11th Hour Theatre’s Michael Philip O’Brien talks about his final musical with the company and this season’s transitions.

-Brenda Hillegas

After 16 seasons, co-founder and Producing Artistic Director of 11th Hour Theatre Company, Michael Philip O’Brien, will be leaving to become the new Executive Producer at the Gretna Theatre in Mount Gretna, PA. Before he heads off, Michael will be directing one last musical with 11th Hour- SOON. It’s a funny and apocalyptic story about a woman who isolates herself in her apartment as the end of time nears. Michael spoke to me about the upcoming show (which starts tomorrow!) and transitioning to his new role.

Q: 11th Hour is unique in that it only produces musicals. Why did you decide to establish a completely musical-base theatre?
A: Well, when we started the company all the way back in 2005, there was no one in the city producing small, intimate musicals. It was something that all three founders were super passionate about, so it made so much sense. We really felt as though we could carve out a niche four ourselves. 

Q: Tell us a bit about SOON and why you feel this musical is a great fit for 11th Hour? Soon is a very 11th Hour type of show.
A: It is an intimate story with some twists and turns, and a lot of humor. We tend to steer toward stories that are about real people dealing with extraordinary circumstances, and this fits in with that perfectly. 

Q: SOON is written by Nick Blaemire. How involved was he with this specific production and was he able to provide feedback?
A: Yes, Nick was a great asset to me and the whole team on this project. He and I had a handful of zoom chats leading up to rehearsals beginning and it was super helpful to get his thoughts on the show and our approach. It is a challenging piece because the story is not told in a chronological way, so Nick was a major help in making sure that all things were lining up and tracking through the piece correctly. 

Q: The show is co-produced with Lancaster’s Prima Theatre. How did that partnership come about? 
A: It worked out well. I was actually slated to direct the show at Prima before 11th Hour joined the production. We approached them and Nick about collaborating in June, when the city of Philadelphia lifted seating/capacity restrictions and we felt as though we needed to produce something in person this fall. It worked out perfectly though because this show fits with what 11th Hour does so well, and I was already attached to the project. Prima and 11th Hour have been talking about co-producing for a few years, so it was serendipitous. 

Q: Shows this season will be performed at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City. Is there a specific reason why this space was chosen?
A: We have produced there for years. We love the space. It works well for musicals because of the openness of the space.  

Q: SOON is your final piece at 11th Hour before moving on to a role as Executive Producer at the Gretna Theatre. What made you decide it was time to move on from the theatre you created?
A: Wow, big question. As the pandemic hit, I had been thinking more and more about stepping away from 11th Hour, but anticipated that it would be a gradual transition. My wife and I moved out of the area for her job, and it just felt like all things in life were pointing in that direction. Then the job at Gretna came onto my radar, and I thought, this sounds like a really good fit. The whole process there was very fast, so the transition at 11th Hour would also have to be fast. Fortunately, 11th Hour co-founder, Steve Pacek, was interested in taking over. Also, having Grayce Hoffman as the Executive Director made the decision much easier. It is definitely bitter-sweet because I love this company so much and it has been my main focus for almost 20 years. But leaving now feels right. The new team will do great things with the company.  It is in very good hands. 

Q: What do you hope to see from Steve and the team as this season continues?
A: I am so excited to see what 11th hour will be in the coming years.  I am just looking forward to seeing the next iteration of the company as a supporter and audience member!

Q: As you close out your time with 11th Hour, do you have anything you’d like to say to encourage people to come support live theatre again?
A: We live in a world now where we can all sit on our couches and binge show after show, or movie after movie, on every streaming service under the sun. And don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my streaming services. But there is something truly unique about coming together in a shared space with a group of people that you don’t know and witnessing a live performance. It is a special moment that only the people in that room experience. And that moment, with that exact group of people, will never happen again. So, I hope that people will come back out and see a live show this season. I feel confident that once they take the leap, they will realize how much they missed it. I know that I have.  

Q: Since the apocalypse nears in SOON, what favorite things would you take to your couch with you as you await your demise?
A: Ha! Of course, my family (furry family included), sweatpants, and my Skinny Pop popcorn! That was definitely my go-to pandemic snack! 

SOON begins tomorrow and runs through November 7th. Tickets are available here.

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