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A Rare Collaboration: The Multifaceted Work of Playwright Dan O’Brien

by Portia Pennington

Dan O’Brien is that exceptional breed of accomplished artist who never stops asking the hard questions. His multifaceted work is by turns painful and poetic, gut-level personal and universally relevant. Whether in the classroom, in performance at a reading, or across the interwebs of Zoom, Dan is exactly like his work: forthright, giving, grounded, and ever-searching.

A playwright, poet, librettist, memoirist, and essayist, Dan has received two PEN America Awards for drama, the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize for Poetry, and countless others, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. Fall of 2023 he celebrates three upcoming publications: a trilogy of plays; Survivor’s Notebook, a collection of poems and photographs; and From Scarsdale, a memoir.

True Story: A Trilogy, forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press, includes The Body of an American, a deeply personal play that originated years ago, when war reporter Paul Watson took a photograph that changed the course of history, of a US Army Ranger’s body in the streets of Mogadishu; the memoir play The House in Scarsdale; and the tragicomedy New Life, dealing with the year Dan and his wife (actress Jessica St. Clair) both faced cancer diagnoses, while Paul Watson was covering the war in Syria, and Paul and Dan were endeavoring to develop and sell a “prestige” cable drama about combat journalism.

When we sat down to chat via Zoom recently about True Story: A Trilogy, Dan was every bit as honest as his plays, and we plunged right in.

Portia Pennington: You’ve said that in your early years as a writer your “urge to see and say things as they are was counterbalanced by a fear of life, by the muddle of anxiety and ego. [Your] repression.” I can think of no better way to describe the battle almost all writers wage. How were you able to overcome that fear in order to write such personal plays?

Dan O’Brien: I had been writing in a way that’s typical for many writers, probably, in terms of running from a nakedly autobiographical impulse. Fiction is sort of baked into the medium of the theatre anyway, where actors are wearing the mask of character, and the playwright’s wearing many masks while writing the play. When I was disowned by my family, most of my siblings (I’m the fourth of six), and both of my parents, just dropped me. But it freed me in a lot of ways—from what I consider an emotionally and verbally abusive childhood. It allowed me to feel less beholden to protecting my parents especially. Being divorced by one’s family carries with it a certain amount of trauma, of course, even if it’s beneficial in the long run. So beginning to write autobiographically when I was thirty-three was a way to make sense of it. My whole system of belief about myself and my family had collapsed—I suddenly had a feeling that, in an existential sense, I had failed in my life. I had failed as a human being. Writing autobiographically was something I felt that I had to do in order to find my way out of that bleak place.

PP: Was it that feeling that caused war reporter Paul Watson’s voice to reach out to you, literally, from the radio?

DO: Exactly. I’m sure I wouldn’t have felt such a personal connection to Paul otherwise. Like many people, I would have heard his story and found it moving or interesting or disturbing, but I felt a sort of outsized identification with Paul, while at the same time realizing that he was such a different type of person. So it was this combination of feeling a kinship to him while also feeling that distance between us—that was so intriguing to me.

PP: I can understand the appeal to you when you heard him on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and then you were brave enough to reach out to him. You took that big first step. You’ve mentioned how important it was for you to build his trust in you. Could you talk a little about that—trust building? It’s so important for writers.

DO: When I first got in touch with Paul, I did feel some vulnerability and trepidation. I felt fearful simply because of who he is, what he’s done with his life. To reach out and connect with him would mean to turn my gaze toward what he had spent his life looking at, inserting himself in war zones around the world and confronting extreme trauma. To my mind, what he has done isn’t so different from what artists do. He was engaging with the struggles of life and finding a story in those struggles—making sense of it in some way.

To this day, whenever we talk or get together, he denigrates much of what a journalist does and elevates what creative writers do. I tend to do the reverse. Not denigrate, but I’m aware of the limitations of poetry and playwriting, and of my own personal limitations, and I think that what he has done as a journalist has probably been much more useful to the world. But this is why we’re a good duo. We value what the other does.

PP: You’re both risk takers.

DO: Well, he obviously has risked his life countless times, and I don’t do that, but artistically I suppose I’m willing to make myself vulnerable and expose myself more than some writers might. As for the risk of writing this first play with Paul, I was just lucky he wrote back. The truth was I didn’t know how to write about him yet. I didn’t know how to approach the darkness, the heaviness of his life and career. And I didn’t know how to find a form for it dramatically. I wrote to him, why don’t we just email each other, when we feel like it, about where we are? And that could mean our location physically (he was traveling a lot), but also emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. We wrote to each other for almost two years before I started to actually write the play. And we ended up trusting each other. Because of his severe PTSD he’s never read or seen any of the work I’ve written about him. So this trust comes from our friendship.

PP: How soon did you become aware that the character of Dan was going to be in the play?

DO: Subconsciously the choice was there from the beginning, probably, just because I was starting with this idea of emails back and forth. I was also aware of a kind of twinning effect, this feeling again, that Paul was very much like me, but also very different. What’s dramatized in the play is the discovery that he was in many ways a surrogate for my older brother, who was the sibling who had the most difficulty surviving our childhood with my parents, and who struggled with depression and had attempted suicide—an event that I witnessed when I was twelve years old. So I suspected early on that my story would be part of Paul’s story, and I remember feeling apprehensive about that.

PP: You did?

DO: Not in the sense of self-exposure, but I didn’t want the play to feel like a meta-theatrical experience for the audience. For me, it became a play about a friendship, and I think of it like a biography-memoir hybrid. In The Body of an American, the focus is eighty percent on Paul Watson’s story. My character is something of a stand-in for the audience, more like an average person with some trauma in their history. And the audience is meant to look through me at Paul. It was getting to know Paul, and how that experience, and writing the play, changed me, that then helped me understand how I wanted to write a play that was all about me and my family—The House in Scarsdale, the second play in this trilogy.

The turning point that connects those two plays is something Paul said when I visited him in the Arctic, which was the first time we met in person. We had a week or so together in blizzard conditions, largely indoors in this little prefab hostel, where he suggested to me that I approach my questions about my family like a journalist might. And so that was my strategy for The House in Scarsdale, to take almost a journalistic approach in order to do something that scared me. What scared me was contacting all of these estranged relatives, people I hadn’t seen in years or decades, to inquire, to probe, about what was wrong with my family. What was the secret at the heart of our dysfunction. And that play became, structurally, but also emotionally, about the desire to find an easy answer to the question—or mystery—of cruelty.

PP: That’s what I was craving as a reader—that straight-line narrative. I wanted the whole nine yards with a nice little bow at the end. I typically wouldn’t want that as a reader, but I was craving it so much—partly for myself, but mainly for you.

DO: Yes it’s a challenge with the play. Some people may be disappointed to get to the end and (spoiler alert) there isn’t any easy answer. But that’s the truth. And I think it’s true to most people’s experience of dysfunctional families, that there usually isn’t a single, simple answer or solution or resolution. But the process of writing the play gave me many smaller answers, and more context, to understand—to some degree to forgive—what was really going on in my childhood.

In writing it, the play became a story about how we need stories, and we need stories about ourselves to understand not just who we are, but to understand the trauma we’ve experienced. My theory, which isn’t original to me, of course, is that every time there’s a big shakeup in one’s life, traumas large or small, one has to revise the story of who one is. Losing one’s parents and most of one’s siblings—that’s a big shakeup to one’s understanding of oneself. So the process of writing this play helped me arrive at a new understanding of who I was and am.

PP: It sounds like your deep dive into your family, and a lot of those conversations, wouldn’t exist had you not had the relationship with Paul Watson.

DO: For sure. Working with Paul and writing about him changed the way I think about myself and about what, and how, I write. Maybe the change did have to do with feeling brave enough to take bigger risks, in terms of subject and style, though, again, in comparison to what Paul or any other combat journalist does, what I do isn’t risky.

PP: I still think it’s just a different kind of risk.

DO: When I was writing all of the plays in this trilogy, Paul was often in Kandahar or Syria. He would share with me not just his published writing or photographs, but his raw material too—video from his phone or audio recordings, really almost putting me there with him, placing me very close to some real life-or-death situations. So at least in comparison to what Paul was going through, being candid about my childhood didn’t feel too risky.

PP: And then the last play in the trilogy you move into, in some ways, even more painful territory, because it’s your own and your wife’s cancers. You come face-to-face with your own mortality at a very young age.

DO: Paul and I felt like there was one more play to write. And I had just received a Guggenheim Fellowship to research and write that play. Everything was kind of teed up. I was going to join him in Afghanistan for a short amount of time. I wasn’t going to do anything particularly dangerous, but I was going to visit him in his world, so to speak. And then, out of the blue, as so often happens in life, my wife was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. Our daughter wasn’t yet two years old. I couldn’t and didn’t want to leave home, didn’t want to risk my life (to whatever degree I would be risking my life) by visiting Paul. And then after six months, on the last day of my wife’s chemotherapy treatment, I was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. So the play that I had begun to envision, and going to Afghanistan—all that was off the table for me.

Paul had been going back and forth to Syria. And at the same time he and I had been conspiring to sell a TV series about war reporters in Syria. That’s all in the play, New Life, but I’ve taken some poetic license in terms of the play’s timeline. We weren’t actually trying to sell the pitch while I was in cancer treatment—that had happened a year or two earlier.

PP: I think that is a smart, dramatic choice to make because even though the stakes were as high as they possibly could get, it seemed to elevate them even more. As a reader, I was thinking about your livelihood, to get down to the nuts and bolts of it. Your livelihood and all that you and Jessica were going through at the moment.

DO: Paul’s plan was that this TV series would be an hour-long drama about the experience of what he’d spent his life doing. And for him, talking about livelihoods, I think it was this feeling that he hoped to retire from war reporting, but also he hoped to transform or transmute the trauma of his career into something artful. When he came to me I was less optimistic that we could sell it because I’m not a commercial writer—I don’t tell stories like that. And because my wife works in TV, I know the odds against selling a pitch. But I was willing to give it a try if he let me write about the process of pitching, of creating this fictional version of his life and career and trying to sell it to Hollywood. I was and am intrigued by how our culture understands war and understands war stories. And I was intrigued by this challenge of war as entertainment.

I think of that play, New Life, as a tragicomedy because there’s a tragic arc in the sense that—another spoiler alert—Paul and I do not achieve Hollywood success with our pitch. So it’s an ironic kind of tragedy, and an audience or a reader will see the end coming, as you often do in a tragedy. But you might at moments feel seduced by the hope that Paul has, and that Dan has to a lesser degree, that somehow Hollywood might transform the trauma into something glittering, populist, even profitable. I don’t know exactly how the play became comical to me, but as I was writing it I found myself discovering comic elements that were entertaining and that tempered the tragedy of it all.

PP: There’s a nice interplay between that and everything else that is going on in the characters’ lives.

DO: Maybe that’s it: the stakes of selling a TV pitch compared to Paul surviving a trip in Syria, or my wife and I surviving cancer. The characters get swept up in the stakes of show business, which is laughable. There’s a scene in the play that I’m quite fond of where Paul and I have our one and only argument, in preparation for our in-person pitch meetings at the studios and networks. He was here, in L.A., in our home, and the scene is derived from an audio recording. Paul was always aware he was being recorded, by the way, and that argument is full of a lot of vulnerability—mine and his—that I think is pretty funny. It’s very human, that Paul was hoping that selling a pitch about his life could somehow save his life. Of course that’s absurd for all of us, right? Writing a book of poetry or a memoir or a play about my family can help myself a little bit personally. It might be helpful to some people in an audience or to readers going through something similar. But my trauma is still my trauma. Writing doesn’t change that.

PP: I’m interested in your choice to write these plays in a fairly controlled syllabic form. You mention in the preface that the restriction was freeing, which as a writer I understand. Sometimes once we get the form, we can just go in there and do what we want with it. How did you come to that decision, and did you ever think oh, have I made a mistake in doing this?

DO: The syllabic verse was a subconscious impulse that I’ve had years now to justify. I can look back on it and say it’s interesting how the column of dialogue on the page looks like a column of journalism in a newspaper. But that wasn’t my intent. I can see that writing with the ten-syllable line evokes Elizabethan or classical plays. And I can see how that impulse to elevate subject matter that was chaotic, explosive, bloody, messy—that I had an impulse to look at those things, but put them in a frame that was somehow providing order and structure and perhaps a kind of beauty.

You ask about misgivings. I knew it would be a harder play to read than it would be to see. But if it’s produced well and performed well, directed well, I think it’s fairly easy to follow in performance. There are very few stage directions. I’m not writing “pause” or “silence.” It really is just the characters and what they say and what their speech means, explicitly and subtextually.

PP: Let’s talk a bit about the end of New Life, about “returning the room to normal.” I was grateful for that line because it, and the action it implies, is forward-moving. Hopeful. And there was humor in that too. Really well-done—such an effective transition from the plays to the next phase of your life and work.

DO: Thank you. In the theatre they call it “restoring the room.” If you have a rehearsal room, you can do whatever you want with it, but by the time you’re finished you have to restore it to normal or neutral so that the next group can come in and do whatever they need to do. That made a lot of sense to me, even in terms of the end of this trilogy. Feeling like, okay, this story with Paul is over. This arc of writing about Paul and with Paul is over, and—astonishingly, as I had just finished cancer treatment with “no evidence of disease”—life goes on.

PP: Was that a bittersweet moment for you, after all the time spent?

DO: It was. But my experience of moving on from writing about Paul must be similar to Paul’s experience of moving on from combat journalism, in that I know he misses it, but in many ways he’ll tell you that he’s much happier now. There’s probably some guilt involved in that, too. Part of me asks, well, am I turning my artistic gaze away from disturbing aspects of life and reality? And also because the story with Paul from the beginning was essentially about our friendship and about the question of trauma, the idea of a haunting: How does one solve a haunting, a psychological haunting? As with my memoir-play, The House in Scarsdale, I discovered that there wasn’t an easy solution. You learn what you learn and, if you’re lucky, you move on to another story.

PP: The work is certainly a great gift from the partnership.

DO: I feel very lucky. Even when I was actively working with Paul, I was aware that this was a rare collaboration. A lot of things had to align in our lives and our psychologies for that partnership to develop. To go back to the idea of trust and why he trusted me, it was years later at one point during one of our talkbacks (he wouldn’t see the play, but he would often come to speak with an audience after a performance), he explained the reason he answered my email and the reason he started to work with me. He felt that he had to, that working with me was a kind of penance for him. I don’t think he used that word, but that’s how he described it. It was something about the guilt he feels for taking that photograph in Mogadishu, but in a larger sense, the guilt he feels for witnessing and surviving so much trauma. He viewed being forthright or confessional with me as his obligation. He even refers to me in The Body of an American as his “confessor.” So even though I wasn’t aware of it, that dynamic was there from the beginning of our collaboration.

PP: Would you mind reading a bit from one of the plays? Whatever you want to read.

DO: Sure. Maybe the monologue in The Body of an American where the character of “Dan” is speaking about his childhood, and it’s the turning point before he travels to meet Paul in person in the Arctic.

PP: Thank you so much. Wow. I was hearing so much while I was listening. I read the play out loud to myself, but it was so powerful to hear you read.

DO: I haven’t read it in a long time. I’m in a different place in my life, so it was interesting to read it again now, twelve or thirteen years after I wrote the first draft of it.

PP: Thank you again. For reading and for this conversation.

DO: Thank you. It’s been great to catch up with you a little bit.

Dan O’Brien’s new play, Newtown, about the Sandy Hook shooting, will premiere in April of 2024 at Geva Theatre in Rochester, directed by Elizabeth Williamson. The play will be published at the same time by CB Editions in London.


Portia Pennington earned her MFA in Screenwriting from Spalding University. She is the founder of the Simple Gifts Poetry Project, providing gifts of poetry for hospice patients and their families, and her poetry has appeared in the NCTE English Journal. Her writing has appeared in Kentucky Folklife Magazine. Her screenplay Written by Elodia Jane Wilder was a finalist for the PAGE Fellowship and a selected project at Stowe Story Lab. Her screenplay Route Pack Six was a selected project at Stowe. Her play Talley Road won the Kentucky Voices Award, and was staged at Public Theatre of Kentucky. She lives and writes in Bowling Green, Kentucky.


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