South Whidbey theater artist is her very own tour de force

When she’s not busy acting, dancing, directing or dressing actors ... well, never mind.

Kathryn Sandy O'Brien poses for photographer Ed Cornachio during a rehearsal for 'Seven Keys to Baldpate' at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. She made her costume.

Kathryn Sandy O'Brien poses for photographer Ed Cornachio during a rehearsal for 'Seven Keys to Baldpate' at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. She made her costume.

When she’s not busy acting, dancing, directing or dressing actors … well, never mind.

This creative powerhouse is always busy doing at least one of those things.

Langley resident Kathryn Sandy O’Brien is currently in the throes of preparation for the production of “Chicago,” which she will direct and choreograph for a September opening at Oak Harbor’s Whidbey Playhouse.

Also, O’Brien just finished creating the costumes and set pieces for a youth cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” for the same theater based on a paper-doll theme. The musical, which runs through June 27 at the playhouse, is directed by Allenda Jenkins, who said O’Brien’s three most used words are “then we could …”

“Sandy has a way of taking an idea or concept, and expanding it to the next level of creativity,” Jenkins said.

“She continually explores new options by looking at all angles and perspectives of the project.”

Indeed, the idea for the paper doll cut-out costumes was something of a stroke of genius, considering the amount of time and material it takes to dress a cast of about 20 actors.

A creative use of materials and space is always easier on a small, nonprofit theater’s budget. It’s the “less is more” formula.

A recent visit to O’Brien’s home studio — temporarily transformed from a dance to a costume studio — revealed the artist in her typical state: head down in a task, eyes glazed over while the brain spins its creative cogs.

She looked up from the drafting table to explain the logistics of the project at hand.

“The base is a simple leotard and tights on which the ‘facade’ of the costume or set piece is hung,” O’Brien said, holding up the two painted-paper dresses for the ugly stepmother and stepsisters which the actors will hang on their bodies, just like a child’s paper-doll toy.

Using bright, garish colors of neon pink and green for these unsympathetic characters, O’Brien helps to establish certain character traits, even while creating the contrasting visual effect for a stage picture.

“I don’t know why, but it’s just funny when you see the little black butts in the back when they turn around,” she added with her trademark mischievous look.

The uniform of black leotard and tights is revealed when the actors turn their backs to the audience in contrast to the bright colors of the painted costumes, a funny twist that demonstrates O’Brien’s waggish wit.

“I came to Allenda with this idea of this ‘unreal’ world of cartoon-like characters surrounding the three ‘real’ characters of Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother and the Prince,” O’Brien said.

In this way, O’Brien said, the costumes serve to emphasize those who mistreat Cinderella, while those of the kinder characters show opposing behavior while wearing the more realistic clothes.

O’Brien also uses the set pieces to enrich this world of what’s either real or unreal. In her design, there is a chair that can hug, a clock with a living face and a teapot that comes to life.

“All the set pieces are animated. It’s all about being silly and fun,” O’Brien said.

In the end, Jenkins decided to go in a more traditional direction for the set of “Cinderella” and let go of some of the more intricate aspects of the “real” and “unreal” worlds, but the cut-out costumes were used and look great, even minus the original concept.

O’Brien takes this all in stride, already steeped as she is in the world she is creating for “Chicago.”

Her creative machine self is like the Energizer Bunny, and it’s been running for most of her life.

As a director, O’Brien is no newbie to Whidbey Island stages. Her directing credits include “Guys and Dolls” and “Radio Gals” at the playhouse and “Enchanted April,” “Laramie Project,” and “Noises Off” at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. She also choreographed and directed the dancers in WICA’s best-selling production of “Cabaret,” in which she also acted the part of Fraulein Schneider, among her other acting credits at WICA.

Local dancer Jennifer Bondelid was directed by O’Brien as a dancer in “Cabaret” and in one of her first forays into acting in “Enchanted April.” Bondelid said she was thankful for O’Brien’s deep insights into the process.

“I didn’t have as much experience acting as I did dancing, so I was very glad to work with a director who has a strong dance background,” Bondelid said. “It helped me bridge the gap between dancer and actor.”

Such ability to support performers is a natural extension of O’Brien’s absolute ease onstage and in the director’s chair. Well before she landed on the island, O’Brien was already an established theater baby.

She grew up in New York, where she was raised on a steady diet of dance and show business, studying acting at the famed HB Studio in New York City. Meanwhile, she was a constant presence at ballet, tap and jazz classes taught by a long list of New York instructors.

O’Brien went on to dance with the Schenectady Civic Ballet Company, the Tri-Cities Modern Dance Council and the Orlando Tap Repertory and to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art after getting a degree from State University of New York in Albany. After New York, and during a career as a family and marriage therapist and as a school counselor in Las Vegas, Nev., she continued to act and dance, adding to her creative résumé another long list of theatrical gigs.

Considering the variety of her talents, she’s a force to be reckoned with, no matter where she is in the theater, on or off the stage. She does it all (direction, choreography, performance, design) and is always thinking about the stage picture she wants to create.

“With ‘Chicago,’ I’m using more Fosse-like images in the background as the story unfolds, as if a memory of him exists in the background: a pensive male dancer with a cigarette in his mouth working out the story in the shadows,” O’Brien said.

In this dark parable of the American justice system, there’s plenty of sharp-edged satire and sexiness, two trademarks of the great American choreographer Bob Fosse, who co-wrote the book for the stage musical with Fred Ebb, one of the composers along with John Kander.

O’Brien said she went back to Fosse’s original “Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville,” which opened on Broadway in 1975, to capture the flavor of the show that was distinctly vaudevillian and was based on the choreographer’s inherent sensuality and humor.

“When he first began choreographing, like everyone else, he was influenced by the choreographers around him,” O’Brien said of Fosse.

“His own style emerged through dancers like Gwen Verdon (his wife and muse), who complimented his work with sexuality and a sense of humor. He seemed to be dead serious about not being so serious.”

She might be describing herself. O’Brien’s sense of humor is droll and ever ready in the wings, whether she is conducting a rehearsal or acting.

“It seems my job is to bring sensuality and a sense of humor to the stage amid pin-spots, shadows and choreography escaping from legs, arms and snapping fingers, and that is at times dark and other times filled with color,” she said.

“Hopefully, I’ll capture that flavor and do the show justice.”

For information about “Cinderella” or “Chicago” call the Playhouse at 360-679-2237, or visit the Web site at click here.

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