An Interview with Dan O’Brien

03/09/2009 12:00 PM |

(Author photo credit: Peter Bellamy.)

Playwright Dan O’Brien has held a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, the inaugural Djerassi Distinguished Fellowship in Playwriting at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a Tennessee Williams Fellowship at Sewanee, and a Eugene O’Neill Festival Fellowship. His widely produced plays include The Voyage of the Carcass, Moving Picture, Key West, The Cherry Sisters Revisited and The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. We recently interviewed O’Brien and asked about his plays, his poetry, and the bizarre Fox Sisters, who were the subject of O’Brien’s The House in Hydesville, which recently saw its debut at the Geva Theatre in Rochester.

The L: I want to begin by asking you not about your plays, but about your teaching. In just the past few years, you’ve had major fellowships at Princeton and the University of Wisconsin, and you’ve taught your own private workshop, taught for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop and been on the faculty at the annual Sewanee Writer’s Conference. I imagine all of that teaching and traveling could be exhausting, but I wonder if it isn’t also somewhat stimulating. What impact has your life as a teacher had on your existence as a playwright?

Dan O’Brien: Well, first off the teaching has allowed me to write fulltime, with the exception of the teaching of course. But I’ve been able to do just the right amount of it, a workshop here and there, once or twice a week—gets me out of my head when I need to be, makes me think about playwriting from a more critical but still creative perspective. The only real danger is settling on some kind of comfortable dogma about playwriting, which I try to avoid. Most importantly it’s helped me to meet some wonderful people, to get to see their growth as writers, and to be able to live in some beautiful places.

I’ve also been helped and encouraged by so many writer-teachers in the past—Doug Sprigg, Jay Parini, David Bain and Robert Pack at Middlebury College, and Charles Mee at Brown. I would like to be that kind of teacher to other writers.

The L: I know you recently closed the show The House in Hydesville, which had its world premiere at the Geva Theatre in Rochester in January. Can you talk a bit about developing the play with Geva, and about the process of researching the story of the Fox sisters?

I was working on the premiere of another play of mine, Key West, at Geva in 2004. That play is something of a ghost story. And I was remarking to Marge Betley, Geva’s outstanding dramaturg, that I’ve always found Western New York to be kind of spooky, for reasons I wasn’t entirely sure about. Immediately she asked me if I knew about the Fox sisters, and not only did I know their basic story but I’d been fascinated by them for a very long time, since I was a kid really, and had long thought it might make a good play. I’ve been surprised how many people have some inkling as to who the Fox sisters are, but a lot don’t: the basic story is that two girls in a shack in western New York, a tiny town called Hydesville, not far from Rochester, claimed that the spirit of a murdered man, buried in their cellar, was speaking to them via knocking sounds — or "raps" — on the floor, walls, tables, etc. They became huge celebrities in terrifically short order, in New York City and beyond, and helped spawn the movement of Modern Spiritualism, a thriving religion still — and not just a religion but also, still, a staple of modern entertainment, from reality "ghost-hunting" shows to network dramas about psychics, etc.

When the Fox sisters were much older they published a book confessing the sounds as a hoax, carried out mainly by manipulating their toe joints. Though it should be said that many believe their confession was the hoax, and that because both of them were depressive alcoholics with money problems they needed the book deal and royalties.

The writing of the play entailed a lot of research, but it’s the kind I like, in that the history is ambiguous — there’s a lot of mystery and myth to dig through and hypothesize about. These tend to be the sorts of true stories I like to tell, that require interpretation and imagination and inspire, hopefully, disagreement and debate in the audience.

I visited Lily Dale, a Modern Spiritualist community outside Buffalo that’s over a hundred years old, I think, which helped give me a strong sense of how what the Fox sisters helped create is still with us today. Not to mention all of the friends and acquaintances I spoke with who’ve had first-hand accounts of mediumship and the so-called supernatural in their lives.

It was also helpful to go visit the remains of the actual Fox family house, the foundations of which still stand at the corner of Hydesville and Parker Roads, a rural area that probably doesn’t look all that different than it did a hundred and fifty years ago. Incidentally, the house was moved to Lily Dale in 1916, where it burned to the ground in the ‘50s. So the actual house in Hydesville no longer exists.

The L: Were there any benefits or difficulties associated with working on a commissioned piece that has regional significance for the theatre company? That is, would this have been the same script had you researched, written and workshopped the piece from Los Angeles or New York rather than in Rochester?

DO: I’m pretty sure it would still be the same script, more or less. In fact, a good deal of its development happened elsewhere, at the Lark Theater in New York City, and in Minneapolis at the 2007 PlayLabs at the Playwrights’ Center. And its writing was supported by a residency at the New Harmony Project in New Harmony, Indiana. That said, it was commissioned by Geva, developed by them in several readings, then produced this winter on their 500-seat mainstage, which is a rarity in terms of commitment these days — and a rare thing to have such a large venue for a brand new play. It was kind of scary, actually, but the audiences ended up being hugely supportive.

But I’ve never considered this a "local story" anyway — it became and remains a national, even international movement. In some ways it would be like writing a play about the origins of the Mormon church, and setting it in Palmyra, New York — a town only about ten miles from Hydesville — or a play about Christianity set in Nazareth or Jerusalem.

The L: I have another question about The House in Hydesville that’s also relevant for some of your other work, including The Cherry Sisters Revisited and The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. All three of these plays are based on actual people and events, and each, to varying degrees, could be considered historical. What kind of research goes into creating a work like these, and how much of an obligation do you feel as a writer to adhere to the facts gleaned from that research?

DO: I don’t really think of my plays as historical, though I can see how roughly half of the plays I’ve written would fall into this category. While I’m writing them they seem just as contemporary and personal as something autobiographical. That was certainly the case with The House in Hydesville, where I felt like I was writing about my own childhood as much as I was writing about the Fox girls. But I do think that these so-called "historical" plays sometimes help me get at something more truthful, perhaps because there’s enough displacement — enough self-deception maybe — to allow the truth to come out.

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
is a little different in that it’s an adaptation of a nonfiction book, by Milton Rokeach, published in the early ‘60s, about a social psychologist who was studying belief systems — why we believe certain things, why we change our minds. So he gathered together three schizophrenic patients who all thought they were Jesus Christ to try and just kind of hammer it out. It’s hilarious, very sad, a disturbing book — and very, very human. Just the sort of thing I like to write about. I’ve done a certain amount of research to try and understand American psychiatry at that time, but most of the work has been about translating the nonfiction prose into dialogue and action.

The L: Is it fair to say that you’re interested in incorporating elements of the strange in your work? You’ve written plays in which actors break character and examine their existential crises and, as you just mentioned, in which three mental patients are each convinced that they are Jesus Christ. Is it fair to say that naturalism is less interesting to you than, well, other modes or genres?

DO: I would completely agree with the idea of "the strange" in my work. I love that idea. I think of it in terms of simply getting at some uncomfortable truths about personality, relationships, society. But often I think that something that gets "dug up," or brought out into the light, will seem strange; something we know or half-know to be true, that we don’t really want to look at, when we see it can seem uncanny. The vaudeville, for example, something I often write about, is uncanny to me—a whole world and style and expression of ourselves that we’re only really half-aware of, or half-remember, and when we see it, or at least when I see it, it has this quality almost of a ghostly visitation.

But overall my writing style would probably be considered something like a heightened naturalism — I’m very interested in telling stories, in the sometimes traditional sense. I spent some time living in Ireland, studying oral storytelling traditions, and I’m very interested in folklore and myth and storytelling in a stripped-down, unpretentious way. But I like to hope that the way I’m writing will change as much as what I’m writing about.

The L: I know you’re also a fiction writer, and that you did an MFA at Brown University where you were able to study and write plays and fiction. Are you working on any fiction at the moment? Do you see yourself pursuing fiction in the future?

DO: The ability to study fiction and poetry as well as playwriting was maybe the main reason I chose to go Brown. I didn’t end up formally studying poetry there, but I’ve been writing poetry all the while and I’ve just this year started to see some of it into journals. But yes, I also still write short stories. I’m scared of the novel, but maybe one day I’ll be foolish enough to attempt it. I’d hate to feel tied to one genre of writing if I was inspired to try and tell a story in a different way, and I want to give myself the freedom to change.

The L: You and your wife, the actress and writer Jessica St. Clair, recently moved to Los Angeles, though you’ve maintained your apartment in New York as well. Was it a difficult move for you? I actually hate this term, but do you think you’ll be ‘bi-coastal’ for some time to come?

DO: I don’t know. We’d like to be — we’re really mostly in Los Angeles these days. But we do still have one foot in New York and would like to keep it that way if we can. We’re both from there, and we really miss it. That said, I hate the idea of being stuck in one place, even two places, for very long. That’s one big reason I’ve enjoyed these residencies at universities over the last few years, getting to know different parts of the country, getting outside of my habits, socially and artistically. Maybe I just have commitment issues.

The L: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now, and what shows you’ve got coming up this year?

Well, The House in Hydesville just closed at Geva. I’m heading out to the Playwrights’ Center to do a workshop of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, with Michael John Garcés directing. Also planning a workshop of a play of mine called The Cherry Sisters Revisited for some time in the coming months with Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, for a projected inclusion in next year’s Humana Festival — it’s a comedy-with-music about another "true story," a sister-act from Vaudeville who were famous for how ferociously untalented they were. I also just received a McKnight Residency Grant through the Playwrights’ Center, to write a new play. And like I said writing a lot of poetry these days. A few journals are coming out this year with poems of mine — Crab Orchard Review, Greensboro Review, Iodine, The Pinch and 32 Poems. And this summer I’ll be teaching playwriting with Lee Blessing at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

The L: Thanks for talking with us Dan—and congratulations on the publications and the McKnight Grant. We’re looking forward to seeing more of your work.

DO: Thanks for asking me.