Playwright Dan O’Brien Takes on ‘Taboo Topics’

Playwright Dan O'Brien has been selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship. His play "The Disappearance of Daniel Hand" is presented at Idyllwild Arts Academy this weekend. Photo courtesy: Barney Couch.Playwright Dan O'Brien has been selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship. His play "The Disappearance of Daniel Hand" is presented at Idyllwild Arts Academy this weekend. Photo courtesy: Barney Couch.
Playwright Dan O'Brien has been selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship. His play "The Disappearance of Daniel Hand" is presented at Idyllwild Arts Academy this weekend. Photo courtesy: Barney Couch.

Playwright Dan O’Brien has been selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship. His play “The Disappearance of Daniel Hand” is presented at Idyllwild Arts Academy this weekend. Photo courtesy: Barney Couch.

By Julie Pendray

IDYLLWILD, Calif. — The playwright who wrote this weekend’s Idyllwild Arts Academy theatre production, “The Disappearance of Daniel Hand” says he has always “felt compelled to take on taboo topics.”

Today’s show, with a cast of about a dozen teenagers, takes on the subject of fluid identity, by following the disappearance of a young man who is seen as somebody different by each of his friends, as interviewed by a girl who goes looking for him. Was Daniel Hand a druggie or a brilliant honors student? Was he a religious fanatic or an artist? Each person describes him differently. Could he be all of these personalities?

In other words, the show challenges the way we tend to label each other and treat each other accordingly.

“Who you are told you are is how you live,” said guest director Craig Fleming of Southern California in a recent interview in Idyllwild.

The  writer, Dan O’Brien, is a multi-award winning playwright, poet and librettist from New York, now living in Los Angeles. He has taught at Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Earlier this year, O’Brien was selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship in Drama and Performance Art. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation offers fellowships for artists who show exceptional creative ability, according to the foundation’s web site. Applicants compete for the honors against at least 3,000 others from the United States and Canada.

In an email interview for this article, O’Brien talked about the subjects he’s drawn to and why.

He said the desire to take on “taboo” content likely came from growing up in a family with a lot of secrets, repression and other problems.

“Over time, this focus has shifted from domestic to more political spheres,” he said. “I’m drawn to writing about what we, as a culture, fear and often don’t want to accept and try to understand.”

O’Brien said his play, “The Disappearance of Daniel Hand,” was commissioned by William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia in 2004, to be written quickly and toward a full production with students.

“I spent some time with the student company to get a sense for the issues they were concerned with. But the general inspiration came naturally: high school was a difficult time in my life, as it is for everyone, I’m sure, to some degree, and the question of identity, or should I say this mystery of identity, seemed the obvious path to follow,” he said.

What would he like audiences to take away from the play?

“Take aways are hard for writers,” he said. “I don’t write with a moral or lesson or proof at the end of the story. That’s too scientific for me. I want people to be entertained and to care about the characters. I suppose, in a thematic sense, I’d like audiences to feel that the play was exploring the complexity of human beings, and in this case adolescent human beings. We accept complexity in ourselves, but too rarely in others. I believe  empathy can be a political goal in art.”

Looking back on his artistic origins, O’Brien said he always wanted to be a writer. He used to write poems, plays and stories as a child. He said he was lonely when he was young in a family that he didn’t consider warm or supportive.

“Writing was a way to throw a lifeline to a stranger. Or to pull that lifeline in to myself, in the case of reading the poetry of Anne Sexton, Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot — all were hugely beneficial and inspiring to me,” he said.

“At certain times in my life, the theatre has been even more exciting, in that it was and is such a social art form, an added thrill for someone as solitary as me. Sometimes, though, I prefer the intimacy of a book. Overall art has saved me, and continues to.”

When asked about any advice he’d give to young, aspiring artists, O’Brien said, “It’s difficult to give advice, because artists have such varied paths, as they should, as those paths shape your identity and the substance of your art.

“Be open to changing, I suppose I’d suggest. If you ever feel like you know what your art ‘should’ be, well then it’s probably time to mix things up and challenge yourself, scare yourself, become less certain. The art I value most is the art that asks dangerous questions — of the artist first, then of the audience.”

O’Brien’s latest play, The Body of an American, is a story of war and war reporting. It was inspired by the work of Canadian Paul Watson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a photo of Staff Sgt William David Cleveland, as Cleveland’s mutilated corpse was being dragged by a mob through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia.

Watson and O’Brien struck up a friendship after O’Brien heard a radio interview with the photographer and then sought him out. The play presents the question of whether the act of taking the photo was itself an act of desecration. It looks at guilt and depression and the war that lurks within us all, according to reviews.

The play won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for “Drama Inspired by American History.”

O’Brien is currently finishing up a new collection of poems to be published by CB Editions in London in October.

The book is called New Life, he said.

“Like my previous collection War Reporter, it deals with the life and work of my friend, photojournalist Paul Watson,” O’Brien said.

“I’m also researching and writing two new plays — one about the economy of California for Center Theatre Group here in Los Angeles and another a joint commission between Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, and the Public Theatre in New York City on the history of guns in America.”

O’Brien said the Guggenheim Fellowship will support the writing of a new play about Western journalists covering the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS.

The Body of an American will premiere off-Broadway with Primary Stages next winter, following an out-of-town opening at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, he said.

Meanwhile in Idyllwild, arts academy students will present O’Brien’s “The Disappearance of Daniel Hand “at 2 p.m. today in the IAF Theatre. Admission is free.

*****

Copyrighted: Julie Pendray and SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com

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