When Rosary O’Neill flew from New Orleans to Hong Kong in 1984, the wing of the plane erupted in flames.
Thick plumes of smoke set off fire alarms and triggered panic among the passengers. In that terrifying moment, O’Neill vowed: If she stepped off the plane, she’d explore Europe.
The in-flight terror subsided once the pilot made an emergency landing in Tokyo. O’Neill did survive, along with everyone else on the plane, and she has indeed traveled throughout Europe – mostly for free.
As an actress, playwright and theater director, O’Neill, a native New Orleanian, has lived in several European countries, thanks to the Fulbright Scholar Program — a prestigious fellowship that allows American citizens, including artists, to research or teach abroad. Sponsors, scholarships and grants pay their expenses.
Earlier this summer, O’Neill was selected as a senior Fulbright drama specialist for the eighth time. So in October, she’ll head to Bonn, Germany, where she’ll teach playwriting in the American studies department at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität.
“The eighth time is just as thrilling, because the Fulbright commission really does everything for you,” said O’Neill. “You arrive in Europe, where an artist or a scholar is considered like — I would say — maybe a surgeon here in America. You have two assistants, who basically just run around with pencils and paper asking you what you want done, and they introduce you to the people that you want to meet.”
Her visit coincides with the 25th anniversary of the launch of the university’s American studies department.
“I'm looking forward to bringing America to very eager students who want to learn about it, and to presenting America in a positive way,” said O’Neill. “They know very little about us, actually. When we talk about playwriting, they only know Tennessee Williams. They don't know anybody else.”
Setting the stage
O’Neill trained as a director and an actress in New York City studios — including The Actors Studio. More than 20 of her plays have been published by Samuel French, Inc. — a company that has been publishing contemporary American dramas since the late 1800s.
O’Neill is also the author of four books, including "Voodoo and Spirituality in 19th Century Louisiana," which will be available in January.
In 1986, she established the Southern Rep Theatre in New Orleans and served as the founding artistic director until 2001. The award-winning theater company produces world premieres, Broadway and off-Broadway, and classic plays. Their work reflects Southern heritage and draws international attention to regional writers.
During her time at Southern Rep, O’Neill was also a tenured professor of Drama and Speech at Loyola University, where she discovered the Fulbright Scholar Program.
“I was flabbergasted that someone would actually pay for my airfare, accommodations and food, and give me money to live in Europe,” she said.
The Fulbright Scholar Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and is meant to improve intercultural relations and diplomacy through the exchange of knowledge and skills between American citizens and people from around the world. The program awards nearly 8,000 grants annually.
“It's supposed to create communication and, I guess you would say, goodwill between nations,” O’Neill explained. “Artists are so admired and supported in Europe.”
After learning about the program, O’Neill applied, and she was selected in 2001 to visit Paris and collaborate with French theater professionals.
O’Neill has also explored other areas of France, along with Germany, Italy, Ireland, Norway, England, Hungary and Georgia.
“Once you start doing international work, there’s a ripple effect,” said O’Neill, noting how one opportunity to travel would lead to another.
O’Neill credits her success to her longtime inspiration — New Orleans.
“Most of my work is about New Orleans, and that has been a big advantage, because there's such a curiosity about New Orleans in Europe,” said O’Neill, adding that Europeans are generally interested in American cities with an international flavor. “If you say you're from New Orleans, people are like: ‘Oh, that's fantastic! We'd love to talk about it.’ … They're completely compelled by New Orleans.”