Deirdre O’Connell: ‘Dana H.’
“I had no idea if I could do it,” admits Deirdre O’Connell of her entirely lip synced role in “Dana H.” When playwright Lucas Hnath presented her with the text, the uniqueness of the script piqued the actress’ curiosity. That curiosity won out over any fear towards the unknown. “I knew that I wanted to do it. But the idea of lip synching for that role, I had no idea what it would feel like,” she explains. “There was no way to find out except to dive in.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.
“Dana H.” is constructed out of real life audio interviews with Hnath’s mother as she recounts a horrific time in her life where she was abducted by a white supremacist ex-convict. The playwright picked O’Connell to portray his mother after seeing her in a production of Maria Irene Fornes’ “Mud” during the time in which his mother was experiencing the events of the play. “He was struck by how much I reminded him of his Mom,” notes O’Connell. So, the actress sat center stage as Dana’s voice pours forth and lip synced every syllable. She scored the first Tony nomination of her career for the unique theatrical endeavor.
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“This was a piece everyone was making because they loved the idea of seeing if they could do it,” explains O’Connell. A documentary-style play with this conceit was unprecedented, and no one knew if it would come together in a successful way. They certainly didn’t know if it would sell tickets. And the actress says the notion that this Off-Broadway experiment would ever transfer to Broadway never crossed her mind. “I was ready for it to go any number of ways and I was still in for the ride. I wanted to go on the ride,” she states, referring to the thrill of taking on uncharted waters. “I’m using myself as a science experiment.”
In order to dive into the specificity required of her work, O’Connell spent about two and a half months with the recordings. She attempted to utilize two different methods for learning the material, approaching it as a piece of traditional text one day but as a piece of music the next. She laments that the “terrible thing” was that these two practices would cancel each other out when she tried to combine them. “It was so depressing! I was so scared,” admits the Tony nominee. Luckily, through an immense amount of time, the performer says that her two methods fell into harmony with one another, allowing her to successfully learn the play. She likens the process to fully “rewiring the brain.”
O’Connell’s most surprising discovery while performing “Dana H.” was how different the performance could feel from night to night. One would think variances would be impossible given the hyper specific demands of her task, and the fact that there is no room for the actress to pause or milk a line. But she is adamant that “the differences were profound.” Some nights Dana felt angry and defensive, while others she was in a more open and receptive mood. O’Connell wouldn’t know which version of the character was going to come out until she sat in the chair on stage. “Inside that tight constraint… my sense of doing it was very loose,” she explains, “It felt like I was finding it, a new time, every time.”