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Ones to watch: Sarah OConnell

Ones to watch:  Perris Aquino |  Brittany McKay |  Sarah OConnell |  Chris Ramirez |  Javier Sanchez

For Asylum Theater’s artistic director, the play — preferably new and daring — really is the thing

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Sarah O’Connell? Artistic director of Asylum Theatre and a 2014 One to Watch, that Sarah O’Connell? Okay! Here’s what I have learned:

She loves the spicy ketchup that comes with the fries at Bar + Bistro, where me meet.

She is bouncy, animated, funny and erudite when in the throes of theater evangelism — not once in the 55 minutes and 57 seconds of our conversation is she at a loss for words.

Asylum Theater occupies a singular spot in the city’s theater ecosystem. It works with playwrights nationwide to present only new works — no comfortingly familiar Arsenic and Old Laces, no crowd-pleasing Oklahoma!s — often putting them through staged readings in the presence of the author, after which the audience offers feedback. It’s an experience of audience empowerment rare in the arts: Vegas viewers can actually influence the direction of a play’s next draft. “Audiences,” she says, “don’t have to be taken for granted.”

Staging new work entails a risk, and O’Connell’s more or less comfortable with that. “I feel like I would be doing it wrong if I didn’t feel a little anxious,” she says. “But that’s the job of theater. We’re the last bastion of people who literally put themselves out there physically, tell you a story in person, and are willing to take back, in that room, to our face, what you think of it.”

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She’s right about the ketchup, by the way. Delicious.

Three-hundred-fifty. That’s how many plays were submitted for Asylum’s 2014-15 season, from writers around the nation. She has just five slots. That’s a 99.98 percent cutdown, and, if you’re Sarah O’Connell, that only happens by reading each one, all the way to the end. This while (1) working at the lighting design firm she and her husband own; (2) raising a pair of young children; and (3) running Asylum. So: late nights and early mornings, an ocean of coffee glugged. She sighs, “I put up a post that said, ‘The midnight oil has been replaced with an LED light.’”

“Sarah occupies a unique position in our theater community,” says local director Troy Heard. “As we continue to grow and mature, she provides a open dialogue between us and the national playwriting network, exposing us to new, unpublished works and introducing playwrights to our developing scene.” “Because of her,” adds director and actor Erik Amblad, “we might actually see Las Vegas on the map.”

She apparently likes to tell people things, specifically funny-but-meaningful zingers about culture: “I tell people you are what you eat, so eat more art.” “I tell people to put Asylum on their list of must-see not TV.”

O’Connell took over Asylum Theater in 2003, shortly after arriving here from San Francisco to open the lighting business. She’d been active in the Bay Area theater scene, doing experimental work while attending Cal State Hayward (“one of our instructors was named Edgardo, and we called him avant-gardo”), and later in a more professional capacity.

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For a college project, she and a classmate named James Monroe Iglehart once envisioned a theater troupe devoted to nontraditional new work — very much like Asylum, in fact.

She learned the craft of directing in a then-new MFA program at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, in Glasgow. Late ’90s. It was a tough, serious program; you worked with professional actors and your performances were judged by pros, too — if, at any point, your work flagged, they could send you home. Not home to your lodgings in Glasgow, mind you. Home home. O’Connell persevered: “I got the first masters in directing in the UK that was ever offered.”

While there, she offered private acting lessons. James McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted, X-Men: First Class, Muppets Most Wanted) was a student.

Not long ago, she was in New York, visiting her old friend James Monroe Iglehart — about a week before he won a Tony for his performance as the genie in Aladdin. You’re doing it, he enthused, our project! But the real point being, she has a nationwide web of connections like that, actors, writers, artistic directors; hers is not a parochial view of Asylum’s role.

What does she look for when she’s reading 350 scripts? “If I read it and I find it hard to care, I can’t imagine my audience is going to walk away going, Oh, that was relevant or engaging.” It’s hard for O’Connell to define precisely what makes any particular piece an Asylum play. She likes psychological dramas, works about family dynamics. Politics are fine; last season she staged a play about the Tea Party. There’s an element of know-it-when-you-see-it in picking a season. “There are some things,” she says, “that when you read it you go, ‘Wow, more people should get to experience this.’”

About audiences, though: Man, that’s a tough one. Letting Las Vegans know there’s theater here beyond Smith Center musicals; getting them to drive in from their corner of the valley; getting them to see the essential, feeder dynamic of an organism like Asylum: “None of those shows ended up at The Smith Center without starting at an Asylum.”

Recent productions that typify Asylum’s mojo? “Terrible Infant, a drama by Chris Van Strander — a staged reading we produced in 2003 that went on to a New York premiere in 2004 as a result of our development. The Devil, the Damsel, and Demon Rum, by Mike Corda and Raymond Hull, was an original musical in the style of old-fashioned melodrama that we developed and premiered in 2006. A staged reading of the drama Mercy, by Adam Szymkowicz, in 2013; he was recently dubbed as one of the playwrights who are the ‘Future of Broadway’ by Backstage Magazine, and now has several productions of his work running around the country. The Sungazers, a drama by Erica Griffin. This staged reading produced last season is ready for a full production in the next year or two after months of collaboration with both the playwright and local actors who have workshopped it through several drafts.”

She will say things like this: “In an age in which we’re just consumers, and our importance stops with how many dollars we can put into it, I like that I’m a part of something that’s not about that.”

How psyched is O’Connell to jawbone about this stuff? She doesn’t eat a single fry. 

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.