Directing Thesis Interview: 'New World Radio'

Luz Lorenza Twigg
September 10, 2021

For her thesis production, Kelly O’Donnell '21 directs a devised, brand-new, brave new production, New World Radio, inspired by radio drama and questions about our future.

Why did you decide to do this particular production for your thesis project?

Kelly O'Donnell: Once I realized that COVID wasn’t going away anytime soon, I had to adjust my thinking about what a fulfilling thesis project could look like. I knew that actors needed to be socially distanced. I knew there could be no touching. And I thought, “Hey, a radio drama could be the perfect form for this new world!” In radio dramas, performers naturally keep a distance from each other. This realization inspired me to listen to old time radio dramas and I found myself drawn to the science fiction dramas that warned of the potential dangers of technology for future generations. I got the sense that they were having a blast making these shows. I wanted to jump back in time and play with them.

What do you hope the audience will get out of the performance?

KO: In the novel Brave New World, which this production draws much of its inspiration from, people believe certain things because they are conditioned to believe them. They prioritize happiness, comfort, and safety above all else. In fact, anytime anyone feels discomfort or questions the status quo, they are immediately given drugs or removed from society. But I think discomfort and suffering are necessary for growth. It’s how we learn. It’s how we become better. Yet, at the same time, if someone offered me a magic potion that took all of my suffering away, I would be tempted to drink it. I hope the audience feels a little uncomfortable and they walk away thinking about how technology, social conditioning, and peer pressure could be impacting their lives.

Kelly O'Donnell

What was the most exciting part about this project?

KO: I loved figuring out the live foley sounds with the ensemble. We gathered a fairly massive collection of miscellaneous objects and musical instruments that could potentially make certain sounds and we experimented with them in the rehearsal room. We were like scientists with these objects. For example, we needed to find an object that could make the sound of electric shocks. We tried drums, metal objects, and even plastic bags but we couldn’t figure out how to make electric shocks and then suddenly someone said “what about bubble wrap?” We tried at least five different types of bubble wrap until we found the exact brand and size that, when placed near a live microphone, sounded very much like an electric shock! 

What was the biggest challenge?

KO: The biggest challenge was definitely rehearsing in person during COVID with all of the necessary safety measures in place. It was a great responsibility to be the artistic leader and to make sure that everyone on the team was truly safe. Because we all needed to wear masks until the final dress rehearsal, I found it challenging to read the room since each of the actor’s had half of their faces covered. I found that body language, word choices, eye contact, and tone became even more meaningful. Having a sense of humor was also important.

What has been a crucial lesson from your training?

KO: My training at Columbia has helped me become more confident as a director and more fearless when bringing my voice and point of view into the work. The training has helped me to amplify meaning through the strong commitment to a specific choice, and I’ve become highly skilled at thinking on my feet, making decisions fast, and pivoting when I’m faced with unexpected changes. 

What is your philosophy for directing?

KO: I have to steal from Anne Bogart on this one. She says “You cannot create results. You can only create conditions in which something might happen.” This is everything. Every production is an unpredictable adventure. In a way, I see myself as the playground captain. If aliens were observing us, they would probably see little difference between a rehearsal room and a group of children playing make believe. Though maybe they would observe that the children have more lightness; that they are more free. As a director, I put together a playground that fosters playfulness, curiosity, and surprise. I have the opportunity to create a world, within the walls of our room, where everyone present can practice kindness, collaboration, and grace. If I’m not doing this, I’m not doing it right.

Kelly O'Donnell '21 is a NYC-based director living in Astoria, Queens. Prior to grad school, she co-founded Flux Theatre Ensemble where she directed 13 of their productions including Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood and Hearts Like Fists by Adam Szymkowicz, Dog Act by Liz Duffy Adams, World Builders by Johnna Adams, and Jane the Plain by Corinna Schulenburg. She has also directed productions at schools such as Temple University, NYU Tisch, Lafayette College, and The Lee Strasberg School. She's directed many developmental workshops of new plays including Tiny Houses by Stefanie Zadravec at New Dramatists Playtime Lab and Kodachrome by Adam Szymkowicz at Portland Center Stage JAW. Fun fact: For five years, Kelly worked at Google where she was deeply ingrained inside a brave new world.