Today we will be profiling a Houston-based playwright who not only comes out swinging when it’s time for her own work but also contributes to the greater playwright community.
Denise writes full-lengths and shorts and also directs plays.
Denise O’Neal has lived in Houston for over 20 years and studied Business Finance at the University of Houston.
She hails from Shreveport, LA and was raised in a military family. She caught the playwriting bug at the age of 20 when she assisted in the production of her church’s She believes it was creating papier-mâché props, helping with script edits and splashing all that stage blood on the poor guy playing Jesus that really opened her eyes.
Denise was named a recipient of the Mary McCloud Bethune Award (National Council of Negro Women, 2015) and one of the “100 Creatives” of 2014 by the Houston Press, She has been a writer, director, and producer for over 20 years. She is the executive director of Shabach Enterprise, a non-profit theater company based in Houston, TX and the owner of Watch My Groove Ent., LLC.
She’s also in charge of a really amazing festival that we’ll talk about after the plays.
In 2014 she served as the assistant director for the Pulitzer prize winner Ruined written by Lynn Nottage in its Houston regional premiere. She directed the production of Intimate Apparel, also written by Lynn Nottage in 2015. She is currently a member of the Dramatists Guild, a former board member of Scriptwriters/Houston and is very active in the Houston theatre community.
In this post we’ll look at some of her short plays in detail.
On the Other Side is a funny short with a self-explanatory title: these are all ghosts on the other side.
Roles for seniors? Check. Psychopath? Check. Someone named Myrtle? Check. Everyone dead? Check. Love this character list.
The humor starts early on this one.
Ted gets a bit defensive when Myrtle talks about how he died.
I mean, everyone knows he’s dead, right? Uptight.
Meanwhile, Misty, our resident psychopathic ghost, explains how her husband got cut up into itty-bitty pieces in a bag she’s been lugging around.
Gotta love any play with the line “A wood chipper, huh?” And gotta love that wood chipper trope,
The play ends how any play involving dead people should end, but I won’t spoil it for you.
Moving on to Sorry, Not Sorry – this also has a fun cast list.
Basically Ray is a grade-A douche-nugget who is addicted to video games. He thinks he’s gonna have a hot ‘n’ heavy bone-a-thon with gal pal Greta…but he is a contemptuous ass.
Ray’s kinda dense.
Did I mention Ray was a jerk-face? Another man and woman show up and this weirds Ray out to no end, but it turns out they’re not there for sex. A very good twist by O’Neal, but I won’t give it away.
Here’s a video of the cast members of Sorry, Not Sorry talking about the play as well as the night of short plays it was featured in:
The final short we’ll cover is Fragile, from Phoenix. Typical trope of a mystery package showing up. And a marriage already on the rocks.
But as with the other plays, there’s a twist. Said box is not from some sweet young thing in Phoenix…inside the box is…
Stephanie takes second place to Barry’s burgeoning butterfly collection.
Stephanie may need some counseling. Which brings us to the next play.
In addition to writing some off-beat comedy, O’Neal has also penned a full-length play that tackles the demons of addiction as experienced by various men in a treatment program run by a pastor.
A Fly in the Windshield has been relatively successful, and is available from Amazon. O’Neal spent hours asking questions of real men who were involved in treatment programs and used her research to craft this play. Here’s Denise and some of the cast talking about the play.
I’ll put a boatload of links about this play below.
A wonderful contribution Denise has made to the playwriting world is the Fade to Black play festival in Houston. This is definitely a labor of love for O’Neal. And provides a unique opportunity for African-American playwrights.
Lack of representation is a real problem. For example, in the 2016-2017 season in Washington, DC, African-American playwrights made up less than 10% of playwrights produced that year. African-Americans make up about 50% of the DC population. Also, the national population seems to be 12-14% African-American, so DC theatre, you’re sucking on that end, too.
Recently the Dramatists Guild tried to quantify this disparity. I do have issues with how some of the study was conducted, namely the narrow sample size and the fact that they included one of the worst theatres in the world [I’ll keep that theatre’s name to myself for now]. BUT…I totally agree with the point they’re trying to illustrate.
On that last statistic, they’re including all people of color and not just African Americans.
Either way, the need for festivals like Fade to Black is strong.
This is a video promo from 2013.
The festival has been a success. This year’s winners include:
Here’s a great radio interview with Denise about this year’s festival:
In addition to doing TV and radio interviews, Denise has kindly answered a few questions for us.
1. How did you start playwriting?
I have always loved to write. I started writing poems and essays when I was grade school and since I was heavily involved in my local church, I moved quickly into writing skits for them. When I was 21 or so, I was part of a large Easter Sunday theatre production at our Chapel. The experience was life-changing and instrumental in encouraging me to start writing full-length plays. I have been at it ever since.
3. What is your most memorable production and why?
Fly In The Windshield’s 1st production was a hugely successful milestone for me. After many readings and rewrites, when it was finally mounted on stage, it did extremely well! I had been commissioned to write and direct the piece and endured a lot of hard work, but it was worth it as it received an amazing reception. The play got very positive reviews and was named 2013 Best Original Play by Broadway World. Soon after the closing of the show, the piece was published.
4. What is your least memorable production and why? [you can leave out specifics or names]
Just A Few Feet Away was a piece I loved, but greatly divided my audience: they either loved it completely or hated it completely or didn’t get it or totally got it. The actors loved the work, but it just never took off as well as I’d like. The story was an attempt to weave the separate, disconnected lives of various individuals into a plot revealed just how connected the really are. I learned a hard lesson in remembering the value of being true to yourself because you simply can’t please everyone.
5. What’s your funniest theatre story?
Not one of my own work, but one where I was directing A Lesson Before Dying. Apparently a firefly had made its way into the performance studio and wanted to take center stage, but he had bumped into the theater lights and was now dying. Center stage in and out of the audience seating was where he was chose to have his swan dance ushering in the last few moments of his life. Just then, a sympathetic (and annoyed) audience member, decided to use his hat to swat Mr. Firefly out of the scene, but he missed his aim and his hat went flying onto the middle of the floor. Because the audience member wouldn’t dream of leaving his hat on the floor, he decided to retrieve his hat right then and there, firefly and actors be damned. The show went on, but with a bit of distraction. The actors had a good chuckle about that for weeks to come.
6. What are your writing habits like?
I can’t say I have a “method”, but usually when I have a good story line for a play everything else in the world shuts down until it is done. I still get through the tasks of the day, but I am not really truly focused on anything else but the completion of the piece. It consumes me and I inevitably end up writing into the early hours of the morning losing all track of time. It is a wonderful place to be! I write best when a story (or a life lesson) has greatly impacted me or when there is a message I believe the world needs to hear.
7. What advice do you have for new playwrights?
Write and Rewrite. Do readings and rewrite again. After you’ve put out your best work remain humble and open to suggestions, but learn to know the difference between sound counsel and the simple tongue-wagging of a fool. Try not to let everyone’s opinion about your work bother you. Lastly, do what you can to find your own voice. It can take a lifetime to do it, but it’s worth it.
8. Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
Every African-American playwright I know.
9. What are common themes in your work?
The beauty and immense intricacies of the human spirit. I also like story that have a bit of a shock value in its plot.
10. What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
That theatre is a great outlet, but it’s a lot of work.
11. Where did the idea for The Other Side come from?
I was in a place where I found death and the afterlife particularly fascinating probably because I had been watching a lot of crime television. In keeping with this new found pastime, I wanted to write my own version of events of the back story of a tragic life’s end but I didn’t want to tell a dreary tale so, I made it funny. Aside from the excessive amount of television I was watching, the story might have come from the fact that I often lament about things I feel could be done better if they were done “my” way to begin with (just kidding).
12. What have been the most rewarding aspects of the Fade to Black Fest?
It is hard to explain how personally rewarding this project is. It does so many great things for the underrepresented African-American playwright and the Houston community. We are now in our 7th year and are growing stronger every year. We are highly anticipated and respected among theatre enthusiast around the world. If I had to say what is most rewarding is the sense of validation and recognition we provide for African-American playwrights. We are also putting Houston on the map in this arena because it had never been done in the history of the city.
13. What advice do you have for writers who want a strong twist in their play or story?
I would just say go wild. A good playwright should have command of a vibrant imagination. Create an outline of various scenarios and pick the one you can sell the best. There is nothing worse than a poorly executed twist. Or you can lay the project down until some spectacular revelation comes to mind.
14. How is writing someone else’s story (like “Fly”) different from writing your own (like “The Other Side”)?
From my side, there is no difference. There’s always a lot of character research and development in every play I write. I’d never hear the end of it if I made it about my own personal life.
15. What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.
None come to mind.
Thanks Denise for sharing your time and talent with us!!