An Interview with Dan O’Brien

dan-obrien-headshotThis engrossing and provocative play tells the true story of the extraordinary friendship between playwright Dan O’Brien and Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter Paul Watson. Shirley Serotsky, Theater J Associate Artistic Director, interviewed O’Brien while preparing for the regional premiere of The Body of an American, which won the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play.

Shirley Serotsky: The origin story of your play traces back to an interview you heard on NPR between Terry Gross and the photojournalist Paul Watson in 2007. Now, almost ten years later, how can you explain what stood out to you about that particular conversation, and at that particular time? At what point did you realize that this could be the inspiration for a play?

Dan O’Brien: I knew right away that I would write about Paul. I felt haunted by his haunting but I didn’t know why, and our ongoing, peculiar collaboration has been an exploration of precisely this question. I say “ongoing” because I’ve written this play, two collections of poems, a libretto for an experimental chamber opera, and a new play-in-progress about Paul Watson; and “peculiar” because he shares his material with me, both personal and professional, but he never reads what I write about him. He hasn’t seen the play and says he never will, simply because he imagines the experience would be too disturbing.

SS: Your play, THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN, has been described as a docudrama; a “poetic true story”; and as biographical drama. How would you describe its particular mix of reality and theatricality?

DO: The play is certainly quite close to docudrama, as everything’s derived closely from things Paul and I have written, and written to each other, as well as recordings of our conversations, and audio and video recordings that Paul has shared with me from his work and life. There’s been some poetic license taken here and there, very minor stuff having to do mostly with chronology, or pieces of dialogue and phrasing.

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Eric Hissom as Paul Watson and Thomas Keegan as Dan O’Brien in The Body of an American

SS: You are both a poet and a playwright (interestingly—so is the final playwright in our season, Anna Ziegler). How do these two genres interact with each other for you? What compels you to turn to one form or the other?

DO: Poetry is simply more private for me, a more intimate experience to conceive a poem and to craft it, and I imagine a one-on-one relationship with a reader. A play is much more about story, dialogue, language that works in the moment and—however poetic—functions primarily in a dramatic sense. It’s a story to be experienced in public.

SS: Theater J’s production of THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN marks its Washington, DC premiere. What about your play do you think will be particularly resonant for a DC audience?

DO: This play is primarily a story of friendship, in my opinion, and an exploration of the healing—or at least strengthening, clarifying—power of storytelling and specifically theatre in relation to past trauma. But it’s my hope that the play addresses our historical ghosts too, specifically the Battle of Mogadishu and the Rwandan genocide, but the relationship of those traumas to the wars of the last thirteen years and our ongoing “war on terror.” I imagine that a Washington, DC audience might come to this story with even more knowledge of this play’s historical and political context.  

The Body of an American is now playing at Theater J through May 22. Purchase tickets online at bit.ly/TheBodyOfAnAmerican, at the Box Office or by calling 202-777-3210.

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