SHS alum explores family trauma in prize-winning play

Dan O’Brien

Playwright/poet Dan O’Brien was 33 when his parents, without any explanation, severed all ties with him. Their estrangement left O’Brien confused and hungry for answers, leading him on a yearlong journey of research into his family history, unearthing many long-held secrets.

“The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage” dramatizes that portion of his journey. The play opened at Boston Court Pasadena in California in May 2017 and claimed the 2018 PEN Literary Award in Drama.

O’Brien, 45, was born and raised in Scarsdale, the fourth of six children born over an 18-year span. His talent for writing bloomed early. As a teen, he wrote poetry and short stories, served as the literary editor of the yearbook and the editor of Jabberwocky literary magazine for a year at Scarsdale High School.

At that time, O’Brien began exploring darker fodder tied to his family trauma. His youth was riddled with emotional abuse, secrets and undiagnosed mental illness, including depression and anxiety. He often felt the reverberations of his mother’s traumatic childhood. (She and his father were also raised in Scarsdale.)

“The House in Scarsdale” is written in pentameter verse, and includes many sensitive questions about O’Brien’s past, including whether his paternal uncle is, in fact, his biological father.

“I got a lot of answers along the way ... but you don’t necessarily get one easy answer that explains it all,” O’Brien said.

As background, O’Brien bopped around the U.S. and spoke to about a dozen family members. It was a cathartic process.

“I think of writing as an attempt by the writer to heal something in themselves,” he said, “and the reader or the audience can then experience some measure of that healing for themselves.”

O’Brien’s parents moved to Virginia in 2002, and they have not spoken to him since their estrangement in 2006. He hopes local audiences will learn more of his story if the play is staged in New York.

O’Brien considers “The House in Scarsdale” the second of three installments, which are collaborative efforts with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Watson. The first in the triad is the 2014 play “The Body of an American,” which also won the PEN America Award, among others. O’Brien is credited as the writer, drawing from Watson’s raw materials and the pair’s real-life friendship for three plays, two collections of poetry and an opera.

The plays are hybrids of memoir and dramatization, with actors playing fictionalized versions of O’Brien and Watson. According to O’Brien, it’s not so bad seeing yourself on stage. “You get to cast somebody that’s usually younger and better looking than you,” he said.

What’s tough, he noted, is getting it right at the writer’s table.

“You’re trying to find a way to see yourself with enough dimension,” he said. “That’s what I find exciting. It might be narcissistic, but it’s a way to explore yourself and question yourself and sometimes make fun of yourself.”

The third installment is a working play “New Life,” which finds O’Brien’s character in cancer treatments — the playwright is a survivor in real life — and Watson reporting in Syria. The play has been commissioned by Center Theatre Group and is currently shopping around for its premiere venue.

For five years, O’Brien has also been penning a prose memoir exploring his roots, simply called “From Scarsdale.”

“I’ve been writing about [my life] for a while, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight,” he said.

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