PCS Blog

Dan O’Brien, Playwright and Poet

Posted by Natalie Gilmore | 11 October 2012

Dan O’Brien, author of our current world premiere The Body of an American, is certainly a distinguished playwright. In addition to having productions of his plays on stage at theaters of all sizes throughout the U.S., he has received the Weissberger Award, a Sundance Time Warner Storytelling Fellowship and numerous other playwriting awards and fellowships. He’s likely one of the busiest playwrights around. So it’s interesting to note that playwriting isn’t his only vocation. In addition to being a prolific playwright, Dan is a celebrated poet. His poems have been published in numerous literary journals.
 
I recently had a chance to ask him about the writing process for poetry and how it differs from playwriting. He told me, “The poetry can exist on its own terms. A poem only has to 'work' as a poem for the 10 or 25 or 60 lines it seems to ask for. Plays obviously have to compel an audience for two hours or so, and must 'work' as a story. That said, I like telling stories in my poems, and writing poems in characters’ voices.”
 
Many of Dan’s current poems are inspired by photojournalist Paul Watson, who is also the focus of The Body of an American. “The Paul Watson poems, from a manuscript-in-progress called The War Reporter, are largely in Paul’s voice, or in the voice of those he’s writing about, and in that sense they’re theatrical endeavors for me."
 
"Sometimes in these poems I’ll make an appearance as 'The Poet' and investigate the question of memoir. How can I be as truthful as possible in telling the story of my memory, and do so in a public way?" Dan asks himself. It's interesting to note that this question is asked in The Body of an American as well. "Paul Watson is doing his best to find and tell the truth through journalism, oftentimes truths that many choose to ignore or deny, and I’m trying to do the same with my poetry and plays,”  Dan explains further.
 
Below is an excerpt from “The War Reporter Paul Watson on War Reporting” that appeared in the Cold Mountain Review.
I just want to chip away at the lies
now. But that's a losing game. Most people
don't care what's going on, or they don't know
what they're supposed to do. The phosphorous
bombs dropping on Fallujah in '04
that melted the skin off children. I could
go on and on and on and on. I see
it like a labyrinth. If you get the truth
you get out. But you don't, it just gets worse,
you get more lost. And the harder you try
the darker it gets. As opposed to what,
being like you, I suppose. Right? Who cares?
Let's watch some more TV. Let's drink more wine.
As long as I'm safe I don't need to do
anything. See, this is why I don't talk
to people. People ask me these questions
they don't want answers to.
You can read the poem in its entirety here.
 
When I asked Dan how being a poet affects his playwriting style, he said:
Writing poetry has changed how I write plays, and vice versa. Sometimes I don’t see much of a difference between them, at least on the level of inspiration and passion. Much of the time I’m fascinated by what these genres have in common, such as stringent attention to the economy and compression of language (and action). In both forms I’m trying as hard as I can to communicate as much as I can with as little as I can. Being a playwright I can’t help but tell poems with stories and character. And my playwriting has probably become more poetic of late, not just in terms of the kind of dialogue I write (I’ve been writing my plays in a kind of blank verse for a few years now), but my story structure has grown more inventive, more idiosyncratic, less tied to the conventions of naturalism. A poem’s structure can, and probably should, mirror the contours of the writer’s mind, and my plays have been experimenting similarly.
You can also check out Dan's poems "After the Service," "The Amphitheater," and "Castle White Apartments" in Ucity Review.
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