During rehearsal, O'Brien deftly moves through his duties as actor, writer and director of Licking the Bowl, which the 27-year-old New Orleans native is preparing to showcase for the second time in his hometown. He silently observes the action from the seats, making script changes and suggestions. Sometimes, he assumes his spot in a scene as the play's protagonist -- slipping deftly between the contrasting roles of field general and one of the guys.
Indeed, this is theater without pretense. The core of Licking the Bowl consists of a casual group of twentysomethings, largely graduates of Jesuit High School, familiar with one another from both growing up and working together in theater. Licking the Bowl returns to New Orleans after debuting at Southern Rep debuting in January 1998, and enjoying a highly acclaimed run at the New York Fringe Festival later that summer. The story follows six young musicians who, taking a cue from the tormented late jazzman Charlie Parker, confine themselves to a Warehouse District apartment to channel their creative energies. It features a score defined as "electric sound painting of post-punk rock 'n' roll" by composer Jacques Dufforc, who also acts along with O'Brien and his collaborators Steve Zissis, Ashley Nolan, Arthur Mintz and Bryan Spitzfaden.
"Licking the Bowl was born out of the frustration of learning how to be an artist outside of the school walls," says O'Brien, who wrote the piece while living in London after earning his film production degree at Loyola-Marymount in Los Angeles. While staging what he terms a "successful off-Westend work," O'Brien dealt with the more "reality bites" experience of waiting tables at a Planet Hollywood, mocked as Planet Rock in Licking the Bowl.
London inspired Barret to form his American Dog Theater, and from there he bounced around theater circuits in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston and New York. Now, his focus is on splitting time between New Orleans and New York. "I've been pretty much full-time New Orleans for the past three years, but the last five months have been all New York," says O'Brien, who was nominated for three Big Easy Awards for last year's comedy, Midnight in the Marigny. "I hope this will be the beginning of a 50/50 split between the two. That's the dream: to live and create here and keep American Dog growing, but also get out there and do more work with other directors that I can learn from."
But such Big Apple leanings shouldn't be misconstrued as a disregard for the New Orleans theater scene. American Dog productions pack theaters with young and exuberant audiences, tapping a niche hungry for an unorthodox blend of multimedia effects, which even include cinema (Midnight in the Marigny), puppets (Hardware), live music and, above all else, comedy. (Another comedy, 1999's The Stand-Ins, won O'Brien a Storer Boone Award for best original script.)
"I love to laugh," O'Brien says, "and I love these messages we're trying to put forth. My style is definitely comedy, but I call it philosophical comedy, as we try to bring in these underpinnings of deeper issues that affect us. I can't imagine trying to get these messages out there without a really sweet ball of comedic sugar surrounding it."
Such forays into the more refreshing forms of theater inspire O'Brien, an admitted avid fan of local contemporaries such as Tristan Codrescu and Running With Scissors co-founders Flynn De Marco and Richard Read. "There are a lot of young theater companies popping up with kids trying stuff," O'Brien says. "I'm proud to be part of that wave, that new wave of young theater in New Orleans. We're here and we're not doing Harper Lee; we're not doing Tennessee Williams. We're not doing these established, wonderful, great plays. We're trying to establish our own wonderful, great plays."
And O'Brien is firm in his belief that such establishments can take root in New Orleans. "We're a viable city for theater, absolutely. We have a job of re-teaching people that theater is something fun to do on a Friday night. That's not really in young people's pysche in New Orleans, as it might be in San Francisco, New York or Chicago."
Facing such inertia, O'Brien is confident in his antidote. "We do everything we can to light a fuse under their butt," O'Brien says. "We got music, we got poetry, dance, percussion jams. The whole thing aims to awaken the inner child in all of us.
"Audiences should expect to leave the theater excited about life," he says. "That's what Licking the Bowl is about -- it's about dreaming and making your dreams reality, and appreciating what's happening in your life at that moment."