Child abuse, cancer, COVID-19 shutdown: One writer's master class in survival through art
Dan O'Brien, the playwright and poet behind “The Body of an American' and 'The House in Scarsdale,' channels hurt and healing into new work.
Theater has returned to UCLA’s Royce Hall, pairing perfect strangers in a private encounter.Even before cancer, O’Brien wrote about trauma. His 2012 play, “The Body of an American,” winner of a PEN Center USA award, among others, was based on the experiences of his friend Paul Watson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer. Watson’s is the voice of many of the poems in O’Brien’s first collection, “War Reporter.”
O’Brien recognized that writing about Watson’s trauma was a way of writing about his own. So he took on his painful childhood in“The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage,”which had its world premiere in 2017 at Boston Court Pasadena. A character named Dan O’Brien interviews recalcitrant members of his large, estranged family, hoping to find out why his parents, who he says abused him as a child, severed contact with him in his 30s.
“Scarsdale” took about 10 years to write, O’Brien said, and was as harrowing as it was therapeutic. Before the first staged reading, at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, he remembers worrying that a family member would rise up from the audience to denounce him. (None did. Nobody reacted at all. The silence was painful in its own way.) headtopics.com
Although the play didn’t bring him closure in the traditional sense — some questions are still unanswered — it helped him process what he’d been through.So he knew all along that if he survived cancer, he was going to write about it.“Both Jessica and I feel very strongly that we want to create art that makes meaning out of what we’ve been through,” O’Brien said. “That might — it can sound pretentious — that might be helpful to people who have gone through something similar. And that’s what we return to anytime we feel vulnerable or exposed.”
He added with a wry smile: “It’s also the only skills we have.”AdvertisementAs artists in related fields who have lived together, parented together and supported each other through back-to-back cancers, they’re drawing from the same well, and they appear, directly and indirectly, in each other’s work. “The House in Scarsdale” includes an argument between “Dan” and “Jessica,” based on an actual argument between O’Brien and St. Clair. Meanwhile, in
“Playing House,”the USA sitcom St. Clair co-created with Lennon Parham, which ran for three seasons, O’Brien recognizes bits of himself. Read more: Los Angeles Times »
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