from the desk of the DIRECTOR Dan O’Brien loves a good ghost story. But in The Body of an American, Dan’s ghosts come in the story of photographer Paul Watson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for a photograph he took of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. When a photographer takes a picture, it’s comforting to think that they’ve captured a precise moment in time. Dan’s play turns that idea on its head, focusing instead on the ways in which artists—writers and photographers alike—can be taken over, occupied, even haunted by the subjects of their work. Something about the form of the play reflects this idea of Cover design by Very, Inc. | Cover photo by Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy
possession. It’s like a one-person play, except with two people, as if there were two bodies occupying the theatrical space that’s normally taken up by only one. The boundaries between characters blur and then flip, and various frames of reality overlap. It’s a unique and thrilling piece of writing, and I’m delighted to be invited to work on it.
Director, The Body of an American
WE TALKED WITH PLAYWRIGHT dan o’brien IN ADVANCE OF HIS june 18 READING AT THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER. What, in your words, is The Body of an American about? It’s about Paul. It’s about Paul’s haunting. I got interested in his story because I heard an interview he did on Fresh Air on NPR in 2007. Aside from being drawn to his story and identifying with him personally, I was really taken, as I think a lot of people are, by his statement that he’s literally haunted by the ghost of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, the dead U.S. soldier who was being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and who served as the subject of Paul’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph in 1993. What is the story behind that? Paul has been a foreign war correspondent since the 1980s, and was in Mogadishu during the UN intervention in that city during the ongoing Somali Civil War. He had previously taken a picture of what a Somali civilian claimed was a piece of flesh from an American soldier, but the Pentagon denied this was happening at the time. So when he heard there was a similar situation, where a Black Hawk helicopter had been shot down and a mob was parading a U.S. soldier’s body through the streets, he wanted to prove the Pentagon wrong. So he went out with his translator and driver and bodyguards, and they found the mob with the soldier. And just as Paul was taking the picture, he heard a voice that he believes is the voice of Staff Sgt. Cleveland, saying, “If you do this, I will own you forever.”
THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN BY DAN
O’BRIEN, RECIPIENT OF THE MCKNIGHT NATIONAL RESIDENCY & COMMISSION
FRIDAY, JUNE 18 • 7 P.M. • at the PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER
In 1993 Paul Watson photographed the desecration of a dead American soldier in the streets of Mogadishu. As he took the picture, in amongst a murderous mob, he heard the voice of the dead soldier speak to him: “If you do this, I will own you forever.” The Body of an American depicts Watson’s career in Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as his current work in Canada’s high Arctic, creating a portrait of the war reporter and examining questions of guilt and responsibility, both personal and cultural. Tickets are free • RSVP to 612.332.7481 x10 or INFO@PWCENTER.ORG
That’s where the play began for me, it’s where the play begins literally, and it’s the structural spine of the story. In some ways the play deals with Paul’s entire career; it deals with what it’s like to be a person who’s spent more than twenty years in the worst places in the world—Rwanda, Sarajevo, Afghanistan, both wars in Iraq—where human beings have done and continue to do unspeakable things to each other. He takes a close look at what most of us don’t notice, or don’t want to think about, or are afraid of. And much of what’s interesting to me in Paul’s story is the toll this has taken on him. Tell me a little about the development process. I started emailing with Paul in August 2007, always with the idea of writing a play, but I was working on other projects and we barely knew each other then, so it was kind of a long-distance, long-term penpal process. I felt like I needed to spend time getting to know him before writing the play. One reason I’d yet to write an overtly “political play” is because it’s always felt difficult for me to write from a newspaper or something. A lot of writers can do that well, but it needs to feel very personal to me. Many of those emails have become part of the play, and we sort of knew that would happen as we were writing each other. Paul had published a memoir, Where War Lives, in 2008, and I was interested in the distance between us, literally and figuratively, in that he’s a writer very much like me in many ways, and very, very different in other ways. I had this sense that the first act of the play would be about us coming together over time, space, and perspective. Originally I planned to visit him in Jakarta, where he lived at the time, but then he got a new job covering the “aboriginal beat” in the Arctic for the Toronto Star. That, I think, was right around the time I got the McKnight [National Residency and Commission] through the Playwrights’ Center. Sundance Institute has given it one of their Time Warner Storytelling Fellowships this year. Then, Theatre Communications Group—they have this program called Future Collaborations, and they also helped by funding my trip to Ulukhaktok in the Canadian Arctic to visit Paul, which is a lucky thing because travel, food and lodging up there is not exactly cheap. It’s only had one closed-door workshop at the Playwrights’ Center in April, so it’s still completely in process.
How long ago did you get back from the Arctic? I wanted to get up to Ulukhaktok in the winter. I felt like it was important, metaphorically at least, that idea of the endless night of the Arctic winter. It was interesting, when I got there—by the first week of February, it’s kind of like dawn from 10:30 to 3:00. The sun is up, it just doesn’t get that high.
PLAYWRIGHT DAN O’BRIEN IN ULUKHAKTOK, NT, CANADA. PHOTO BY PAUL WATSON.
But still, it was an exciting, illuminating trip—both for me and for the play. We were talking about another visit in the spring, but Paul has recently decided to return to Afghanistan to cover the conflict with the Taliban in and around Kandahar. IN THE PLAY, two actors play all of the characters—including yourself—and occasionally they both play the same character at once. Where did that structure come from? It came from a lot of places. In some ways it came from that first interview on NPR. There was something about hearing his voice in such a focused and intimate way; it was very powerful, very identifiable to me. There’s been some interest in adapting his book for film, and I feel like his book, his memoir, is so outward-directed, it’s so much about where he’s been and what he’s seen—I think that would work better as a movie. But as a play, and because I’m very interested in his psychology and in post-traumatic stress disorder in general, I really wanted to keep things very tight and focused and somehow “internal.”
Basically it’s Paul and Dan, but occasionally these actors become Paul and Paul, or Dan and Dan, or Paul and his therapist, even Paul and Mother Teresa at one point. We sort of play each other’s scenes out for each other, but onstage, I think you’ll feel like it’s essentially the story of these two people, Paul and Dan, and the people who have affected them. JOURNALIST PAUL WATSON IN ULUKHAKTOK, NT, CANADA. PHOTO BY DAN O’BRIEN.
It can be kind of annoying to put the playwright in a play, but I hope that my character is a surrogate for the audience, in terms of someone who’s been affected by the last ten years, by the political events that Paul deals with directly, but who is also largely guilty of what Paul often feels he’s fighting against, which is people who can be apathetic or clueless or feel themselves to be powerless. It’s ultimately a play about guilt—Paul’s guilt about that photograph he took of Sgt. Cleveland, but also what I think could be a cultural guilt, or at least anxiety or unease, concerning the last ten years. I mean, it’s sort of astonishing that after a few years of not finding weapons of mass destruction, we just stopped talking about it. You know what I mean? I think for a lot of people there is a large reservoir of guilt and anxiety, a sense of a haunting of the culture. So there’s something important, to me, in the overlap of Paul’s personal haunting with our cultural one.
Why did you become a playwright? When I was a kid I wanted to be a writer. I started off writing poetry and fiction. But I was also interested in acting, so I started doing that in school, and fell in love with the theater. Playwriting seemed like a way to have both writing and performance. I don’t act anymore, but playwriting is just one step removed from performance. I still write poetry, I still sometimes write short fiction, but for the last 10 years playwriting has been the most natural way for me to tell my stories. It’s fascinating to me how many playwrights came to playwriting through acting. I agree. I’m more fascinated when I meet someone who’s a playwright who has no background in that. The most essential element of theater is the relationship between performer and audience, so it makes sense to me that if you’re a playwright you have to feel that relationship in your bones. What do you like or dislike in a play? I hope I take plays on their own merits. It’s always subjective, of course, so I try to judge plays by what they seem to want to be. But honestly, I get most excited by plays that are messy and challenging and disturbing, even if they’re comedies. Plays that care about language, and care deeply about character. I don’t believe in a perfect play, because I think that’s kind of inhuman, you know? I like plays where I can hear and feel a personal, honest, idiosyncratic voice. I think you need to risk something of yourself in the writing. That makes it sound like I’m saying that every writer should be confessional, like this play we’ve been talking about is a bit confessional, but I’m not. I think that no matter what, you can get a sense of what a playwright is risking of themselves in telling their story, what they’re trying to figure out about themselves, about their world, without necessarily being autobiographical. I simply think that the more you risk, the greater chance you have of creating art that means something.
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Published on May 26, 2010
Playwright Dan O'Brien has been in the Arctic talking with the subject of his latest play, THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN. We interviewed him about...