October 23, 2019
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50 years after Woodstock, this Mainer is turning his rock ‘n’ roll memories into a play

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Actor, teacher and Portland native Kevin O'Leary has written a new play inspired by the turbulent 113 days between the Woodstock and Altamont music festivals of 1969. The play -- "Rock 'n Roll" -- tells the personal story of two friends and their lives following those days, 50 years ago.

PORTLAND, Maine — Kevin O’Leary missed the three days of peace, love, mud and music at Woodstock in August 1969. O’Leary didn’t experience the greed, calamity and murder at California’s Altamont Free Concert in December of that year, either. He was only 10 years old at the time.

But he does remember those faded days, 50 years ago, in living color and detail. Rock ‘n’ roll was everything and everywhere. The Vietnam War raged in far off jungles. At home, his three older brothers feared the draft. Men walked on the moon, live on television, for all to see. Richard Nixon was in the White House.

Those memories and momentous events of 1969 are the backdrop for O’Leary’s new play called “Rock ‘n Roll.” It debuts in Portland on Sept. 26 at the Portland Stage Studio Theater.

The play uses Woodstock and Altamont as bookends in the story, showing how something starting so right can end so wrong. The two festivals were just 113 days apart.

Woodstock is thought of as the zenith of ’60s flower power. It is synonymous with love and togetherness. Altamont is known as the day the ’60s died. It’s where Hells Angels murdered an 18-year-old man a few yards from where Mick Jagger strutted in front of the rest of the Rolling Stones.

The two-act show centers on a group of friends who go to Woodstock and what happens to them in the 20 years that follow. O’Leary describes it as a story of love, hope, rage, the need to forgive and the desire to be forgiven.

“Rock ‘n Roll” stars locals actors Sean Ramey, Marie Stewart Harmon, Chris Davis and Peter Brown.

O’Leary is a Portland native and seasoned theater actor, director and playwright. He graduated from Deering High School in 1977. O’Leary lives in the same house he grew up in, not far from the school.

“There’s a memory in every nook, every corner,” O’Leary said.

For the past 19 years, O’Leary has taught English, theater and playwriting at Morse High School in Bath.

BDN Portland recently sat down with O’Leary for coffee and a conversation about his new play.

Q: You must have been at least dimly aware of Woodstock, Altamont and the Vietnam War as a 10-year-old?

A: I wasn’t dimly aware. It was absolutely crisp. I had three older brothers. Whenever the draft came around, the lottery, my three brothers were freaking out. They’d go to that mailbox and my mother would say a prayer. My dad was a WWII vet. He was at D-Day. Even my dad slowly came around [to believe it] was messed up.

Q: Was rock ‘n’ roll important to you at the time?

A: Bob Dylan was a god, the Stones were gods. I’d get my buddies over, in the basement and play [the new Dylan record] until the needle broke or it went through the vinyl. We’d sit around, pretending we were stoned — we didn’t even know what marijuana was — analyzing every line. We sat there [playing along] with our tennis rackets — and we were grooving, man.

And Neil Armstrong — my parents let me stay up and we watched the moon landing on our 19-inch, black-and-white TV. Armstrong and Mick Jagger were my heroes — and Carl Yastrzemski, of course.

All of that stuff was in the air. Here I am, at 60, a long way from 10. These are all things I vividly remember.

Q: You put those vivid memories of that amazing 1969 firmament in this new play?

A: The characters are not my family, they’re not me, but there’s a little bit of me [and my memories] in all of them. As a writer, when I start dancing down that path, all the sediment that’s been at the bottom of the river gets kicked up — and it has nothing to do with the play and everything to do with the play. Everything is everything.

All my rowdy friends have been nudging me and kicking me — saying, “When are you going to write your rock ‘n’ roll play?” So, last spring, knowing the [anniversary] dates were in the air, I said, “OK.” I sat down with a very vague idea, knowing Woodstock would be a kind of launching pad.

Q: The first act of the play is set in 1969. The second act finds the characters in 1989, dealing with what’s happened over the years. That seems like a mirror of the events between Woodstock and Altamont. Am I on the right track?

A: Here, at one bookend, at Woodstock, in August of 1969: Peace, love, togetherness. It was a powerful affirmation of youth, the future. Just [113] days later, Merideth Hunter was stabbed to death by the Hells Angels at Altamont. The Stones barely got out of there alive. After Altamont, Watergate was just around the corner, Kent State was right around the bend — ‘69 was the end of the decade, the end of an era.

Q: I hear you saw the Rolling Stones at Gillette Stadium a couple weeks ago. How were they?

A: That’s a whole different story. I’m a Stones fanatic. It was the fourth time I’d seen them. It was the best rock ‘n’ roll show I’ve ever seen — especially for great-grandfathers. I’m not a young man anymore, but I still have a young man’s desires — to run the bases, to catch the ball, to play the tennis racket.

“Rock ‘n Roll” opens Thursday, Sept. 26 in The Studio Theater at Portland Stage.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 



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