To read Dan O’Brien’s plays, poetry, or his latest work, A Story That Happens — an intimate, humorous, and expansive collection of essays on trauma and the craft of storytelling — is to feel invited into a secret world above the noise of our own; to see your family and yourself exposed in a hard but ultimately forgiving light. Reading Dan’s work is an often startling, sometimes harrowing, and finally transcendent experience. For writers or actors, and for lovers of theater and poetry, it is also instructive.
I first met in Dan at a writer’s retreat in southern Indiana where I heard an excerpt of The Body of an American, his intense, ghost-riddled two person play about his friendship with war reporter Paul Watson. We reunited some years later, at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. There, Dan asked me to perform an excerpt from the play, opposite himself. He was an exacting and specific playwright, director, and fellow actor in the rehearsals we had prior to a public reading. As a writer, I was envious of his easy disregard for conventional structure and his ability to convey so much emotion with such economy. He was channeling something deep, examined, inhabited, and lived. It was Dan’s world, and we were swept up in it. That is the most any playwright could hope for.
I am an actor, playwright, and television writer. Aside from studying theatre in school, I have no formal training. As a writer, I learned by reading writers I admired, acting, and being in writers’ groups. When I read Dan’s A Story That Happens, I read it as an actor, a writer, and as a survivor of different kinds of traumas. I read it as someone who someday hopes to be as brave as Dan in excavating personal hell for the purpose of offering it to others who don’t yet feel brave enough.
You write that you hope this collection of essays might be a “minor chronicle” of the last four years. Writers are often able to capture a moment, even as that moment is still happening. How did your writing change during this time? And related to that, how are you a different writer now than you were in 2016? What changed you more? The country’s reckoning and upheavals? The pandemic? Or cancer?
These four years have, in some strange and disconcerting ways, passed quickly for me. When you’re living between the prescheduled reckonings of CT scans, and other tests and procedures, time acquires a piecemeal quality. And every summer I was surprised to find it was time already to write another of these lectures for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference — lectures that became the essays in this book. I tried to write from where and when I was—in my recovery, in my conception of myself as a writer, and as a citizen in a traumatized culture.
I can’t really say what’s changed me more, the private or the political turmoil. Certainly this past year feels too recent and ongoing to have many conclusions about. Five years ago my wife’s cancer, followed immediately by my own — I was diagnosed on the day of her final infusion of chemotherapy — was a trauma that continues to affect me in innumerable ways. It’s changed what I write about, as I feel that I have no choice but to write explicitly about our cancers. It’s made me less perfectionistic, I hope, perhaps a bit reckless because the stakes are different now. And probably the Trump era, culminating in this pandemic, has changed me in more overtly political ways. I think you and I, Lina, like theatre artists everywhere, are trying to figure out if we’ll have an artform to return to, or what the theatre will look like as it slowly revives. Which it will eventually, because theatre’s as natural as conversation.
That is so, so true — theatre is as natural as conversation! Your playwriting invites collaboration from actors, from designers, and the audience. Much within your plays is about what is not being said. How do you avoid the trap that writers sometimes fall into, of getting tangled up in the language? What is the work, aside from listening and observing the world around us, that you feel must happen as you embark on capturing a life, a moment, a journey between people? Or, to put it more simply, how do you listen?
About a decade ago I started writing plays in verse — a purely personal impulse and choice (I don’t think an audience would or should recognize my dialogue as “poetic”) — and for some reason this made me want to do away with noting “pause” or “silence” on the page. When I speak with actors I always try to make it clear that silences can and should abound — speechless moments when a chasm opens wide beneath a character’s feet. These silences are there for actors and directors to find, and they probably won’t be where I’ve imagined them.
Without silences marked as such, you might glance at a play of mine and think there’s not a lot of subtext there. But I’m forever deleting what doesn’t need to be said, or doesn’t strike me as authentic if said. I want dialogue that’s porous, flexible, interpretable — that is, lifelike.
Before revision there’s the question of how to record speakable dialogue in the first place. All playwrights (and screenwriters and TV writers) have finely tuned ears for the revealing word and phrase that points the listener toward the mystery of character. I’ve written several plays derived from audio recordings of interviews, and this can be an enlightening, if time-consuming, experience. You’re forced to scrutinize the morass of conversation, then to isolate and highlight the language that seems to pierce the usual opacity of what we say and how we say it. Maybe after writing those plays I listen differently to my fictional dialogue. I hope so.
You observe that theater is inherently political. And politics are theater. You go on to say that to make any money in theater, however, the work produced is less about challenging people than reinforcing their political leanings. How do you subvert that? Do you?
I want to challenge audiences and subvert their expectations. Not because I “know better” about anything, but because I’m trying to write plays that challenge and subvert my own expectations. These are the plays that can compel and sustain me for the months and years it takes to write them well.
I don’t want to write a play that isn’t problematic. A play should be a problem — for me to write, and for the audience to collaborate in solving. I know I am describing a “difficult” play. Some plays just remain difficult — unproduced or misunderstood or failed. But playwrights who write this way hope that occasionally the difficult play will manage to connect with an audience, and thereby communicate more deeply than the agreeable play.
In the writing of a play, you describe a “beat” as a unit of action. When one beat ends, a new beat begins. Each beat brings with it change. And each change is meant to draw the audience closer, to, in your words, keep them awake. This is the what comes next axiom, which I personally find oppressive. Still, how do you craft a play that successfully keeps an audience awake but doesn’t try to manipulate them? In other words, how can a newer playwright stay true to their characters intentions and behavior and avoid the temptation of plot for plot’s sake? How do you do this?
I agree that “plot for plot’s sake” is limiting and can feel oppressive. I can’t write plays that way either. But I do acknowledge that “plot” is the most effective way to keep the most people interested. See for instance superhero movies and true-crime podcasts. Plot doesn’t have to be mainly about crude externalized conflicts and events. In my book I paraphrase Borges’s “graceful adventure of conversation” and relate it to the obvious truth that a story can compel even when it has to do with the drama of intimate relationships. Plot is simply the shape of conflict, and there are all kinds of conflict, and all kinds of dramatic shapes.
I don’t think much about standard conceptions of plot, honestly, when I’m writing. I want my plays to unfold for an audience, to elude by a hair’s breadth the comfortable comprehension of what’s happening. So I focus on change, those beats where the audience learns something new — about character, relationship, theme. And as I revise I try not to repeat those beats but rather to extend, amplify, deepen them. I find that I’m often interested in subtle changes, and audiences don’t always share my same level of interest. I may feel that my story is constantly developing, and still an audience is getting ahead of it, disengaging to some degree. But this is where readings and workshops and previews come in: I learn to let go of elements of my story that are more compelling to me than to my audience. It’s all part of the process of un-writing your play, that period of time after one has typed “END OF PLAY” and the play’s true end, months or usually years later, when it premieres for an audience.
You and I both started out as actors and it really resonated for me when you describe how terrifying and thrilling the moments are, backstage, just before you hit the lights. Like many actors, we are shy and assuming another character is liberating. Those backstage moments were when you felt most alive. You describe that feeling of presence as joy. What changed for you internally when you became a writer?
When I moved to New York City out of grad school, I quickly found that I needed to prioritize, and between survival jobs and adjunct teaching I really only had the time and energy for writing. Writing was who I was, and acting something I enjoyed doing.
I supposed I’ve live vicariously through my wife Jessica St. Clair’s acting career (she and I met as performers in college). I still get that nervous thrill of performance when I give a reading. I feel it vicariously at the performance of a play of mine, as I so closely identify with the characters and therefore the actors. I feel it, in a safer way, when I’m writing at my desk, because I’m performing in my imagination as I write. Rehearsals and performances have their own thrill, but it’s the tangible act of writing that keeps me present and brings me joy, as has always been the case.
What changed for me internally when I stopped acting? I suppose I had to get used to an often lonely role in a sociable artform. Playwrights spend most of their time writing like other writers — in isolation. Then at the end of it all, if you’re lucky, you’re swept into an intensely collaborative process of development and production. But having been an actor, the production phase has remained navigable and enjoyable to me.
If the act of writing is the result of unresolved conflict in the life of the writer, where does the discipline come from to not turn art into therapy? To not indulge but reveal?
I think any distinction between art and therapy is subjective. All art is, I believe, on some level therapeutic in that its creation brings the artist pleasure. (Expressions of grief and sorrow and rage are pleasurable too.) When a play feels indulgent to somebody maybe that’s because the storytelling seems flawed to them. Indulgent, redundant, discursive — these are all synonyms in dramaturgical terms. So communicating effectively with an audience ought to seem as important as the writer’s need to communicate inwardly.
But, again, I think it’s impossible to reach an objective conclusion as to whether or not a work of art is indulgent.
In the essay “Time and the Theatre” you recalled being six years old and New Year’s Eve. Your father raised a glass of champagne and yelled, “Say good-bye to the 70s!” At which point you fell to pieces sobbing. Feeling pity for you, he read to you — The Sorcerer’s Apprentice no less. This was your singular memory of him loving you. Reading that knocked the breath out of me for two reasons — one was your cognizance, at such an early age, of the tender, inexorable passage of time and the other was that, that was the only time you recall your father expressing love. Do you think an early awareness of time, which is really an awareness of our mortality, happens to those of us who early in our lives experience trauma — be it from abuse or illness or war? Is an early awareness of our mortality born from trauma and is that a prerequisite to a life in theater?
I think you’re probably right, in my case. If you’re a child and you experience trauma then it’s difficult to imagine that anything ever remains the same. You come to believe that life changes in an instant, without warning, which was certainly true of my childhood. And of course children have little control over their lives and the trauma that may visit.
Not long after my older brother’s suicide attempt, when I was 12 years old, I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder. This could have been a coincidence, and largely genetic in origin, but I rationalized my thoughts and behavior at the time as an attempt to control my surroundings in order to protect myself. And time is the Great Uncontrollable. That memory of New Year’s Eve stuck with me because that’s when it hit me: years and hours and minutes slip away like smoke and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
This is probably why I was drawn toward the theatre. Performances flare to life, then burn away, then flare to life again. And this cycle is unbearably sad and profoundly beautiful — like life. So the theatre seemed to me to be the truest art.