who makes us think about who they really are and why they are there – someone like that is sexy and someone like that should be in my projects. For this project in particular, I chose performers who an audience might want to really contemplate, performers who have very individual appeal. I want my audience to have complicated feelings about the people talking to them. I am also trying to learn how an audiences desire and attraction translate into meaning inside of a show.

AXS: In June you are producing a show called "I'm Bleeding All Over The Place." How did you come up with the idea for this show?

B.O.: I have been influenced in my research thus far, by Hannah Arendt’s incisive analysis of action or praxis, which she elaborates at length in her book, “The Human Condition” and continues in “The Life of the Mind.” In her assertion that human beings singularly appear to each other in both action and speech and that this unique capability sits at the foundation of politics or political work, I find a dynamic analogy to the scene of a performance event. In an historic moment in which the public sphere is constrained by a multitude of state and non-state parties, I am interested in the radical potential of the event to open a space for action, in the sense that Arendt describes. I find Arendt’s theorization of action offers significant approaches through which to examine the collective encounter of the performance as scene of action, a scene of politics and to push the consideration of this encounter toward a dynamic interrogation that can be at once physical, material, experiential as well as discursive. I am proposing to engage this foundational research question through a project, “I’m Bleeding All Over the Place: Studies in Directing or Nine Encounters Between Me and You,” that assumes the form of a series of artistic studies as public encounters. These performance events literally unfold in front of and in dialogue with an audience in order to propose performance as an active site of praxis, both aesthetically and politically speaking. Through these events, I attempt to open a time and space through which to address the politics of performance form and the regulation of embodiment that lies at the foundation of theatrically-based performance practice but also, I would contend, at the base of performance more generally and the related sphere of politics.
It was envisioned as a research project and a performance of research in the sense that the project proposes NOT to construct a resolved performance work but, rather, to actively investigate the site and the moment of a performance event as a living political space in which a group of people come into a specific relation to each other for a brief period of time. The vision of a given performance and its realization are so clearly a product of the personal collisions engendered by and through collaboration: the collaboration (and collision) between a director, a text, a performer or a set of performers but also the collaboration (and collision) between those people and the histories that proceed them, the culture that engulfs them and the specific context in which they address an audience or public. These collaborations come to form through processes that are, at once, pleasurable and painful, through confrontations of artistry, will, desire, instincts, research and power that are, necessarily informed by the ideological and political conditions in which these processes occur. I imagine the project research will materialize in at least two primary forms: a series of performed public components/events and a body of writing that documents but also expands upon the questions of the research. Depending on how the project moves through the research question and the directions the encounters take me, there may be other material components.
In May 2014, I took some preliminary steps in my research through the actualization of three public performances and a panel discussion at the New Museum in New York City. Interestingly and dynamically, these preliminary steps, rather than clarifying the project, threw me into a whole field of new questions. At each event, the audience was given a blank card. I instructed them to take notes, make comments, record thoughts, questions and observations. I additionally asked them to pass the cards around such that they were able to read each other comments, compose reactions to each other, add to or disagree with what was (anonymously) written before them on the card. These cards documented and demonstrated and animated the space between the work and the audience, between the performers and the director and the audience. I am literally working in front of an audience because I believe that there is a living space between the work and the audience that is one of the least explored aspects of contemporary performance practice. How gender and sexuality, narrative and story, conflict and resolution, relate and come to form in this living space is of deep importance to all realms of public encounters such as those of politics, ethics, aesthetic practice, etc.
While these first steps in the project investigated the politics and violence inherent to the domestic sphere, the next stages of the project should, I believe, engage among other things: what appears to be its opposite, the intimacy of the public realm.
Unlike any of my previous work, this piece asks me to work profoundly in between–in between rehearsal and performance, performer and audience, theater and performance, public and private. These in-betweens are decidedly unstable but I am committed to excavating their potential for radical revelation.

AXS: To date, what has been the most rewarding part of working in the theater industry?

B.O.: The best thing about the industry is that theater happens live and that it has quirky conventions that form a kind of shared language. I love that it takes so many people to realize an event for an audience and those people have to work incredibly hard to be both collaborative and distinct. And then some guy from wherever (or maybe your best friend or lover) shows up and has an experience right there in the room with everybody.

AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is striving to enter the theater industry?

B.O.: Make work make work make work. Make friends make friends make friends. Don’t sweat the crazy stuff.

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Tours are scheduled to take place on June 16, 17, 18 and 19 and June 22, 23, 24 and 25 at 7pm, 7:30pm and 8pm. Matinee tours take place on June 18, 19, 25 and 26 at 3pm, 3:30pm and 4pm. Each tour starts promptly and lasts approximately 45 minutes. Please arrive at least 10 minutes prior to the tour. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors, and can be purchased at the La Mama website

To learn more, visit the official website and Facebook or La Mama. To watch a clip from the show, see here.