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Abuse, cancer, COVID-19 shutdown: One writer’s master class in survival through art

Author and playwright Dan O'Brien photographed against a backdrop of Canary Island pine trees in Santa Monica.
Author and playwright Dan O’Brien photographed in Santa Monica.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

At age 42, playwright and poet Dan O’Brien was diagnosed with colon cancer, on the same day in 2016 that his wife, actress and comedian Jessica St. Clair, finished treatment for breast cancer.

Both are cancer free now. As they said in a conversation published last summer in the New York Times, they got through their ordeal in part by committing to “a kind of radical optimism” — not an approach they customarily had practiced — but one they pursued for the sake of their daughter, Bebe, who was just 2 at the time.

Yet as O’Brien told The Times recently via Zoom from his book-lined home office in Santa Monica, the couple’s illnesses continue to reverberate in their lives and work.

Last month, O’Brien published a collection of essays, “A Story That Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, & Other Traumas,” from CB editions. His fourth book of poetry, “Our Cancers,” a lyrical account of the couple’s combined 18 months of treatment, will be released in September.

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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.)

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.”

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As 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.

“There are two characters on that show: Jessica’s boyfriend, played by Keegan-Michael Key, and her best friend, played by Lennon Parham, who are kind of two sides of me. I mean they kind of did things that I probably did in real life,” he said.

In Geffen Playhouse’s “Someone Else’s House,” multimedia artist Jared Mezzocchi opens the door to his family’s haunted 200-year-old New England house.

St. Clair’s character had breast cancer in Season 3 of the show. “And it’s a comedy,” O’Brien said. “So of course she was approaching it with her own point of view and her own talent. I just feel so lucky that we both have such a similar philosophy about trying to work from our own personal experience while still being aware of what can be dangerous about that. I mean, partly that’s why we feel it’s important, because it is dangerous.”

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They’ve been doing it since the moment they met, at Middlebury College in Vermont, back when “I was actually a little bit funny,” O’Brien recalled. They were in an improv group there called the Otter Nonsense Players (named for nearby Otter Creek). Comedian Jason Mantzoukas and writer Rodney Rothman (Oscar winner for “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse”) were fellow members.

“Jessica was a couple of years younger than me, and she got into the group, and the first scene I improvised with her, I proposed to her,” O’Brien said. “That’s how desperate I was. So yeah, we’ve been together since college.”

Author and playwright Dan O'Brien leaning against a tree.
“Both Jessica and I feel very strongly that we want to create art that makes meaning out of what we’ve been through,” Dan O’Brien says.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

O’Brien got more serious after college and focused on writing. He attended the playwriting graduate program at Brown University, then moved to New York, but he never officially relinquished performing. He was planning to play Dan O’Brien in “The House in Scarsdale” off Broadway last summer. When COVID-19 scotched that production, it was reconfigured as a Zoom reading.

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Like “Scarsdale,” “The Body of an American” centers on a character named Dan O’Brien, as does the latest installment in what the playwright considers a trilogy of “memoir documentary plays.” (The third in the series follows O’Brien and Watson as they pitch a TV series on war photographers to networks, while O’Brien is undergoing chemo.) He said he’d love to play himself onstage if the opportunity ever arises.

“Although, if anything, I feel like I’ve aged out of the role,” he said. “The character’s like 10 years younger than I am now. Thankfully, in the reading, we did — you know how on Zoom, under preferences, you can click a button to make yourself look less old? I think I’ve got it on now. It’s like the Zoom version of the soft focus, or the Vaseline on the lens.”

Of the four essays in “A Story That Happens,” O’Brien delivered three as craft lectures in recent summers at the annual Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. He wrote the fourth in November while the presidential election ballots were being tallied. Part memoir, part philosophy, part pragmatic advice for young writers, they read like a master class in surviving through art.

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What the theater landscape will look like when it returns remains unclear. The survivors of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown will have a lot of trauma to process. “And when it is all over ... after the war, after disease, after revolution and its medicines ... we may find that we lost our minds, for a while,” he writes. “We forgot who we were. Who we are. We will have to find out. And the theater as always will show us.”


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