An Interview with Dan O'Brien / by Declan Maloney Drummond

Congratulations on your new collection of plays, published by Oberon. Which plays are included and how was it decided which plays went in?

The collection moves backwards in time, as it were, from The Body of an American, my newest play save one, to The Dear Boy, a heavily autobiographical play I wrote in 2003 and consider the end of my apprentice plays and the beginning of a more mature phase. In between are three “historical” plays, my wheelhouse for a while: The Voyage of the Carcass, The Cherry Sisters Revisited, and The House in Hydesville. I suppose these five are the plays I feel best about; but I think they also show a progression over time in style and intent—away from plays of ideas to plays of humanity, historical plays towards memoir and the political.  

You're a poet as well as playwright. Which came first and how do you balance the two? And how does your writing process adapt for each?

Poetry came first, a long, long time ago, as a kid. It’s still the purest, my private way I can speak to myself. But playwriting came first as a career, as I came to the theatre as a young actor, writing plays for myself and my friends. And I met with a certain amount of success as a young playwright and found myself focusing more on plays throughout my twenties and early thirties. It was only when my life hit a few snags that I felt I had to give poetry its fare due, and I’ve published three collections since then, in the US and UK, War Reporter, Scarsdale, and, most recently, New Life. Two of these collections, War Reporter and New Life, are, like my play The Body of an American, based upon the life and work (and sometimes text) of the Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter Paul Watson.

Oberon is a UK-based publisher. How did you come to have your work published and produced internationally?

As usual: luck, circumstance. At some point I started sending my poetry to UK magazines and journals, thinking they might be more receptive to so-called “political” poetry, and so far I’ve found that to be the case. UK editors also seem to be much more accepting of poets from outside the pipeline of American MFA poetry programs. And let’s face it—the UK is no stranger to the idea of a poet-playwright. Oberon Books was very supportive of The Body of an American—a docudrama written in blank versewhen it was produced by the Gate Theatre in 2014, and about a year ago they suggested the idea of a Dan O’Brien: Plays One. That said, Oberon is distributed via TCG in the US, so the book will be available here as well, and can be ordered from the Oberon website from anywhere.

What advice would you give new and emerging playwrights?

To eschew advice. Or most of it. To do things your own way and to persist. To be stubborn, stoic, strange. But there are innumerable ways to “emerge” as a playwright, so I suppose you have to keep your eyes and ears open and follow where your inspiration leads.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve got a new collection of poetry in the works, Strange City, about the year-and-a-half when my wife then myself were both diagnosed and treated for cancer. I’ve recently completed a prose memoir of childhood, Dear Family, that I now have to hock to publishers. A play I wrote as part of my 2015-16 Guggenheim Fellowship, New Life, about Syria, Hollywood, and cancer, is commissioned by Center Theatre Group in LA (where I live) and I just had a workshop with them. My play The House in Scarsdale: a Memoir for the Stage premiered this spring at Boston Court in LA and seems to have done well. And next week I head off to Tennessee to co-lead the playwriting workshop with Naomi Iizuka at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I’ve been teaching on and off at the Conference for fifteen years now, it’s my almost-yearly, multi-genre font of inspiration.

Dan O'Brien: Plays One is now available from Oberon Books.