Interview with Dan O'Brien

Walter Bilderback: At the heart of The Body of an American is the story of your friendship with journalist Paul Watson, beginning 7 years ago when you heard him interviewed on Fresh Air. The friendship has resulted not only in this play, but a chamber opera and numerous poems, including the volume War Reporter. Without giving away much of the play, has the friendship changed your life?

Dan O'Brien: Absolutely. But my life was already in the process of changing pretty drastically when I met him, so Paul’s story—simply the sound of his voice in that radio interview—was both haunting and familiar. Uncanny. I felt like he would understand what I was going through, and maybe I could understand what I thought he was going through. I knew I wanted to write about him, but I didn’t know how, or whether he’d let me. But I did something I’d never done before: I wrote to a stranger, and he wrote back.

As for how my work with Paul has changed me, I consider him one of my closest friends now, maybe my closest, and we continue to work together, to discuss plans for future projects, to visit each other occasionally in LA, where I live, or Vancouver, where Paul lives when he’s not working abroad. We email each other several times a week, sometimes daily.

When I first started writing, as kid and as a young man, writing was an escape from reality, a way to act out emotional problems on the page and then on the stage; now I want my work to change the way I live, to bring me back from fantasy and towards a greater engagement with reality, towards connection, to bring me into contact with people like Paul, whose stories I find fascinating and/or disturbing and/or inspiring, and then to do what I can to help tell those stories.

WB: In another interview you noted that you didn't consider yourself a "political" writer when you started emailing Paul Watson. You are currently writing a play [that deals with economic autonomy in Los Angeles and] the Zapatista movement in Mexico, and have recently contributed to an evening of short plays about Trayvon Martin. Has the experience of writing The Body of an American changed you as a playwright?

DO: I’ve always tried to write plays about uncomfortable if not denied truths, but before Paul I tended to write history plays, culled from books, or the occasional roman à clefs about my family and childhood. Often the history plays were really just disguised autobiography anyway. And all of these plays were in some sense ghost stories. 

Now I feel more comfortable approaching “political” topics, finding ways to write about them personally, without rhetoric or didacticism. I’m writing more poetically and at the same time more documentarily, and I enjoy that apparent contradiction. In addition to the play you referenced, a commission for Center Theatre Group here in LA, I’m also writing something for Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle on the history of guns in America. These are plays I would have probably felt were not mine to write seven or eight years ago. 

WB: You have won prizes for both poetry and drama. Do you find it difficult moving between them? Do they feed each other?

DO: Lately I’ve found myself telling people I write plays like a poet, and poetry like a playwright. Who knows if this is a good idea—to write like this, or to admit it. But it’s the most honest way I can write lately, the best way I know to try and express my life as I see it.

But there’s no confusion for me—I know instinctively whether something wants to be a play or a poem or a libretto—or even a short story, which I sometimes write and publish in literary journals here and there. I have not been foolish enough to attempt a novel (yet).

If I were to try to justify my love for writing that’s hard to classify, I’d say it’s simply because life and people often feels like that: ambiguous, strange, wondrous, confusing, overwhelming. And I like that. I’d like an audience to feel some measure of that displacement, to see the story and the characters in a hopefully different light.

WB: What was the experience of adapting the material to an opera like?

DO: I enjoyed writing the libretto immensely. I don’t have any musical training—or ability—so seeing my stories and language transformed into song is an almost ineffable pleasure. A good libretto borrows very much from both drama and poetry, so I feel like I can bring something of my more developed skills to the table. Then I try to get out of the way of the composer and others, and revise to suit their needs.

I should say that The War Reporter (pictured) is an “experimental chamber opera,” and in many ways more like a song cycle. The composer, Jonathan Berger at Stanford University, has studied and been inspired by psychiatry and neurology for years, so Paul Watson’s story of PTSD and psychological haunting was something he also had a keen personal interest in. The Harris Theatre in Chicago is planning to give the opera a new production in 2016.

WB: This won't be apparent to the audience watching the play, but The Body of an American is written in ten-syllable lines. You've suggested to me that you don't think of this as "verse" in the conventional sense. How did you come to choose this form?

DO: Yes, it doesn’t seem to play like poetry. But there is a specificity and quickness and rhythm to the language that I think an audience senses as not being strictly naturalistic, at times. The way the verse changes the written (and performance) style has to do with being inspired by the condition of PTSD, and with the fact that the audience is often inside Paul’s memory and consciousness—though maybe half the play happens in a “realer” place, in the Canadian Arctic in the present.

The convention of the line break was very useful to me, as it can often suggests subtle ironies and ambiguities and subtexts I wouldn’t be able to indicate otherwise. Which is a good thing, because there isn’t a single stage direction for the actor in the play either. There are references to production design, to time and place, but nothing else. 

The ten-syllable line was also just a tool for me: it helped focus the material in general. So much of this play is derived—and often derived almost verbatim—from Paul’s own writing, our emails to each other, transcripts and recordings of our encounter, and various other sources. To try and fashion all this material into a dramatic 90 minutes requires a certain ruthlessness, and the poetic line—and the poetic mindset—has helped me. Dramatists must be ruthless with their writing, of course, but poets maybe more so.

WB: I don't want to give too much away for people reading this before they see the play, but you also do something very unusual, at least in terms of American dramaturgy, in terms of character. You do something similar in your play The House in Scarsdale. Can you talk a little about the effect of this on the storytelling (without spoilers)?

DO: Lately I've found myself wanting to let a handful of actors, sometimes just one or two, play many different roles in the play. It gives the storytelling a kind of fluidity and quickness and freedom that I think makes sense, at least to me, as these plays are in some fundamental ways about consciousness and memory. (The House in Scarsdale I call a "speculative memoir," as it details a documentary approach to investigating several mysteries in my family's past.) 

A lot of plays, of course, use this kind of theatrical device. What might be a little different here is that sometimes my characters play the same character at the same time, as if different aspects of that person is addressing (and in conflict) with each other. This is particularly meaningful to me in the moments when The Body of an American attempts to communicate Paul Watson's sense of his identity splitting if not splintering in the midst of war trauma. 

Perhaps something else that's a little different here is that I like to think that the actors are playing specific characters at base level throughout the entire play. Dan and Paul remain essentially Dan and Paul throughout The Body of an American. But sometimes more minor characters come channelled, as it were, through these characters, as they recall if not relive specific events. These are haunted characters, after all. 

WB: You've also noted that, unlike many playwrights, you haven't tried to write for TV or film, sticking with drama and poetry. Isn't this difficult, living in LA and being married to an actress with an active TV career?

DO: I haven’t found it difficult, other than the occasional look from Hollywood types when I say I write plays and poems: a mixture of both admiration and pity, which seems about right.

I have nothing against TV or film—in fact I often envy their broad appeal, not to mention the possibility of earning a good if not great living from writing for the screen. But I value my autonomy too much: I want to write what I want to write. Which is probably why I have so many unproduced plays in my closet.

WB: You recently received a very 21st century sort of recognition: how does it feel to named one of "Ten playwrights worth following on Twitter"?

DO: I’m not worthy! But yes, I was stupidly excited about that. I started tweeting to try to support my wife’s TV career—when she’s had shows premiering, or guest-starring, etc.—and I’ve found I enjoy it in general. As a fairly reclusive writer it’s nice to have a way to connect to other artists around the country, and more recently in the UK where The Body of an American ran last year, and War Reporter, my poetry collection, and a new collection entitled Scarsdale, have been published. But mostly I just tweet about our miniature schnauzer Emma, and our one-year-old daughter Bebe. It’s a glamorous life.

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