Creatives are always on the lookout for a place to call home and for the people that can make up their intimate, artistic family. For actors, directors, and writers alike, the process of creating and pursuing a creative career can often feel like a daunting and isolating way of life. Then, if you are fortunate, you find a group that envelops you in support, acceptance, and understanding. It is the most sought after commodity; it is your tribe.
Bree O’Connor is the founder and artistic director of Playful Substance, a writer driven collective that facilitates the growth and collaboration of new theatrical work. Bree committed to the creation of the group two years ago with a very clear goal. “I wanted to create a community where artists can come together and play and support one another at all different levels of ability and raise each other up,” O’Connor said. She aims for the work to be substitutive and focus on play. “It should be fun.” The main focus is on building a community around the different roles of the theater, “We should all have a deeper understanding about what everybody does, writers, actors, directors; be good communicators and collaborators.”
After the birth of her first child, Bree found that her community had evaporated and she became frustrated as a performer. “There was nothing in place to support me as a mother and an artist,” Bree told me in an interview. “My community disappeared, and I thought it was over. I thought I would have to give up. It was a great source of grief.”
After the death of her mother, Bree experienced deep depression, which manifested itself in the form of extreme physical pain. “My joints became frozen. I would have to set my alarm an hour before my kids would wake up so that I had time to try to set my body and cry.” O’Connor sought medical help with her joint pain and finally, “an acupuncturist told me I was a very angry person,” Bree laughed while telling about this difficult period in her life.
In 2014, things came to a positive light. Bree interviewed to be a part of the Labyrinth Theater Company’s Intensive Ensemble. It was her dive back into the creative world that came with facing some crucial questions. “Is there a place for me? Can I do this? Do I know how to do this anymore? If this doesn’t work out, I’ll go and do something normal; I’ll become a teacher or accountant.” Bree was not only accepted; she had finally found her people. “There was much more understanding about my situation as a parent, much more support.” Bree had met people from all different ages and experiences and began to work on more and more projects.
That’s when O’Connor decided to start her writers group and “be the person she needed.” “I need to create work. Where does that work come from? It comes from a script. There has to be a story to tell. How do I support people to create work? And that’s where the writer’s group came from.” Bree started a weekly writers group that follows a feedback and accountability model. There are five writers in the group, including Bree, who are each encouraged to bring in some type of 10min material they are working on. This could be dialogue, a short scene, notes people would like to talk through. “The point is to encourage people to write. People are afraid to write.”
Then comes the Pithy Party. For the past two years, Playful Substance has hosted an event where actors and directors present part of the writer’s work in front of an audience. I had attended this year’s Pithy Party, and it has been one of the most vibrant, warm, and open artistic events I have attended in the city. The artistic energy was as palpable as the support and hunger of the audience - dozens of strangers in a room for the sole purpose of cheering on and encouraging new work. So much was shared, taught, and welcomed in that space. It was nothing short of an inspiring night.
Playful Substance has an upcoming festival called Women’s Work that is made up of three solo shows performed and written by women. The festival will run from July 10-14th at Under St Marks. Javana Mundy will be performing Mama’s 19, which is “a one person, multi-character show and personal documentation on the evolution, journey, and struggle of the Black Woman in America.” You Hold a Pole Everyday, performed and written by Laura Sisskin Fernandez, which takes place at a pole dancing studio where, “after a traumatizing experience, a barista cautiously seeks connection with her own physical power but reluctantly finds herself learning the moves alongside her Spanish Mother and Grandmother.” The third piece is called, Gee, I Hope you’re Having Fun at my Mother’s Death, by Bree O’Connor. It takes place at a late night vigil during the final hours of her Mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s.
All three pieces have come out of the writers group, partially auto-biographical, about mothers and female relationships. “They are all multi-generational stories told from very different perspectives,” Bree said about when she realized she wanted to present these pieces together. All three plays will be performed in rotation during the festival. More information about the festival and how to support Playful Substance can be found not their website, www.playfulsubstance.com.
When I asked Bree what she would say her mission for Playful Substance was, she responded that she wanted to “empower artists not to wait. Don’t wait for someone to validate you or your work. I want that to become an internal process where you are confident in understanding what other people do [in the theater], so when it comes to choosing collaborators, you feel good and confident in your choices.” From what I had experienced at Pithy Party, I would say that Bree has achieved her goal. She has created an environment where an artist can find and expand their own tribe. This fits in with O’Conner’s future hopes for the company; to make it a place where “people can meet and collaborate and then go and grow their own thing.” She wants people to “feel you have a grasp in the process so you can go do it and that you have a home base to come back to.”
To all artists out there, finding your home and tribe is possible. Keep putting your work and heart out there. Keep searching and grasping with both hands.
Niki Hatzidis is an Award-nominated playwright and actor based in New York City.