June 2001

Mary Kate O’Connell


by Christina M. ABT

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Mary Kate O’Connell grew up within the caring embrace of an extended Irish family. “ I was the sixth of seven children that included five older brothers (Danny, Tommy, Kevin, Terry and Dennis) and a younger sister (Patti). My cousins lived around the block one way and my grandparents lived around the block the other way. It was the best.”

A supportive environ which today, some forty years later, this gifted actress has recreated and maintains within the framework of her O’Connell & Company Productions. “Essentially the company is composed of people I trust and can count on within the realm of performers, theatre people, and the community-at-large.” An organizational chart, that O’Connell & Company’s Managing Director, Pamela Mangus best describes as, “A family affair.”

However, as families go, O’Connell & Company did not evolve in the most direct fashion. “There were times along the way that my life took these hairpin turns.” Deviations that included working at Gibraltar Steel, running a gift shop, managing a costume shop and a variety of other jobs in-between. But, as O’Connell observes, somehow theater life always won out. “I always knew that I loved it.”

A love that O’Connell directly connects to her childhood. “Music was a big part of life around our house. In fact, my cousin Aileen and I were famous for standing in front of a mirror with our “wooden spoon” microphones and singing show tunes.” Performances that the songstress laughingly recalls, left something to be desired. “My family would tell me ‘just keep singing into that wooden spoon, kid’...my voice wasn’t so terrific then!”

Critical assessments that changed once O’Connell began testing the theatrical waters. A learning curve that encompassed high school musicals, college drama courses, voice lessons, and a London summer theater excursion. All of which culminated in an off, off, off Broadway audition. A professional moment she clearly recalls, for very personal reasons. “ In 1975, I was in NYC auditioning when I got the call that my Dad (former Buffalo City Comptroller, George D. O’Connell) died. I immediately packed up and went home.” The impact of her father’s death still evident, twenty-six years later. “With Daddy’s death, our family’s nucleus just blew apart. It was a really tough time for all of us.”

As a result of her family’s loss, O’Connell decided to pursue her theatrical career in Buffalo. A choice that led to performance and production roles with Commedie del Arte, T.O.Y. Company, Artpark, as well as dinner theater presentations at the Packet Inn and Reuben’s Backstage.

It was during a run at Reuben’s that O’Connell began a long term friendship with playwright and Buffalo native, David Shire. “We were rehearsing David’s musical, “Baby,” which had just completed a successful Broadway run. David’s father, Irv, called one day and said he would like to come down and see a rehearsal. Irv became a lovely fixture.”

And during the run of the show, “David came, unannounced, to see our production one night and after the show, he took the entire cast out for breakfast. Very cool!” A defining moment for the actress, “It was the beginning of a very kind and loving, long distance friendship.”

Over the ensuing twenty-years, O’Connell’s career continued to unfold via a theater-to-theater amble she humorously characterizes as “the gypsy thing.” A nomadic period that included collaborations with The Lancaster Opera House (acting, directing and producing), In Concert Productions (cofounder and performer) and Summerfare (Executive Director.) But in the midst of it all, O’Connell’s life took one of those hairpin turns. A transformation once again related to family.

“In 1995, my mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. My entire family was devastated.” Shattering news that led the devoted daughter to a major lifestyle decision. “I knew that I wanted to be there for Mom, so I decided to realign and redefine my career to fit my life.”

It was while pursuing this flexibility that the young actress decided to form her own theater company—The Cabaret in the Square Theatre at Snyder Square. O’Connell explains, “I wanted to build a company that would really make a difference in people’s lives, rather than something that simply affected them during the run of a performance”

A lofty goal that O’Connell has managed to achieve, according to Alleyway Theatre Director, Neal Radice. “Mary Kate runs a company that is singularly individual. For O’Connell & Company is really a theater in which Mary Kate has let her own loving personality pervade the work that she does, thereby truly affecting the people who work with her and around her.”

A positive assessment with which Mangus resoundingly concurs. “It’s important to Mary Kate that this theater bring people together and offer a positive communal feeling. So she surrounds herself with like minded actors who are not only talented but have the same kind of heart. Who Mary Kate is and what she stands for, in her life and in her theater, are the same thing. So as a result, this theater is more a personal endeavor. More family than a business.”

From O’Connell’s perspective, her success is directly related to an alternative mindset. “I’m a big option person; always looking to find new options. My idea is that if an opportunity isn’t given to you, then you should create it. Which is exactly what I’ve tried to do at the Cabaret.”

With the long running “DIVA by DIVA” playing to sold out audiences, a Shire/Maltby musical revue of “Closer Than Ever,” underway, and a full season of shows set for next year, it would seem that O’Connell has ably explored and realized many of her theater options. However, during the last two years, her professional success has been offset by personal tragedy.

“In December of 1999 my brother, Dan, suddenly died. And then last December, my beloved Mother, Beatrice, passed away.” Two life altering events that O’Connell struggles with on a continuing basis. “When Mom died, I lost my best friend. I can’t even imagine that life is still going on without her.” A sentiment to which she emotionally adds, “I am so proud to have been Mom’s daughter and Danny’s sister,” and that feeling extends to the next generation, “I take great comfort from my dear friends and family, especially my nephew and niece, George and Katy.

Taking pride and finding strength in both her personal and professional “families” is the essence of Mary Kate O’Connell. A persona she describes simply and directly. “I’m just someone who loves my family and my community and works very carefully and conscientiously keeping those things in mind.”

Christina M. Abt is a free lance writer, newspaper columnist, magazine editor/profiler and NPR Radio commentator. Her work has also been featured in two Heartwarmer Books and on various Internet websites. She lives in Eden, N.Y. where she breeds world champion caliber Morgan Horses.

 

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