Rosary O’Neill is an award-winning playwright who recently secured her eighth Fulbright scholarship. From October 4 to November 14 Rosary will be in Germany speaking at the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms Universitaet Bonn as part of the World Learning program.
Rosary is a gifted academic who holds a Ph.D. and is a college professor, researcher, multi-published author, and award-winning playwright who is known for using history—and famous characters from history such as bombshell Marilyn Monroe and painter Edgar Degas—to create funny, compelling dramas that are laced with romance, comedy, and the occasional supernatural element.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Rosary eventually made her way to New York which is where she now spends most of her time. However, over the course of the last year, Rosary has been in New Orleans researching and writing a book focused on the tradition of Voodoo in the city nicknamed The Big Easy. Rosary co-wrote “Orleans Voodoo: A Cultural History” with fellow academic Rory Schmitt. The book delves into the rich and compelling history of spiritualism in New Orleans; a famously French and Roman Catholic city that also has strong underlings of Creole, Spanish, American Indian, and African populations that created a unique culture that marks Louisiana as being unlike any other city in the United States—or the world.
Rosary has written books about New Orleans (the novel “Love and Hurricanes” and the nonfiction "bible" on Carnival titled “New Orleans Carnival Krewes”) and plays about the famed Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau but this book was her first opportunity to write about the fascinating—and entirely nonfiction—spiritual background that flavored her creative writing and the city in which she was born.
Recently, Rosary took the time to discuss her latest Fulbright, forthcoming book, and theatrical plans via an exclusive interview.
Paris, opportunities, and experiences
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in applying to Fulbright Scholarships?
Rosary O’Neill (RO): I wanted to go to Europe and didn’t have money to pay for it.
At that time, I was running Southern Rep Theatre, which I had founded in New Orleans and wanted to learn from and see the greatest artists of my time. Many were in Europe, especially Paris. I have always had a deep love for France since I studied for 12 years at the Convent of the Sacred Heart run by French nuns in New Orleans, and for me nothing was more romantic than studying French, speaking in French, and participating in French literary creations. Long story short, a love story with France, beginning in Paris. Starting in 1984, when I was on a plane that caught on fire on my way to Hong Kong, I made a pledge if I lived to visit Europe every year because a time would come when I couldn’t do so, and to look for every opportunity to have someone else pay for it. This choice has brought me many “honors and fellowships” the greatest of which were the Fulbrights.
A representative of that office came to campus when I was teaching at Loyola in 1990 and said they were looking for applicants and encouraged me to apply. Loyola had a great office of grants and resources for faculty and staff. Following that, I got my first Fulbright in 1992 to Paris to write. I wrote a play called “Solitaire” which was done, at Southern Rep, the American Center, and at the Sorbonne in Paris, and I was hooked on travel and international collaboration.
MM: This most recent Fulbright is your eighth one, so why do you keep applying to them?
RO: I apply for awards all the time because, in a field where there is little money, awards give you validation and a way to be received.
I had applied for two Fulbrights, when I was informed of a new program called the Drama Specialist Program which was an appointment for five years from the American Embassy, and it allowed you if chosen to have a Fulbright. Fortunately, I was chosen in 2001 and re-chosen in 2013. And got awarded a total of six more Fulbrights. I was also asked one year when I wasn’t applying to be a judge for the Fulbright program. What’s so great about the Fulbright is they pay for your travel, your accommodations, and a generous stipend so when you arrive in another country you are able to also speak on other invitations and travel.
MM: What experiences involving the Fulbrights have been the best?
RO: The best experiences have been learning from the students, like the drama students at the leading school in Paris, the Conservatoire du Drama (it helps that I am fluent in French).
For example, you could give them an improvisation to enter a room, and they could come up with thirty amazing ways to do so very quickly. Also, to see the love for the arts that the Germans have. When my production of “A Louisiana Gentleman” was done with Southern Rep in Paris, the audience kept stomping their feet and screaming until the actors finally figured out that the audience wanted them to come back on stage for applause. Finally, just how much art ties the hearts of people together. We are all scared on the opening nights in our lives.
Also, when I was on my first Fulbright in Paris (in 1992) there was a huge elegant reception at the American Embassy in which they introduced me to all the key players in theatre; including the director of the Sorbonne's Literary and Theatre Department.
He, his wife, and I became friends, and he ultimately directed my play “A Louisiana Gentleman” at the Sorbonne. At home in Paris, I lived with a professor couple, and Christian Raby eventually did the photographs for three of my books. I can remember bathing at night under photographs hung over the tub! Christian later became a renowned photographer. On a personal level, the room where I lived had one nail on the wall for clothes (I had brought a suitcase), and the nail broke because I had hung so much on it! Nine people shared the bath. That was my first realization of the difference in cultures. My hosts had tix to all the great art events but only a few outfits of clothes one coat, one pair of shoes, but the couple invited me back to write in their home, and I did so in summers for ten years.
They became my greatest sponsors.
Scholarships, voodoo, and New Orleans
MM: How many countries have you been in via these scholarships?
RO: Mainly Germany (Bonn) and France (Paris, Arles, Nantes), but also by extension through other awards received: Hungary, England, China, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, and Denmark.
MM: You just completed a book about voodoo in New Orleans, so what about that subject most fascinated you?
RO: Well I studied Voodoo as a way to learn how to get closer to God. I was fascinated by the profound holiness of many of the women and the dedication of so many of the followers of Voodoo practicing drums and singing. Also, the respect Voodoo practitioners have for the ancestors, the people that have gone before.
How interwoven the Bible and Our Lady were in the religion stunned me as did the directness and spirituality of the practitioners. I was awed by how deeply prayerful the women were (most Voodoos are women) and that whites and men were also Voodoo practitioners. Colonial culture largely suppressed women, but Marie Laveau and other priestesses and followers found dynamic inner strength through Voodoo. Also, much of Catholicism is entwined in New Orleans Voodoo. But to learn about the religion, you have to speak to people because Voodoo has no central head like a pope or text like the Bible. Voodoo thrives because it is dynamic and present and reaches people.