Last fall, after speaking on a panel at Columbia College on how to manage a career in the arts, Kevin O’Donnell got on the elevator with House Theatre artistic director Nathan Allen, playwright Phillip Klapperich, and some other members of the young company. Making small talk, Klapperich asked the musician where he played around town. O’Donnell said he was the drummer for Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire.

“They freaked out,” O’Donnell says. “It was one of their favorite bands.”

This was swell news for O’Donnell, who has over the last five years shifted from music scene mainstay (in addition to drumming for Bird, he led his own group, the Quality Six, whose members rarely numbered more than four) to composing for theater and dance. By then he’d already written scores for Redmoon Theater and Molly Shanahan’s Mad Shak Dance Company and scored a Jeff Citation nomination for music composed for the Hypocrites’ Machinal. This spring he netted another nomination for work on the company’s Camille/La Traviata.

Despite the House’s enthusiasm, though, O’Donnell wasn’t sure at the time what he could do for them.

“I saw Houdini and thought, ‘Man, these guys don’t need me,'” he says of the company’s highly praised Death and Harry Houdini, in which several House members played instruments and sang original music. Still, he gave them a CD, and they invited him to compose music for Klapperich’s The Rocket Man, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury short stories that went up last spring.

O’Donnell was first roped into composing for plays by a friend as a Northwestern undergrad. Before that his only theater experience had been in the chorus of a high school production of Guys and Dolls. (“I liked a girl who was in musicals, so I tried out. I couldn’t sing, but they needed guys.”) He also met Bird at Northwestern, where the future alt-country sweetheart was studying to be a concert violinist.

O’Donnell still plays with Bird when he’s in town and has a regular gig drumming behind singer Kelly Hogan on Thursday nights at the Hideout. But he’s no longer game for heavy touring: “I was tired of sharing hotel rooms and playing drums on someone else’s songs.” Theater is a healthy change, he says, since it forces collaboration among so many different parties. “I can definitely be a control freak, and it’s nice being in an environment where I’m not allowed to be in control all the time. People are more collaborative in theater than they are in bands because in theater they’re trying to solve problems.”

O’Donnell’s latest project with the House is Stephen Taylor’s Cave With Man: A Play on Words. A play about the evolution of language in a primitive tribe, it’s set almost entirely to O’Donnell’s percussion and vocal music, which meant the entire cast had to learn to carry a beat. “It’s been crazy teaching drum parts to 12 people,” he says. But the payoff—music that demands as much attention as the play itself—is exactly what he’s been looking for. “In the beginning, we did a lot of nights just banging on stuff,” director Allen says. “We built up a vocabulary that everybody could understand. Kevin was completely patient with us.”

“I think of myself as composer-slash-drum captain,” O’Donnell’s says, then clarifies: “But the drum captain thing is a joke.”

Cave With Man previews Thursday and Friday, August 26 and 27, and opens Saturday, August 28, at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 7 PM through October 16, and tickets range from $10 to $19. Call 773-251-2195.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.