Theater an ideal setting to explore ideas that are funny, dramatic, strange and/or historic and “Marie LaVeau and the Vampire,” the latest play by Rosary O’Neill, manages to encompass all of those genres in a span of approximately 90 minutes.
“Marie LaVeau and the Vampire” is a comic, mysterious, experimental, fantasy that is based on the life and times of Marie LaVeau, a famous voodoo priestess who lived in New Orleans and came to prominence during the 1800s. The play focuses on the hour of Marie LaVeau’s death when spirits--specifically, a vampire--arrive to collect her soul…kill her, in other words.
The play is set largely in the death mind of the legendary healer as saints and other ghostly intruders threaten, block, and subvert her return to earth. The daughter of a white planter and a black free woman, Marie uses all means available to snare these spirits and live again. The play takes place in her occult parlor, in the French Quarter of New Orleans on June 15, 1881, 7pm--the actual death hour of Marie LaVeau.
Rosary Hartel O’Neill, Ph.D., was born and bred in New Orleans, Louisiana, and she finds writing about famous figures of the past to be especially enticing. Rosary is the author of 25 plays--16 which were published by the esteemed Samuel French, Inc.--and 3 books of nonfiction. In fact, the fourth edition of her text “The Actor’s Checklist” is used in schools nationwide. Rosary has won numerous awards and her plays have been staged at world renowned venues and festivals such as FringeNYC. While she was a tenured Professor of Drama and Speech at Loyola University, Rosary was also the Founding Artistic Director of Southern Repertory Theatre, the leading Equity theatre in New Orleans.
Recently Rosary O’Neill spoke to AXS about her experiences working as a playwright--especially on “Marie LaVeau and the Vampire”--and her hopes for the future:
AXS: Marie LaVeau is a famous voodoo queen who lived in New Orleans, which is your hometown. When did you first hear about Marie?
Rosary O’Neill (R.O.): Lord, I have known about Marie LaVeau ever since I was a little girl. The French Quarter has voodoo shops that give tribute to her. Cemeteries do tours that feature her grave. Fortunetellers abound in the French Quarter and her name is on the lips of many. Since many considered her a saint, her name is often synonymous with healing. Marie is lauded in Churches and in Houses of the Dead.
AXS: How did you come up with the idea for "Marie LaVeau and the Vampire"?
R.O.: I had been doing plays about famous New Orleans historical figures, Edgar Degas, Kate Chopin, Madame X (Amelie Gautreaux) and I have a penchant for writing great roles for women having been frustrated as a young actress by the scarcity of parts (11 times as many roles for men as women but three times as many actors who are female). I realized that I hadn’t written a role for woman of color and I felt I needed to do that. Since being in New York, I’ve been received by many Black foundations: Harlem Writers, Renaissance House, Columbia University, so I am particularly aware of the need for Black Voices and roles. I have had some success with plays about the life after death experience (“Marilyn/God” was recently done to acclaim in Kansas, "Beckett at Greystones Bay" (two fellowships to Tyrone Guthrie House in Ireland), “James Dean and the Highway of Death” (fellowship to Actors Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop) so it appears there’s tons of interest now in the spirit world and the death transition. My agent, Tonda Marton, asked me a few years ago to write a play about vampires and voodoo because she had a Broadway producer who wanted to do several short plays about that; the producer bailed but fired my inspiration. Then I got a Fellowship to Paris to spend six weeks perfecting the play. The play had originally been written for one woman with voices and I expanded the play in France.
AXS: It's clear that you did some serious research on Marie as you wrote this play. Did you find anything about her life to be particularly interesting or surprising?
R.O.: I read all the books on Marie, visited the New Orleans streets she walked (her Mama’s and her house are gone but Congo Square off of Rampart Street is renamed Armstrong Park and is there). I particularly liked the fact that not too much is written on Marie although her tomb is the most widely visited in New Orleans. The questions about Marie and her life were intriguing especially because of the fact that some believed she didn’t die while others believed her daughter Marie LaVeau II simply dressed like her mother and took over her power. The mystery around the real facts open ups the possibly of inspiration for me as playwright.
AXS: A reading of this play was recently done at The Players Club in New York. Where do you hope it goes from here? Essentially, where would be your first pick for a location to present it?
R.O.: I am totally open to the evolution of the play but ideally would love to see it done in a cemetery in New Orleans by LaVeau’s tomb, or in the Pere LaChaise Cemetery in Paris, or in a NYC theatre in the West Village or Washington Square Park.
AXS: The play includes a lot of dialogue. In your "dream production" how elaborate would the sets and costumes be?
R.O.: The more visuals (dances with snakes) and projections (like in a music event) the better. But then again, if I was really dreaming I’d like the play to be optioned for a TV series so the story with lots of music and visuals so the greatness of Marie reaches millions.
AXS: Career wise, where do you hope you will be in ten years?
R.O.: I hope I will be finishing my third TV series. My first being “New Orleans” about the upper class mysteries of Garden District family (12 episodes already written), “Marie LaVeau and the Vampire” about life and death in New Orleans cemeteries, “Degas in New Orleans” love and betrayal in Reconstruction Louisiana.
AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is striving to become a playwright?
R.O.: Just keep writing. I have written over 25 plays; if possible start you own company and produce your plays! And keep studying and learning. I have been in a writing workshop (now in the Playwright Directors Workshop at the Actors Studio) ever since I arrived in New York in 2002. Work with great artists. My mentor, the genius black writer, Ernest Gaines who gave me five fellowships in Louisiana always says, “Read everything out loud.”
AXS: Do you have any events coming up that you would like to mention?
R.O.: Yes, I'm flying to Ashland Oregon on July 8 for a workshop reading of Marie LaVeau and the Vampire with professional actors at the esteemed Ashland Shakespeare Festival.
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Rosary is actively seeking a venue to stage a full production of “Marie LaVeau and the Vampire” and she is open to inquiries. To learn more about Rosary O’Neill and her plays, visit her official website.