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BWW Interview: Dan O'Brien Talks A STORY THAT HAPPENS: ON PLAYWRITING, CHILDHOOD & OTHER TRAUMAS

O'Brien's new book is set to be released on April 5, and is now available for pre-order!

BWW Interview: Dan O'Brien Talks A STORY THAT HAPPENS: ON PLAYWRITING, CHILDHOOD & OTHER TRAUMAS

Dan O'Brien is an internationally-recognized playwright and poet who has received such honors the Guggenheim Fellowship in Drama, the Horton Foote Prize, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize and two PEN America Awards. O'Brien has published three poetry collections (War Reporter, New Life, and Scarsdale) and is set to release his new book next month.

Entitled 'A Story that Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, & Other Traumas', the book is collection of essays originally written as a series of craft lectures for the annual Sewanee Writers' Conference. Drawing on O'Brien's experience with cancer, childhood abuse, his friendship and collaboration with a war reporter, and his years of playwriting, this book delivers meaningful reflections on storytelling in the theatre, and insights into writing through the lens of trauma and triumph.

The book is set to be published by CB editions on April 5, and is available for pre-order HERE!

We spoke with Dan about the process of putting 'A Story That Happens' together, what he hopes readers will take away from the book, and more!


How did you decide that it was time for you to put together a book?

This collection evolved one essay at a time, in the form of craft lectures written one summer at a time for the Sewanee Writers' Conference, where I've been a member of the playwriting faculty on and off for many years. The first lecture-the first chapter in this book-was written in 2017, only months after I'd finished treatment for cancer with "no evidence of disease," when I was trying to learn how to reenter my life, or really to reinvent it. I was struggling to figure out how I'd been changed by the cataclysm of cancer, psychologically but also artistically. I was reevaluating what I knew or thought I knew about the craft of writing plays, and envisioning how I could, would, should write differently now. I had a secret plan then that this first lecture might one day develop into a book, provided that I'd continue to be around to keep on writing it.

Can you tell us what 'A Story that Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, & Other Traumas' is about?

The book is a contemplation and celebration of the playwrights' craft from the perspective of the experience and survival of trauma. I have no interest in telling people how they "should" write their plays, as I don't believe in any kind of perfectible art. But I can write about how I write, personally speaking, and how that process has changed over time. So I knew that the book had to include memoir. Probably half of the words in these pages are about my childhood, growing up in a family riddled with secrets and untreated mental illnesses, driven by emotional and verbal abuse, and how that upbringing made me-for better and for worse-a playwright and a poet.

I also write here about my estrangement from my birth family, a rupture in my early thirties that was traumatic in mostly liberating ways. And then, of course, I write about this more recent crisis-my diagnosis at 42 with colon cancer, only six months after my wife, actor and writer Jessica St. Clair, was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I write about my friendship and collaboration with the Pulitzer-Prize winning war reporter, Paul Watson. It was his war trauma, and his heroically honest photography and reporting, that first drew me to him and became the subject of our work together. Lastly, there is a vein running through these essays in which I am considering playwriting in the context of the traumas of the Trump era, passages filled with exhortations to write boldly in the teeth of political abuse. In all of these examples my focus is on relating catastrophe in life to the creation of meaningful, possibly redemptive theatre.

What was the first essay that you wrote for the book? How did you decide what to include?

The first essay is that first craft lecture from 2017, entitled "Time and the Theatre." The essay lays bare my beliefs and questions about the theatre, themes and ideas that I develop throughout the book. This essay's particular fascination is with the transience of theatre-the fabric or matrix of live performance that makes it almost unbearably poignant. This is, of course, true of life as well. So, this is an essay about mortality, and how we may encounter joy more fully when awake to the reality of our existence. The other essays came together naturally, as I thought about them for many months, then spent some time committing these thoughts to paper in the lead-up to the annual conference in Tennessee. I wanted to address some fundamental elements of playwriting-like dialogue, conflict, and character-but, again, not in a proscriptive way.

What has been the most impactful part for you about getting your thoughts and experiences down on paper, and putting them together in this collection?

With this book I want to share my love for the theatre. And I've never wanted to share that love more than I do now, when there is no theatre-or very little, or at least not theatre as we've known it. And I miss it: I miss actors and directors and dramaturgs and designers rehearsing and arguing and yawning and laughing. I miss coffee breaks. I miss audiences, these accidental congregations of strangers sitting in the near-dark watching stories unfold in frames and pools of light. While writing the book, I wanted to remember and return to what attracted me to theatrical storytelling in the first place, before the worries and follies of a "midcareer" in the arts began to cloud things for me. So I am speaking from the heart here. Hearing very personal responses from writers at these lectures (and the audience at Sewanee is composed of every kind of writer, not just playwrights) has been affirming and encouraging. Along the way these chapters have been excerpted by The Paris Review Daily, Literary Hub, the Missouri Review, and recently in American Theatre magazine. I've been heartened by responses from readers, all of whom I'm certain miss the theatre as much as I do.

What do you hope that readers take away from A Story that Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, & Other Traumas?

What I'm really writing about in this book is the lifesaving power of speaking out, about creation and communication of any kind as a healing response to trauma-healing for the creator, but also for the reader, listener, viewer. My childhood tried to teach me to stay silent about abuse, and a stubborn impulse to tell the truth, or to try to tell the truth-in my case via plays and poems, and now essays-is what has saved me. Not because it's brought me fame or fortune (it hasn't) but because the attempt to write honestly about my experience of life has brought me into communities of likeminded people. It's brought me their stories. It's brought me friends, and love, and a daughter. This is why both my wife and I have been honest and forthright about our cancer experiences: we want to connect, to maybe comfort others who are going through something similar, whatever their specifics. We want to question the taboos and transcend the humiliations of illness. Clearly some of what I'm getting at here applies to the societal trauma of Covid-19, and the last chapter in this book was written last summer and grapples to a degree with what we've all been enduring. There is so much grief and survival still to come, but also celebration and reinvention. So, I hope that readers finish the book sharing some of my sense of hope.


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