John O'Keefe

Interview by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

He’s a hilarious man with a sense of humor on the phone and an old school free-thinker, passionate about ideas and testing them to ‘whatever’ effect on live audiences for the pure thrill of engaging and shifting human consciousness.

“All Night Long” playwright, John O’Keefe

We did more laughing than talking, more speculating than resolving questions at times, and I think that’s what comes across in award-winning, American playwright John O’Keefe’s, All Night Long, opening this month from September 15 through October 21, at Open Fist Theatre, where the thin line between waking and dreaming, the conscious and the subconscious, is exposed in an outrageously funny, surreal sit-com about 18 hours in the life of an all-American nuclear family.

What O’Keefe says the purpose of this play is, is, “Breaking open your mind. Hearing the ideas and letting them loose.”

It’s a fascinating work, “an alternate universe with rapid-fire fluctuations between highbrow and low brow, mythology and cartoon, atomic futurism and base primitivism” according to Open Fist artistic director Martha Demson, comical but dark with a sort of The Skin of Our Teeth (Thornton Wilder) or Numbers (Caryl Churchill) existential babble, that makes perfect sense to the gut, if not at first to the ear.

And there are surprises.

“It gets very dark right at the beginning with the daughter telling this story about a sexual encounter with her dad…”
“But it’s not real. She’s making it up”
Yes (lol), but it took me a moment to realize that and it shocked me.”

I had several questions about the language, the tropes and all the ideas. How Millennials for instance, who have added a whole new set of verbs, nouns, adjectives and other descriptive colloquialisms to modern expression, would react to a play written in 1980?

John is very optimistic…

I think that when most people come to hear this work they are going to ‘get it’ immediately. But younger audiences don’t necessarily know you. Do you think this piece, a piece completed over 30 years ago will speak to them?

In 1979 and 1980, the culture was somewhat primitive and actually freer. There were less trigger words and situations.

I’m fascinated to see how this will play out today myself. How people will take it and if they can still find a sense of humor with it.

I really don’t know. I mean, I’m pretty old but I’m really into youth stuff fundamentally and into what millennials like. I read all the latest magazines and everything that is being written out there today, and I think people are pretty well-versed. More well-versed, even than back then. Younger people have the potential to understand the material today better than before. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will. But there’s potential.

Alina Phelan and Phillip William Brock in John O'Keefe's "All Night Long" Photo by Jan Munroe
Alina Phelan and Phillip William Brock in John O’Keefe’s “All Night Long” Photo by Jan Munroe

Back in the 80s my work challenged people. And that was the purpose of it. You wrote to challenge ideas, or otherwise you were basically a commercial artist.

Back then the people couldn’t get it right away. The reason I wrote All Night Long in a sitcom situation was so that it would be taken less seriously… even the rhythm of the sitcom allows people’s eyes to dilate.

My work (as a kid) at the beginning, when I started to look at things, I looked at them in a whole new way. I got in to college as a singer. I enjoyed oratorios. The story is based in a musical style with arias and recitative, when you listen to it, structured verbally of course.

Everything serious in this play is right on the surface and yet you put the reality in a coil of words that is completely comical. Can you talk about that a little?

I really like David Hume and Joseph Campbell who asked questions like, “How do you deal with mortality. How do you create myths around it?” I studied a lot of ancient stuff. Ultimately, this is an interesting thing I feel that has the most expression in a performing art form. It is why for instance I love really great dancing. Audiences are more physically oriented.

Experience has transformed my mind about every single moment that we have divided into night and day. Our society has been going through the same incredible transformations. [No matter where it happens] there’s no way to not understand that there is a tremendous tragedy in the loss of people we love.

There are archetypes everywhere throughout the whole play because the same archetypes are a part of all of our consciousness. Everywhere we all laugh at the same stories. We may dress each other up in different costumes but fundamentally, what you think in one situation is actually apparent in others.

The concept is to really open the mind. All Night Long says, “Look in the dream. We have come across every dream. And every person evolves and comes to a certain knowledge. When we get to the last moment before we die, what will we think of our lives.”

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