Evan O’Brien is a man steeped in history. As creative director of the award-winning Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, he manages the creation and maintenance of all exhibits, programming, tour scripting and special events for the museum. He also oversees the direction and hiring of all the actors and interpreters who bring the unique museum experience to life.
The Boston Tea Party was a political protest by Boston’s Sons of Liberty in reaction to the British Tea Act of 1773. The defiant dumping of 340 chests of tea (with a 2017 value of $1.5 million) into Boston Harbor is considered by many the single most important event leading to the American Revolution.
Of special note, one Son of Liberty, Thomas White, a tailor, was born in Kilkenny.
Owned and operated by Historic Tours of America, the complex along Boston’s Waterfront includes the museum, a Tea Room (where you can sample all five teas destroyed during the Boston Tea Party), a meeting house, film presentation, replicas of the Eleanor and the Beaver (two of the three original ships) and more.
A museum highlight is The Robinson Chest, the only known surviving tea chest from the original uprising.
With character tour guides and historical interpreters, the museum draws visitors from around the world. Guests are invited to recreate the original protest by tossing pseudo-crates of tea into the harbor themselves. School groups participate in special educational programming.
In an interview with the BIR, O’Brien said, “There is nothing more Boston than the Boston Tea Party. All around the world, people know, at least loosely, what happened . . . What we try to do, through immersive story telling, historical reenactments and recreation, and high tech interactive exhibits, is fully illustrate this complex and comprehensive chapter of American history that really was the catalyst to what we know now as the American Revolution.”
He feels a special responsibility when auditioning new actors. “Every single interpreter at the museum is playing the character of someone involved in the destruction of the tea, or a relative of that person,” he said. “The people that we’re portraying were real people, flesh and blood. They had a life, and we have to do good service to that life and pay homage to them . . . The Boston Tea Party was a treasonous event and anyone caught destroying the tea could have been killed as a traitor to the Crown.”
In addition to the daily tours and reenactments, O’Brien also stages special events. Currently, that includes Tavern Nights, which he describes as “a fully immersive dinner theater experience and Boston’s only colonial tavern night.”
The Tea Room is converted to an 18th century tavern with live music. Guests enjoy a rustic dinner with a Son or Daughter of Liberty, sing, dance and play tavern games. Tavern Nights occur the second and fourth Friday of each month.
The biggest event of the year for O’Brien is the museum’s annual anniversary reenactment on Dec. 16, in the same location where the course of America changed 244 years ago.
The evening begins with a ticketed event at the Old South Meeting House with a reenactment of the fiery town meeting where the secret signal was given by Samuel Adams for the colonials to destroy the tea.
Then, in one of the largest theatrical moving performances in the United States, more than 1,000 people are led by fife and drummers to the waterfront for a free event, which O’Brien describes as a “professionally produced (spectacular) – supported with light and sound and special effects.”
Re-enactors storm aboard the Beaver and throw tea, specially imported each year from London’s East India Company, into the harbor.
With a BFA from Emerson College, O’Brien traces his own history in performing to his childhood in West Roxbury. One day he walked in while his Mom was watching a talk show. “I stopped in my tracks in the middle of my living room and I told my mother, ‘I want to sing. I want to do what this person is doing on TV.’”
She enrolled him in the acting program at Riverside Theater Works in Hyde Park. His first stage appearance came in the musical “The Point.”
“I played a farmer, and that’s pretty much all I remember,” he said, laughing. “The first major production I was in was ‘Oliver Twist.’ I was one of Fagan’s boys.”
A shift came when O’Brien was performing in “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Norwood.
“One of the cast members was talking about this crazy part time job they had playing a grave digger in Boston’s burial grounds,” he said. “I had always liked ghost stories and I was looking for something more theatrical to do with my time and get paid for it, rather than just community theater.”
He auditioned for Old Town Trolley’s Ghosts & Gravestones Tour (also owned and operated by Historic Tours) and was hired on the spot. The fully narrated, citywide ghost tour takes a theatrical look at Boston’s mysteries and eerie legends.
O’Brien’s first few years on the tour were part time – just a way to earn extra money during college. But he fell in love with the history. “I’ve always loved Boston,” he said, “but being able to be there after hours in these historic sites, these beautiful grounds, was something that I really embraced. I’ve been very lucky ever since that first interview.”
His hard work and creativity were noticed and he was eventually promoted to Entertainment and Productions manager for the company’s specialty tours, including Ghosts & Gravestones, The Sons & Daughters Of Liberty Tour, and The Original Boston Chocolate Tour.
Later, he was the first person hired for the Tea Party Museum, before construction had even commenced. O’Brien says it was a “huge honor” to be given a clean slate to work with Historic Tours to develop what has become one of Boston’s most substantial attractions.
In an ironic but appropriate twist, he and his wife live in one of the more historic homes in Weymouth – originally owned by someone born in 1773, the year of the original Tea Party.
When it was noted that he has come a long way since that initial gig as a part-time gravedigger, he acknowledged modestly, “I have.”
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.