Wilma dramaturg Walter Bilderback in conversation with award-winning photojournalist Paul Watson.
Walter Bilderback: You and Dan O'Brien have known each other for 7 years now, and the relationship we see develop in The Body of an American has continued to the present, including a new volume of poems to be published soon. Has your friendship with Dan changed you?
Paul Watson: I rarely reply to emails like Dan's. He was a stranger, pitching a play, and coming out of the blue as it did, I thought it sounded bizarre. But I'm a diehard fatalist and my inner voice told me to do whatever Dan asked and I have.
I told him at the start, as I warmed to the idea, that he would be my confessor. And that's the main effect he's had in my life. Normally, I don't like to talk about the subjects he brought up unless it's to my wife, in my own home. But Dan has lead me over important ground, and to me, his art is in expressing painful truths that pure journalism can't capture.
Actors, designers, Wilma staff members, and even Playwright Dan O'Brien came together for the first rehearsal of The Body of an American! Check out some of these shots from the rehearsal studio.
If you could ask anyone at the Wilma - actors, designers, directors, staff members - just ONE question, what would it be? We thought we would kick off our Wilma One Question Series with actor Ian Merrill Peakes, who is starring in our upcoming production of the The Body of An American. Since the play chronicles the friendship between playwright Dan O'Brien and Photojournalist Paul Watson, we asked Ian one question:
"In your lifetime, what notable photograph has stuck-out in your mind?"
I have no idea how old I was when I first laid eyes on this picture from the early days of the Tet Offensive. Perhaps I was seven or eight. It was this photo, iconic, disturbing and so very real, that made me realize in my young brain that horrible things were, indeed, part of this great big world of ours. I believe I understood on some level that horrific things happened, but seeing this image somehow cemented that notion into a fixed reality that was eye-opening and not altogether pleasant.
Walter Bilderback: At the heart of The Body of an American is the story of your friendship with journalist Paul Watson, beginning 7 years ago when you heard him interviewed on Fresh Air. The friendship has resulted not only in this play, but a chamber opera and numerous poems, including the volume War Reporter. Without giving away much of the play, has the friendship changed your life?
Dan O'Brien: Absolutely. But my life was already in the process of changing pretty drastically when I met him, so Paul’s story—simply the sound of his voice in that radio interview—was both haunting and familiar. Uncanny. I felt like he would understand what I was going through, and maybe I could understand what I thought he was going through. I knew I wanted to write about him, but I didn’t know how, or whether he’d let me. But I did something I’d never done before: I wrote to a stranger, and he wrote back.
As for how my work with Paul has changed me, I consider him one of my closest friends now, maybe my closest, and we continue to work together, to discuss plans for future projects, to visit each other occasionally in LA, where I live, or Vancouver, where Paul lives when he’s not working abroad. We email each other several times a week, sometimes daily.
When I first started writing, as kid and as a young man, writing was an escape from reality, a way to act out emotional problems on the page and then on the stage; now I want my work to change the way I live, to bring me back from fantasy and towards a greater engagement with reality, towards connection, to bring me into contact with people like Paul, whose stories I find fascinating and/or disturbing and/or inspiring, and then to do what I can to help tell those stories.
Over the summer, Catherine taught a course in her home called The Fall of American Civilization (heavy, right?). Enrollment was light, but the conversation was intense! We are thinking of offering the class once more and wanted to avail Catherine's syllabus. What do you think? Would you take her class? What module would you want to discuss?