Courtney O’Connor: “We want shows that will make people think.”
Courtney O’Connor has a solid history in the Boston theater community as a director, educator and arts administrator. Having directed several shows at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston over the years, she joined the full-time staff at Lyric in 2018 and was named artistic director in 2020. (She partners with Executive Director Matt Chapman in operating the theater.)
Her past productions at Lyric include “Stones in His Pockets,” “Red Hot Patriot,” “The Cake,” “The Book of Will” and “Preludes.” This month, she directs “Rooted,” an offbeat comedy about two sisters who accidentally start a cult.
Among her honors, she has received an Elliot Norton Award for her work as associate director of the Lyric’s spectacular, two-part production of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.”
The Pennsylvania native originally came to Boston to study for her master’s degree at Emerson College. She fell in love with the city, stayed, and has been a member of the faculty at Emerson since 2002.
Lyric has just announced its upcoming 2023-2024 season. The schedule includes: Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins;” Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot: Holmes For The Holidays;” “Trouble In Mind;” Ronan Noone’s “Thirst;” “The Drowsy Chaperone;” and David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face.”
O’Connor recently spoke with Boston Irish about life at the Lyric. Here’s an edited look at our conversation.
Q: Tell me about the scope of your duties as artistic director for Lyric Stage?
A: I am in charge of the artistic vision of the theater — through the plays that we choose, through the artists that we work with, through all of the materials that we put out. What are we, as a theater company, trying to say? . . . What are the ideas that we want to put forth and share with people . . . Making sure that everything is adhering to the values and the missions of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, of which a large part is creating a gathering place for people to speak, to be challenged, to be heard. And supporting the voices and the growth of Boston area artists in all facets — actors, designers, arts administrators, technicians, musicians . . . to try to enhance and allow them to develop, to deepen, and to explore their voices as artists and ultimately as human beings.
Q: What’s your process when planning a new theater season. Each show has to be unique, but they all need to fit together artistically to create a compelling package. When do you begin planning?
A: We’re always in season planning. We just announced the ’23-’24 season, but I’m already looking at season ’24-’25 and ’25-’26 . . . You’re looking for a variety. You want shows that people know, you want shows that people aren’t as familiar with. You want shows that challenge people’s point of view. You want shows that will just make people laugh. We want shows that will make people think. And so, you’re looking to sort of cover, within six titles, a variety of different voices, of different genres, of different experiences.
Q: The theater world is still coming back from being decimated during the pandemic. It’s great that audiences have returned in an enthusiastic way, but have you found ticket buying habits have changed at all? I recall when national tours coming to Boston would announce and place tickets on sale a full year in advance.
A: We are seeing people buy tickets more last minute, something that has definitely shifted. Interestingly enough, I remember hearing an anecdote from someone working from the TKTS Booth in New York that the same thing happened after 9-11. They noted that people were waiting to buy tickets until the day of, or the day before a performance. And that’s certainly something that we’re noticing now. Post 9-11, it eventually faded away and people went back to previous purchasing-in-advance habits, and I’m wondering if that will happen here or if this is something that will linger longer . . . To be determined.
Q: Looking at next season’s shows, is there one that stands out as something special, something that you’re really anxious to share with Boston audiences?
A: Gosh, I’m excited about all of them. I’m really excited about “Trouble in Mind,” which opens in January. It was written by Alice Childress in the 1950s and couldn’t be put on because the producers wanted her to change the ending. They felt it was too harsh for the time period. It’s dealing with race.
[In the play], an actress, Wiletta, has played all the expected characters for a black actress of her age of that generation, And now it’s finally her chance to be in a Broadway play — to play the lead in a play about a lynching. And it was written by a white man and it’s terrible, but [Wiletta feels] “So What!” It’s her chance to be a lead on Broadway, and she’s anxious to help the younger black cast members understand how they need to behave, quote-unquote, in order to make everything a success. Until the moment where she realizes that perhaps she can’t. When she realizes that perhaps she can’t behave. When she realizes that perhaps what’s being asked of her is too much. And the way she’s being treated isn’t right.
“Trouble In Mind” couldn’t be produced in its time because it was seen as too much, as too revolutionary. So it wasn’t produced on Broadway until about two years ago when the theaters started reopening in the fall of ’21.
Q: And how did this play, specifically, pop up on your radar?
A: We had some subscribers who are very good friends of the theater who saw another production of it. I swear they weren’t even out of the building when they called me from California and said, “This is a Lyric Stage play. You need to bring this story to the Lyric.” So that’s one that I was really, really excited to be able to program, because I love it when our subscribers know us so well. When our friends know us so well . . . They know what plays we identify with and what stories we want to tell so strongly that they can walk out of another theater and say, “That belongs at the Lyric. You need to do that.”
Q: Speaking of your subscribers, I’ve seen how enthusiastic they are. They proudly take ownership of their seats and they appear to take ownership of the company and the theater itself.
A: In many ways that’s what we want for everybody. We want everyone who comes to see our shows, whether they come to see 100 shows at the Lyric or if it’s their first show, we want them to feel like this is their theater. That they have a voice, that they have an agency in being part of who we are. Because if we are Boston’s theater, and it’s right in our title, then we need to belong to everyone. We need everyone to feel that they are welcome, and that they are part of our Lyric Stage family.
For more information, visit LyricStage.com.