No Connection is Too Fleeting: Shay O’Brien on ‘Unknown Caller’

Poster for 'Unknown Caller'. The playwright and director is noted.

Kingston’s annual Juvenis Festival run by Blue Canoe Productions is underway and this year’s lineup of shows includes the premiere of Shay O’Brien’s Unknown Caller. The fourth year Queen’s University student has not only written the hour-long piece but is directing the show as well. After reading its mysterious description, my attention piqued and once I was put in contact with O’Brien, an interview was born. I hopped on Zoom with them to chat about their writing, directing, and the Juvenis Festival. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

O’Brien began by giving me a short overview of their play. “I like to think of it as a little mix of everything. It’s got a little bit of romance, a little bit of mystery, a little bit of that supernatural aspect, and a little bit of tragedy in it as well. My brief synopsis would be that it’s a story about connection. A young woman moves into an apartment and she finds this old rotary phone and starts getting these calls from unknown callers. Wink, wink. And she develops a really strong connection with one of these callers and the play is spent trying to reconnect with that person.”

So, where did this idea stem from? Well, it’s actually been years in the making. “In my second year at Queen’s, I had gone to watch the DAN Studio Series which is one of the Queen’s student-run-and-directed play series. And one of those shows had a person who is now my very good friend in it, and he was playing this narrator character who kind of guided the narrative and had a hand in it. Sort of at the same time, I had this idea for a story about a ghost phone and a phone that can reach across time and space. And so those two things happening concurrently was kind of the beginning of the story developing.”

Getting into the meat of writing the play, O’Brien said, “In my third year, I did a playwriting class with Kat Sandler, and it was an incredible experience, and part of our assignment was to write a play. So that was when the development really kicked into overdrive.”

But O’Brien hadn’t thought about their play being produced for the most part of their writing journey. “It was really just a passion project for me as I love writing. I have so many works—not plays—but so many little works that are just sitting around and have never seen the light of day and they’re just for me. But then as I was developing [Unknown Caller] and getting my close friends to read it and do mini performances of it, I realized this is something that I would love to see put on.” 

Directing also wasn’t a part of the original plan. “I love getting other people’s opinions and I think working together with a director brings out some very interesting things in a script. But when the Juvenis Festival opportunity came up and they asked me if I’d like to direct it myself I figured, you know what, I’ve already had such a hand in this and I would love to just get to continue being entrenched in it and getting to see it continue to grow.”

A black and white image of Shay O'Brien holding a rotary phone and smiling.
Shay O’Brien. Image provided by O’Brien.

What has the process of working with the Juvenis Festival and Blue Canoe looked like? “It was late August, early September that I put in my application, then I got to interview with Blue Canoe… Then through October, November, and December, we were getting behind the scenes stuff, so finalizing the script, doing design plans, and then in November we had our auditions, and then November to December we were doing casting… Then the rehearsal process started in January.”

With the performance in the Juvenis Festival tomorrow evening, O’Brien hopes their play will continue to develop beyond this showing. “I have, over the last few months, submitted the script to a couple theatre development programs to get to work with dramaturges and professional playwrights.” 

But even with the hope of continuing its work, O’Brien is just appreciative to have turned the script into a production. “If this is the first and only time that Unknown Caller graces a stage, I would still feel so incredibly blessed and lucky and grateful. I even said in my interview with Blue Canoe—they asked, ‘What would a successful show look like to you?’ And I said, ‘I don’t care if there’s three people in the audience and it’s just my parents and me, it’s a successful show if everyone has had a good time and we’re all—everyone who works on it—is proud of [it].”

Of course, no show is without its challenges. “It would be unfair to say that it’s been perfectly smooth sailing at any point. I mean every show takes its hard work and has all its unique challenges. I think specifically for me, just adapting. I have never directed anything before… It was easy to feel that imposter syndrome… But the team is so awesome and I just have felt so wonderfully supported by all of them and the actors are so fantastic and never once have made me feel like I’m doing anything wrong.”

Imposter syndrome is no stranger to many of us, but fortunately we often come out on the other side with greater confidence, feeling wiser. This feeling has become familiar to O’Brien. “I love being onstage and I never thought I would really take to directing because having so many people relying on you is intimidating and there’s really no way around that. But I do feel like it’s grown to be something that brings me a lot of joy and I feel like that confidence is there—I honestly can’t even tell you the last time I had that thought of, ‘I’m doing this wrong in the rehearsal room.’”

O’Brien credits much of this to the leadership role they’ve taken on but also the collaborative environment they’ve been a part of. “Just being able to say ‘this is what I want and let’s see what we can get done’ and obviously there’s also a degree of ‘what do you guys think’? I told the actors at one of our very first, sort of introductory rehearsals, ‘The show is mine right now but I want it to be all of yours as well.’ Letting them have that sort of control over their characters and their roles and stuff. It has totally boosted my confidence and my sort of sense of self.”

Collaboration can easily bleed into connection, which is exactly what O’Brien hopes folks will take away from Unknown Caller. “No connection, no matter how fleeting, is wasted. Look at the people around you, appreciate them, say hi to a stranger in a coffee shop, and enjoy that moment of two people sharing each other’s worlds for a moment.”

“Unknown Caller’ is being performed as part of the 2024 Juvenis Festival, a project run by Blue Canoe Productions. It plays tomorrow evening, May 5th, 2024 at the Isabel Bader Centre. More information can be found here

Shay O’Brien is a fourth year Queen’s University student and part of the DAN School of Drama and Music. They have been involved in local theatre for over a decade and aspire to someday be an accomplished playwright and writer.