Steve O’Connell ’00, a theatre major, recently participated in a department-sponsored “Life after Fairfield” event, where alumni shared their career paths with current students. Even though O’Connell, a full-time thespian that was recently voted “Performer of the Week” in Timeout Chicago, lives in Chicago, Ill., he was eager to take part in the event. “This has been going on since I was a student and I really remember the speakers that visited when I was an undergrad, so I was excited and happy to participate because I know it made an impact on me,” he said.
The event invited alumni working in all corners of the theatre milieu, including administrative, artistic, and technical. Due to his location difficulties, O’Connell spoke to students through Skype, and shared what it was like to be a full-time performer and how his personal journey unfolded.
“I didn’t go to Fairfield to study theatre,” he said. “It wasn’t part of my original plan — although I don’t think I actually had an original plan.” Back when he was a student, the Erie, Pennsylvania, native knew that he wanted to participate in theatre productions while at Fairfield, but didn’t realize he could study the subject as well. “I wasn’t aware of the academic side of making theatre,” he said. “When Dr. Marti Lomonoco (professor of Theatre and program director) told me about the major, I think my response was, ‘you can major in this?’ After that, I pretty much jumped right on it.”
“Steve is one of the strongest actors to graduate from Fairfield’s theatre program. While here, he starred in Hair, in the title role as The Rover in Aphra Behn’s Restoration romp, in On The Spot improv, which he also directed, and in a host of other plays, Dr. Lomonoco said. “In the spirit of our theatre as a liberal arts program, Steve proved to be a fully engaged, all-around theatre student, equally proficient in all facets of production, including making costumes and hanging lights, and in history, theory, and literature.”
Following his degree at Fairfield, O’Connell spent time working different jobs and auditioning for roles. In 2003, he decided to pursue an MFA in acting at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Once he received that degree he and his fiancé moved to Chicago, where he had been offered a part in a play.
The years since his first role in Chicago have been busy for O’Connell and filled with an ever-changing mix of performances and rehearsals in the evening and auditions and preparations for auditions during the day. He also has the day shift with his three-year-old son. “Will is sort of my partner in crime,” O’Connell said. “My days are spent with him and he’s at the age where he can come with me to auditions.” O’Connell and his wife, Megan, are also expecting a second child in April.
Recently O’Connell took on the lead roles in George Bernard Shaw’s famous Pygmalion (as Henry Higgins) and Shakespeare’s fairly violent play Coriolanus (as Caius Martius Coriolanus). He was performing in Pygmalion while rehearsing for Coriolanus, which, while difficult, was also exciting for the actor. “It’s been really great and a huge challenge,” he said. Although there were few similarities between the two staring rolls, O’Connell felt confident in taking on the responsibility of both parts. “Acting is like a muscle and the more you work it out the better you are prepared to handle what’s coming next. Pygmalion demanded so much of me that I felt very prepared to go into Coriolanus.”
O’Connell is both very passionate and serious about his craft and the life of each theatre production. “Theatre is really about being in the environment with people and trying to tell the best story possible,” he explained. The rehearsals, he noted, are especially exciting because of the possibilities they present. “The rehearsal process can start in one place and all of a sudden, because there are other people, it can morph and change into something else. The ideas can, and should, change because rehearsal is about bringing all the ideas together to then create a new one.”
The performances are also chances to collaborate – but with the audience. “When you have an audience there’s another level of excitement because they’re the final collaborate piece. Their response shouldn’t completely change what the actors are doing, but in an environment that is ideal, their [responses] will bring that performance to another level,” he said.
While it’s not news that theatre is a difficult line of work, O’Connell was eager to share his insights on the business of being an actor with current students. “I wanted to give them an idea of the reality of what it means to make your living as an actor and how you need to be prepared to work in multiple areas of that profession,” he said. This is something, O’Connell explained, at which the department is already adept.
“That’s the great thing about Fairfield. The major is structured in a way that you have to work in all the disciplines like stage management, design, and acting. I tried to speak as honestly as I could and make sure that they knew it’s possible, but that it’s something that takes perseverance and dedication.”
Dr. Lomonoco said, “Steve’s honesty, openness, and willingness to advise and chat with the students is terrific and he has welcomed them to follow-up via e-mail, telephone, and visits to Chicago. We are proud of Steve and his career; to be a working actor in America in the 21st century is extremely difficult and he is demonstrating not only that it can be done, but how to do it.”
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