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BWW Book Review: A STORY THAT HAPPENS By Dan O'Brien


Learning to Write During the End of the World

BWW Book Review: A STORY THAT HAPPENS By Dan O'Brien

Playwright Dan O'Brien made a splash in LA theatre back in 2017 when The House In Scarsdale: A Memoir For The Stage received multiple Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Nominations, including best writing for O'Brien, for its lauded production at Boston Court. Based on his own traumatic childhood, O'Brien's play was, according to this critic in my review for TheaterMania, "a Rube-Goldberg contraption of a back history, whether fact or fiction, [that] leaves audiences fascinated once the play concludes."

Now, O'Brien has published four of the essays under the title, A Story That Happens, as a primer for burgeoning playwrights. What make the collection so innovative is that the lessons are dispelled by a man who has been to hell and back. His writing covers illness, both his wife's and his own, as well as the one that affected his country, which he says had "endured a nationalistic, racist, misogynistic, proto-fascist wannabe despot." Through that filter, the audience experiences both the despair and the hope of the author. The teacher has received a wake-up call and has chosen to share his wisdom at a time when his country and his theatre community (due to COVID) were in shambles.

O'Brien lays out his perspective in the introduction. He remarks that all the essays were written during the tumultuous Trump years, a period of bombastic rage, where the truth was not only clouded but disrespected. Even more harrowing was the fact that O'Brien's wife, actress and producer Jessica St Clair (Playing House, Avenue 5), had been diagnosed with breast cancer before the 2016 Trump election. Then O'Brien himself learned he had colon cancer. Though both were in remission by November 2016, the cancer weighed heavily on O'Brien's psyche, infusing the collection with a fresh perspective of mortality.

He discusses dialogue, character development, pacing, all the basics that any burgeoning writer would find handy. The essays are filled with delightful anecdotes or quotes from Paula Vogel (Pulitzer Prize author of How I Learned To Drive), Joe Orton (Loot), and Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!) that give the audience an expert scope of the writing community. O'Brien utilizes wry wordplay when discussing punctuation, always keeping the lessons fun and interpersonal.

But this is not a manual nor a classroom curriculum. Even as a lecturer, O'Brien exposes himself: his fears, his lifetime of trauma, his personal passion for writing, just as he did in The House In Scarsdale. His abusive mother and father, and his suicidal brother, all hover over O'Brien's writing like ghosts. He discusses his friendship and collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winning War Photographer Paul Watson, the subject of his play The Body Of An American and how both carry guilt over their product (Watson's war zone photos, O'Brien's plays) as if by crystalizing the traumas, they had deserved the curse of illness that infected them both later. You learn as much about O'Brien as you do about the craft of playwriting, which is more stimulating than all this writer's years at USC.

Because the four essays were written separately over a four-year period, the collection does become repetitive. At times, O'Brien's recollections ramble, but none of these issues are overbearing.

In one essay, O'Brien writes that "[E]very story happens before it can be told." To this reader, that implies that all the experiences - the memories, the imagination - must fully form in the author's mind before they can transcribe it to paper (or computer screen). O'Brien does an unforgettable job accompanying the reader through the prism of his life experiences, offering more than mere lessons.

A Story That Happens is available for pre-order from the publisher:

Photo of author by Cambridge Jones

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