John O' Keefe Feature

A veteran of numerous theater groups, including San Francisco's famous Blake Street Hawkeyes (which sprung, among others, Whoopi Goldberg), O'Keefe spent the early stages of Shimmer settling on the dramatic form he would use to tell his story. Traditional drama struck him as too alienating, and avant-garde strategies seemed too indirect. Recalling his workshop experiments with monologues, O'Keefe decided to write Shimmer as a one-man play. "The solo piece is something that does or does not fit one's particular predilection," he says. "For me it's a very, very nice way, especially lately, to fulfill my needs. I like to write prose. I don't always like an art form that's dependent on people talking. It seems very artificial. As a person writing a story, I can reach back to an oral tradition. I can find delicious sounds in the words, and at the same time explore gesture and movement."

Other performers have undertaken solo projects, especially lately, when one-person high-wire acts seem to be all the rage. While O'Keefe acknowledges the importance of other solo pilots - Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, Garrison Keillor, and John Leguziano, for instance - he sees Shimmer as a very different sort of flight: "I'm a writer first and foremost. The difference, I think, between a playwright and a performance artist, and it's very important to me that people don't confuse the two, is that a performance artist is usually the only person that can perform the particular solo. I doubt that it would be wise for any performer to do a Spalding Gray piece. My work, though, is nothing like Spalding Gray. Immediately because I've got spiky eyebrows and I'm over 40, people group us together. But anyone can perform Shimmer. It's not lost when I die. Other people have performed this work in New York, and done quite well with it." Trumpeting his work as a Bona Fide Theater Piece is not merely an idle boast on O'Keefe's part. Gary Welch is utterly convincing as an independent character, as is Teats Brewer, an imposing black classmate of Captain Spacey's whose physical strength confounds the brutal headmaster. "Teats was an astronaut of beatings," the narrator says, as if that explains everything. And it does.

O'Keefe has bounced from coast to coast with Shimmer, performing it in San Francisco and New York. Last year, he even shimmered in Iowa for a group of juveniles. "Boy, was that fabulous," he says. "They really went for it. For some of the kids in the juvenile home, I realized that I actually had some social content of some merit." And were the Captain Spaceys of the Nineties under the same kind of autocratic rule as their Fifties counterparts? "No. It had all changed. It sounded like they were all at prep school. The girls and boys get to talk to each other. When I was there, we couldn't look at each other."

In the afterglow of Shimmer, O'Keefe developed another solo piece, Vid, which recounts his fall from graduate student to street person. Now he has turned toward even more ambitious vistas, accepting a commission from the Berkeley Repertory Theater to write The Palace of the Dead, a massive drama based on the life of the Bronte family. Brushing the first coats onto what he calls "the biggest canvas I've ever worked on" has proven a formidable task. "When you think about the Brontes and what a wealth of material there is, it's amazing. The thing I really loved about them was that I would drink Scotch and sit in front of movies. I was watching Jane Eyre, the Forties one with Orson Welles, and I suddenly started realizing that it was like the dreams of a hysteric. I got so completely intimidated by their genius; I didn't know if I could go on."

O'Keefe settled his score with the ghosts of the Brontes by writing their death scenes first and working backward from there. Through his intensive research - committing dozens of books to memory - he has developed a strong affinity for the sisters. "Their writings were quite brilliant, wonderful works," he says. "There's a myth about their boring, empty lives, that there was nothing dramatic. But when you get into the topic, you suddenly realize they were these marvelous wild human beings inside. Emily Bronte wrote some of the most beautiful poetry. She challenges Shakespeare. And she died at 30. It is spectacular."

Part Two
In addition to the Bronte piece - which he hopes will have its premiere in 1993 - O'Keefe has initiated discussion with the Sundance Film Center to turn Shimmer into a film. And not a filmed solo piece like Gray's Swimming to Cambodia or Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, but an actual feature film. And the plays will continue to flow, the course of the river changed by whatever happens to be fascinating O'Keefe this year. For Vid, for instance, he used as a dramatic device the epic structure of video games. "I figured, `Hey, they're giving me some money for a commission, and I can go spend it on video games and get a tax write-off,'" the author laughs. "Video games have such outrageous imagery. It's an endless array of transformations, these inscrutable metamorphoses. It's tremendous fun to watch."

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