By Braden Turner
Playwright, poet, and librettist Dan O’Brien (ΦBK, Middlebury College, 1996) reached an important career milestone this past year with the release of his first stage collection, Dan O’Brien: Plays One. Initially published in the U.K. by Oberon Books, it will be distributed in America this April by Theatre Communications Group. The Body of an American—one of five plays featured in the collection—won the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, the PEN Center USA Award for Drama, and the L. Arnold Weissberger Award. In 2015, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the category of drama and performance art. His wife, Jessica St. Clair (ΦBK, Middlebury College, 1998), is an actor, writer, and producer. They reside in Los Angeles with their daughter Isobel.
You’re a playwright, a poet, and a librettist. Do you find yourself naturally gravitating more towards one form as opposed to the others? Is it still much of the same creative process between the three, or do you exercise “different parts of your brain,” to work on different areas of literature?
O’Brien: I follow my instinct in terms of whether or not something wants to be a poem, or a play, or libretto. Often my subjects overlap genres: I’ve written two plays and three collections of poetry and a libretto about the Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter Paul Watson. And I have a collection of autobiographical poems entitled Scarsdale, a play entitled The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage (which just received five LA Drama Critics Circle Award nominations); and I’ve been working on a prose memoir of childhood for a few years now. But each form affords a different perspective, a different mode of expression.
Will you ever expand the area of your work even more? Maybe into novels, for example?
O’Brien: Yes, as mentioned I have this memoir-in-progress. And I’ve written and published short stories here and there over the years. As well as personal essays—my essay “Of Time and the Theatre,” about my lifelong love of the theatre from the perspective of recent cancer treatments for both my wife and me, is just out this month in the Missouri Review. And excerpted yesterday at LitHub. I also just published a book review in the Times Literary Supplement.
How has your education in the liberal arts shaped your work and who you are today? You also teach. Do you see the impact it has on the lives of your students?
O’Brien: My liberal arts education and experience as an English/theatre major at Middlebury College in the ‘90s prepared me well for a lifetime of critical and creative thinking. Everything I write is an attempt to learn something new, about myself and my subjects, and in this way I don’t feel like my education has ever ended. I certainly hope not. Yes, I teach playwriting at colleges here and there, most frequently at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference for a couple weeks in the summers, and I hope I can foster a similar passion for engaging with and creating challenging, meaningful art. Of course I enjoy teaching because my students inspire me—and they keep me company, too.
Do you have any advice for aspiring creatives?
O’Brien: My somewhat facetious advice, at least to young writers, is: “Don’t take advice.” But I mean it: there are so many opportunities for disillusionment, especially if you’re passionate, so it’s crucial that you follow your own internal compass. Be strange, discover and keep discovering what’s unique about your experience and your natural style of expression. I also advise young artists to treat it as your job, even if nobody’s paying you, in the belief that eventually you’ll be able to make a living at it. Of course younger artists especially need day jobs. But my advice has more to do with valuing what you do even if society doesn’t.
What’s next for Dan O’Brien? What are you currently working on?
O’Brien: I’m working on a new collection of poetry, the memoir I’ve mentioned, an experimental rock opera, with my old college friend John Colpitts of the bands Oneida and Man Forever, about Sasquatch and cancer for Portland Center Stage in Oregon; a new play entitled New Life for Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, about my friend war reporter Paul Watson, his experience in Syria and our tragicomic attempts to fashion a TV pilot out of it; and a commission for the American Revolutions Cycle at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (a co-commission with the Public Theatre in NYC) about the history of guns in America.
Braden Turner is a senior at The University of Tulsa majoring in English and minoring in history and economics. He became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2017, during his junior year. The University of Tulsa is home to the Beta of Oklahoma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Photo Credit: Brett Simison