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Alone together episode 9: Jessica St. Clair '98 and Dan O'Brien '96, June 15, 2020

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Identifier: A7_Midd_Moment_Alone_Together_Episode_9_StClair_OBrien_20200615

Scope and Contents

From Apple Podcasts description: "Dan O'Brien ’96, a playwright and poet, and Jessica St. Clair ’98, a comedian and writer join president Patton for our final check in with the community during COVID-19 self-isolation. Dan and Jessica are a true power couple in the arts that met in a Middlebury improv group. They discuss Dan's essay Life Shrinks: Lessons from Chemo Quarantine, how reopening the country feels a lot like remission, and how their art is evolving to reflect the pandemic.

Note: This interview was recorded before the nationwide movement to end police brutality. We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter."

Dates

  • June 15, 2020

Creator

Conditions Governing Access

Open for research without restriction.

Extent

1 Digital file

Language of Materials

From the Record Group: English

Existence and Location of Copies

Episode transcript: Laurie Patton:

You’re listening to Midd Moment. I’m Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury and professor of religion. In this special series, I’m checking in with our community to see how people are doing, so that we might get a better idea of what it’s like to be alone, together.

Today, I’m speaking with Jessica St. Clair and Dan O’Brien. Jessica is a writer and comedian. She created and starred in the TV show Playing House. You may recognize her from her roles in Veep, Weeds, or even the movie Bridesmaids. Her most recent role is in the Netflix comedy Space Force, which will air this month.

Dan is a poet and playwright. His work includes War Reporter, a poetry collection based on the work of journalist Paul Watson, and the play The Body of an American. His most recent play, The House in Scarsdale, a memoir for the stage, was awarded the 2018 Pen America Award for drama. O’Brien’s fourth collection of poetry, Our Cancers, will be published in 2021. Jessica and Dan are a true power couple in the arts that met in a Middlebury College improv group.

Dan and Jessica. It is such an honor for me to have you on the show. I want to ask how you’re doing. We always begin with a check-in.

Jessica St. Clair:

Well, I wish we were at Middlebury in 1998, I’ll tell you that much. No, we’re doing okay.

Dan O’Brien:

I am somewhat surprised how we’ve been getting used to the lockdown and this new lifestyle. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised because again, part of what we experienced several years ago was whether you like it or not, you end up adapting.

Laurie Patton:

I wanted to pivot to that, which is, the essay “Life Shrinks” kind of describes that. I’m very interested in the moment that you both decided to think about writing and evaluating your life as people who were simultaneously ill in the essay “Life Shrinks.” I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the moment that you decided to write that piece and why.

Dan O’Brien:

It was very natural, as many people I think have had a similar experience that they’ve had, where suddenly it just felt like something that I’d experienced as intensely private seemed to be playing out outside, with everybody. There was something so amazing and uncanny, I think is the word I used in the essay, because it was also unsettling. I just felt I needed to, wanted to write about it, mostly because I wanted to figure out what I was feeling. It’s sort of a cliché about writing, but that idea that you don’t write what you know, you write what you want to find out, what you hope to find out. You write from a place of unknowing towards some sort of insight about yourself. It really was about me trying to figure out why is this so familiar. To be completely honest, I was probably having flashbacks to feeling like, “Am I somehow back in treatment?” I look out the window and everybody’s kind of in treatment and I’m having to behave in ways that were like treatment.

Jessica St. Clair:

Wishing that time would pass quickly is something that you feel when you’re in treatment. You’re like, “Oh my god, if only I can get to the end of this chemo or whatever, and then I can get back to life.” We finally got back to life and then we’re thrust back into this time where you just want time to pass. That made me really angry. I didn’t want to go back to a year missing again.

Dan O’Brien:

I was a bit more stoic about it. Like, “Oh, I guess some version of this is happening again. I can rely on some of the skills I learned four years ago to get through this.” Jessica had more of resistance, anger, denial, more of a fight. She’s fight, I’m flight.

Jessica St. Clair:

We really fought very hard to protect our daughter from ever knowing we were sick. And we succeeded. I remember going to a sleep person about—Bebe was getting out of bed or having nightmares or something normally, like a normal kid would. I told the sleep person, who was a psychologist, what had gone on in her second year of life. They were like, “This is shocking, but she shows no signs of trauma at all. None.”

We did a really good job and it definitely took a pound of flesh to hide that from her. But this we cannot protect her from, we can’t hide it from her. She is getting affected, just like all children are. I think we both have a parental instinct to make sure this impacts her the least amount possible. I keep joking that we moms are going to save summer no matter what, like we’re superheroes or something. We’re always trying to like, “Okay, how can we minimize risks here, but still have them have fun?” That’s part of it is I didn’t want to accept that she would have this pain, that she would have to be isolated from her friends.

Laurie Patton:

You will share with her when she’s older?

Dan O’Brien:

Yeah, we will. I mean, that’s sort of an ongoing question for us just when?

Jessica St. Clair:

I’m going to wait until she steals our car and drives to Vegas when she’s 16. Then I’m going to be like, “Do you know what happened and what I did for you?”

Dan O’Brien:

I’ve written so much about it and Jessica’s created a TV show, a season about it. On one hand, it’ll be out there. On the other hand, most kids, children of writers and artists…

Jessica St. Clair:

Do not care.

Dan O’Brien:

…don’t care about the art that their parents create.

Jessica St. Clair:

That’s right. They don’t care. Bebe never cares when she sees me on television. She’s like, “Turn it off.” Or she’ll say, “The only thing I wish is that you would wear that much makeup at home.”

Laurie Patton:

Thank you so much, six-and-a-half-year-old Bebe.

Jessica St. Clair:

That’s right. Isn’t it?

Laurie Patton:

Now you’ve had a couple months of quarantine. Is it still the same as when you wrote “Life Shrinks” or does it feel different than what you went through when you both had cancer?

Dan O’Brien:

I mean, what I’ve been thinking more about lately, and I’ve just written a new essay for the American Scholar about how reopening reminds me of remission or finishing treatment, being as we were in a place where we were declared cancer free and no evidence of disease. So the challenge was how do we go back to quote unquote normal life? If anything it’s kind of transitioned into a different, uncanny, similar phase where I’m relating our personal experience to the social or cultural experience.

Jessica St. Clair:

Right.

Laurie Patton:

The thing that I quote from the essay is about the wilderness path of recovery, which is exactly—it has been much more complex and anxiety producing, in a certain way, for Middlebury to think about what its stages of recovery might look like. I really love that phrase because it really speaks to something about remission or recovery being harder, in a way, than the emergency itself. It’s also where different values come up. It’s where anxieties are freer. You can express your anxieties in a different way.

Jessica St. Clair:

When there’s an emergency, there is a lot of adrenaline that goes into survival mode. Then when that goes away, you’re like, “Okay, I’m left with these emotions. I’m left with what’s my plan.” Then everyone has a different risk level. So certain people in remission would be like, “I have a glass of wine every day.” And you’re like, “Well, I never drink.” So everyone’s going to handle it differently.

I just remarked to a friend of mine, when people talk about what kind of measures are going to be put in place with school and work and keeping people safe, it’s hard for me not to get a feeling of, “Is this just us acting out our anxiety about it? Or will these measures really have an impact?” Because after you have cancer, there’s a lot of magical thinking that goes on a little bit about what you can do to protect yourself. Dan doesn’t eat sugar anymore. We don’t drink alcohol. We work out every day, religiously. We eat fruit and vegetables.

Laurie Patton:

The other side of that magical thinking is my father-in-law, of blessed memory, who never ate a vegetable in his life and lived till he was 92.

Jessica St. Clair:

That’s right.

Laurie Patton:

When you all were together addressing your illness, how did you live through the commonality, which no one would wish on anyone? Couples want to have stuff in common, but this is not it.

Dan O’Brien:

Yeah, I mean, it was shocking. I probably delayed getting my diagnosis because I had trouble imagining what are the odds that while Jessica is in treatment, I could also be suffering from cancer. I probably delayed, or I know I delayed, actually, dealing with some symptoms, because it just seems so improbable that it would happen at the same time to two relatively young people.

We checked out our home, we had people come in and test things in our home. Could we have some sort of environmental carcinogen that caused it? I find it compelling that we were living near the World Trade Center on 9/11. It was Jessica’s apartment that I would stay at. Her apartment was covered in dust. Even though it was cleaned, we were living there for six months or so, and I remember complaining of sore throats all the time, that I felt like there was still a dust residue.

I have read that there seems to be a certain sweet spot of 12 to 14 years after a major environmental insult, I think is the term they use, before a lot of cancers develop. The timing from 9/11 to Jessica’s diagnosis in 2015 and mine six months later does make me wonder about that. Also, because I don’t have any family history of colon cancer and I don’t have any known genetic markers. That’s a little suspicious to me too.

Jessica St. Clair:

Going back to wanting control, I think there’s a real sense, a human desire to figure out what gave it to you and how you can not get it again. There’s also a sense of blame that you can put on yourself that you gave it to yourself. I think people have to be really careful of that. I certainly looked at my job, because I was working 14-, 15-hour days. I starred and wrote and created my own show, which very few people do for this reason. It’s extremely exhausting physically. We had a two-year-old at the time. I really reinvented my schedule and how I work. But I have to say, I don’t think that gave me cancer either. I don’t necessarily think 9/11 did.

They say that your genetics load the gun and then environment can fire it. But I also think sometimes it just happens. That’s why I also hate it when someone says like, “Oh, I got COVID because I went to the grocery store that one time.” No, you didn’t do the wrong thing.

Laurie Patton:

What you just said, Jessica, shows how much wisdom your previous experience gave you and how you can bring that wisdom to the current COVID environment. You’re not just bringing the everyday wisdom because you’re talking to me, but you’re really bringing your own experience into the creation of work that you’re doing in response to this pandemic right now. I would love to hear more and I think our Midd audience would love to hear more about the monologue that Dan wrote and Jessica acted in.

Dan O’Brien:

Yeah, it’s a part of this group called the 24-Hour Plays in New York. Normally, for years, they do short plays live in a theater where the writers have had 24 hours, or maybe 12 hours to write and 12 hours to produce it. As soon as the lockdown started, they pivoted to doing these viral monologues, they call it. The playwright will write a monologue overnight and they’ll pair the playwright with an actor who will then have to memorize it and record it and they’ll post it within 24 hours.

So I cheated the system somewhat and said, “I want to do this, but I want my wife to perform it.” They said, “Great.” Because it was Jessica St. Clair.

Jessica St. Clair:

Please.

Dan O’Brien:

There was a certain—

Jessica St. Clair:

They’re like, “Who’s that?”

Dan O’Brien:

There was a certain challenge in that I do sometimes think I’m somewhat funny. But I tend to write pretty sad things. She’s very funny. The challenge was to write—for me—was to write a monologue true to my voice, but that hopefully Jessica could connect to personally.

Jessica St. Clair:

But also they said that the challenge was you had to, as the actor, do something you’d never done before. I said—and I have done, I mean, I wrote about my own breast cancer journey in my own show. That was quite dramatic. But I said, “I haven’t really ever been cast in something that I have to do a fully dramatic monologue.” That’s what—and then I was like, “Oh God, this is going to be so hard.”

Dan O’Brien:

But my way in for that monologue was because it’s a monologue about family estrangement and that’s something—I’m estranged from my parents and most of my siblings and have been for about 14 years now. Jessica’s been with me that whole time. For me to write about that and to have her embody some version of me just seemed like a no brainer. It just seemed like a way that we could both tell our story, tell the truth, about what it’s like to be estranged from family members, especially during—

Laurie Patton:

COVID.

Dan O’Brien:

—Something like this. Well, I often find that with my plays, if an actor is coming to the first rehearsal or has agreed to do a reading, if they say to me, “I think this is kind of funny. Is this sort of, is this humorous?” I always feel like they get it. Do you know what I mean? Overall, it might be serious or heavy, but it has lots of humor and irony, or hope it does, because that’s life, or maybe it’s because I’m Irish.

Laurie Patton:

You met, you connected in that space at Middlebury in comedy improv. Did you fall in love in the comedy improv or did you fall in love after that?

Dan O’Brien:

I was already in the group and Jessica was—

Jessica St. Clair:

A freshman.

Dan O’Brien:

A freshman. Our first scene together, I proposed marriage to her.

Laurie Patton:

Oh.

Jessica St. Clair:

Yes.

Dan O’Brien:

I mean, how desperate is that? And she accepted.

Laurie Patton:

Was it real, did you have a discussion later about whether it was real or not?

Dan O’Brien:

No, not—well, it’s just, it took a few years for it to become official. We played the married couple in a theater department play as well.

Jessica St. Clair:

Neither of us would be doing what we do without Middlebury. It was everything for us.

Laurie Patton:

Thank you so much. You are going to give our Middlebury community such joy to hear this interview.

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Part of the Middlebury College Special Collections & Archives Repository

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