By Staci Wolfson
A member of Baltimore’s Mobtown Players and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, actor and burlesque performer Melissa O’Brien gives her performances a double-edged dose of her patented bubbly charm and razor-sharp wit. We caught up with O’Brien to find out more about her and her opinions on the local theater scene of which she has become an integral part.
CBSBaltimore.com: Tell me about your background in theater and performing. How did you get started and how you did you get hooked up with the groups you’re with now?
Melissa O’Brien: I’ve been performing since I was a kid; the first evidence of my future as an actor probably lies in an early family video. I’m probably about 5 years old, and I’m giving a tour of our house. Before beginning the tour, I strike a pose and proclaim myself to be the “princess of the house.” It’s a pretty short leap from there to the back-to-back shows I’m doing now.
Of course, it wasn’t until high school that I really got going with theater. I auditioned for and was accepted into an improvisational acting troupe called Foolproof. It was pretty serious stuff. We’d do shows about drug addiction and other “issues” for schools and the like, but once a month we’d also perform for a drug rehab center. That was pretty heavy – 15- to 17-year-old kids performing scenes that were more or less mirror images of what this audience had lived through. Each show would finish with a Q and A session with the characters–so you had to stay in character and sometimes you’d end up a major player in an audience member’s catharsis.
When I started teaching after college, my involvement in theater in the community kind of fell by the wayside. I was directing high school productions, which didn’t leave much time for acting. I got hooked up with the Mobtown Players when a good friend of mine told me to audition for a show she was doing there. She’d been working with Mobtown for a little while, and the schedule for this show, Servant of Two Masters, lined up with a break between directing gigs at the school. I auditioned and got one of the leads, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I got more involved and on the board. It was after I’d left teaching, so I had a lot more time to devote to the “rebuilding” phase that we’re still kind of going through — rediscovering our audience, building our stable of artists, that kind of thing.
As for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS), I got involved with them through another good friend, Erica Patoka, who does a lot of their music writing … and plays keys in the band. She got me to audition for the double feature, and I ended up getting a lead. I was thrilled. I mean, what an amazing group of people. There’s such talent there, yeah – artists, musicians, actors, tech people — but what struck me most was how supportive they all were. The goal is the same for everyone –make the most awesome show you possibly can — and I didn’t notice much talking behind people’s backs or any of that crap you often see with theater. I found a second family there; there’s a lot of love in that group.
I also do some stuff with other community groups. I’m currently in a show at the Strand; my alter ego, Viola Van Wilde, is rehearsing a burlesque show with Sticky Buns Burlesque; and I’ll be doing a show with Landless Theatre Co. down in D.C. this spring.
CBSBaltimore.com: How would you describe the theater and performing scene in Baltimore?
MO: There are just so many different things going on in Baltimore theater. What I love is that, no matter what you’re looking for, you’re going to find it here. Companies that specialize in classics, companies that are doing mostly original stuff, companies that are committed to supporting female playwrights, artists and directors; it’s all here. And you see so many people who visit with all of those companies; I think there’s a lot of opportunity to learn from each other and help each other.
It seems to me that it’s a really open community. Everyone’s willing to lend set pieces, or to talk about better ways to create a particular set piece or prop, or to come try a new perspective by working in a new theater with a new group for a little while. I think that’s really important; you always come away with more solid understanding of how it works, of what it takes to make this happen. Many of the theaters in Baltimore are operating on really small budgets and still making it happen. I think a lot of that has to do with how supportive many of the local theater companies are of one another. There’s a good “we’re all in this together” vibe with quite a few groups.
CBSBaltimore.com: What’s your favorite show you’ve done so far? Why?
MO: I think my favorite at Mobtown is Closer, which we did a couple of seasons ago. It’s such an intimate and in-your-face play, and it really challenged my comfort level and boundaries. Even as a burlesque performer who is used to doing strip routines and prancing around in pasties, Alice’s stripping scene in Closer was sometimes pretty terrifying. There’s something raw there.
And in general, that role was intriguing, because you have this woman who functions as a symbol for the other characters in the play; she’s not even a real person to them, yet for all of her lies and for the way they see her, she’s the most honest and real of the characters. Of course, maybe I’m biased.
And then, of course, the BROS double feature was an amazing experience. That was at times terrifying for a whole host of reasons; anytime you’re mounting something 100 percent new, it’s pretty scary, but then you add that grand scale and it just feels crazy! But you can’t help but feel pure creative energy coursing through your veins in a situation like that, and there was an electricity in the air every night as all of us celebrated the fact that we were really pulling it off.
CBSBaltimore.com: What’s up next for you?
MO: For the past few years I’ve been doing back-to-back shows, but I recently entered new levels of madness by rehearsing, at one time, four things at once. I’m down to rehearsing two at once, and costume designing for one of them, too, so things are calming down just a little bit.
[We opened] No Exit at Mobtown on Jan. 20 (runs through Feb. 11 at the Mobtown Theatre at Meadow Hill). I’m sharing the stage with two dear friends who I met through a Glass Mind production–Rachael Lee Rash and Will Carson, and we’re being directed by Brian S. Kraszewski. Then I’m taking part in a staged reading with the Mobtown Playwrights Group, which also features other Mobtown folks as well as artists from BROS and Salt Luck Arts. In April, I’m in Spidermusical with Landless Theatre Company in D.C. Then I imagine I’ll collapse into a light coma.