[April 2017] O’Brien engineers a love for plants using his passion for theatre

By: Alice Hickson ’17

It’s a Sunday afternoon and James O’Brien ’17 is in his garage, picking away at his list. Not a list of school work or overdue assignments, but an eclectic collection of undertakings he wants to accomplish before the weekend comes to a close.
“Build a chessboard,” “learn about how a lawnmower engine works” and “make a wifi controlled light switch” are a few of the recent tasks on the list that, according to O’Brien, “gets longer faster than it gets shorter.” However, there is one thing on the list that remains constant: “update my farm.”
O’Brien put together a container farm last year after watching a TED Talk on an undergrad at MIT who grows food for research. The TED Talk explained that by controlling the environment in which the plants grow, the undergrads can collect information on how plants grow.
“It combines growing with technology which are usually never combined,” O’Brien said. “The coolest thing is that they were like, ‘Yeah, we made this, the directions are online, you can make one yourself,’ and I was like ‘I have an idea,’” O’Brien said, laughing.
With the help of Amazon, Home Depot and O’Brien’s garage equipped with tools accumulated from family members over the years, he put together his own container farm in his basement where he grows organic lettuce, arugula, kale and more. In order to formalize his work, O’Brien founded “Workshop Garden Technologies” and has since been able to show his work at Wakeman Town Farm, the senior center and the Westport Farmer’s Market.
“It was awesome because I could bring something to people that I had built, learned a ton about and had a ton of fun while building it, and then have them go ‘Wow, that’s really cool’ and have them want to know more,” he said.
O’Brien’s love of presenting doesn’t stop there. He brings his talents to Staples Players, where he has been an active member since the summer before his freshman year.
“Being on stage requires so much in the shortest amount of time. It’s like 180 percent focus for about two hours and then it’s done, and prepping for that two hours of focus takes months, and months and months,” O’Brien said. “I love the expectation of pure, white hot energy every time you do it.”
Being in Players has provided O’Brien with a work ethic and enthusiasm he stitches into all aspects of his life. When recalling his most memorable performance, a smile stretched over his face. He recalled the wedding scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” where he and a group of men performed a dance requiring them to balance bottles on their heads while they slid across the stage on their knees.
“Needless to say, balancing a bottle of wine on your head while dancing and sliding across on a stage on your knees is kind of difficult. I have a distinct memory of every time the clarinet solo that started the dance began, my heartrate would increase and I would breathe slower[…]even months afterwards I would begin to sweat,” O’Brien chuckled.
While Workshop Garden Technologies and Staples Players may seem like a bizarre combination, O’Brien notes the connection between the two distinct interests is that they both combine “making things that aren’t real, real.”
“A show is literally a stack of paper with words on them and that you make it into a something that people cry about,” O’Brien said. “Workshop Garden was like turning another stack of papers into something that grows food.”