Christopher Durang

 

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Q & A #1

 
 
 
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1.  First of all, what brought you into theatre?  Was it a high school drama club?  Something earlier?

My mother loved theatre, and took me (and my father) to theatre several times a year.  

We lived in New Jersey, about an hour from NYC, so that meant we saw Broadway shows (usually musicals) as well as plays and musicals at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. (which still exists).

I was taken to the theatre by at least age 7, I think.  I was very enamored of theatre (and of movies).  My mother also read humorous writers (James Thurber, Robert Benchley), and read plays aloud sometimes (like Noel Coward).  And her older brother (my uncle Barry) was an actor turned stage designer.  So I had a lot of interest in theatre around me.  

I decided at age 8 to write a play, and my Catholic grammar school cancelled class one afternoon, and put it on!   (Pretty flexible and adventurous of them, no?)  Then at a later school – a Benedictine junior high/high school called Delbarton in Morristown, N.J. – the school put on two musicals Kevin Farrell and I wrote: “Banned in Boston” and “Businessman’s Holiday.”  (Kevin was my best friend, and we wrote the first show when we were 13, the second when we were 15-16.  I did book and lyrics, and Kevin did the music.  Kevin has gone on to be a conductor of Broadway musicals.)

My father’s family also has a genealogical connection to theatre.  

My father was an architect, as was his father, his grandfather and his great grandfather.  But going back in time, the Durang family included actors in America, notably someone named John Durang who was an actor/dancer in Philadelphia in the 1700s.  He wrote a book called “The Memoirs of John Durang” which is in many libraries, and is one of the earliest written journals of an American actor.

My family said to me at an early age that they wondered if I would be interested in architecture or in theatre; and they were very supportive when my interest early on turned out to be theatre.

I’m intrigued by the theatre background on my father’s side. 

And on my mother’s side there was a lot of musical talent; her two sisters Phyllis and Marion were gifted musicians, Phyllis on the piano, Marion on the violin.  Phyllis was also a witty performer and often made a playful connection to her audience.  Both Phyllis and Marion encouraged my performing, as did my mother.  (Phyllis was also the piano teacher for my composer friend Kevin.)  Marion and my mother were both significant in sharing love of books with me.  And their brother Barry, mentioned above, ended up directing the two musicals Kevin and I wrote when they were presented for two summers at the Summit Playhouse; he was clever and savvy and I learned a lot from him. 

So there was certainly a lot of encouragement and interest in theatre and music in my extended family.

 

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2.  What was your motivation for pursuing a career in acting/playwrighting?

I felt early on this sense that I wanted to be a playwright (more than, say, just be an actor).  Starting from age 8 when I “wrote” my first page (2 pages long, but in dialogue; it was based on “I Love Lucy”, the Lucy has a baby episode).  So for whatever reason I had this little spark that said “I want to be a playwright.”

My high school putting on plays I wrote (which went well) certainly fanned the flames of my theatrical interest.  Then when I applied to colleges, in my application I stressed my theatrical activities.  I had been a good student, and got into several colleges including Harvard, which is where I chose to attend (on scholarship; we didn’t have the money to send me).  Harvard didn’t have a theatre major, which I knew in advance; and I decided a well rounded education was better for someone who wanted to be a writer than an education that specialized right away in theatre.

Harvard was a wonderful, valuable experience – but it was also a time when I grew up a lot, went through a pretty bad depression, found out I didn’t like academic work anymore, didn’t do well in my classes my middle two years, but pulled myself out of the slump my final year. 

My depression was caused by the negative side of my family upbringing – I come from an alcoholic home, and there was lots of struggle and arguing and no problems ever seemed to get solved.  I had trouble not feeling hopeless about life.  That’s the short version.

And so in college I was depressed, and I stopped writing.  And I questioned whether I was meant to be a writer.  I didn’t know what to do with myself. 

Harvard did offer psychological counseling, and for free!  And I took advantage of it, and eventually lucked out with a very helpful psychologist who over two years ended up helping me get out of my depression.

Early in my senior year I suddenly returned to playwriting, and in a burst of fever-ish energy I wrote “The Nature and the Purpose of the Universe” my senior year.  (It was written very quickly, in two sittings, sort of poured out of me as if I had bottled up energy inside me.)

This play was in a new, darker, comic style (while my earlier writing was more conventional).  And the play was lucky for me – it got me into a very hard-to-get-into playwriting seminar taught at Harvard by William Alfred (a wonderful professor who also wrote the off-Broadway hit “Hogan’s Goat”, which was Faye Dunaway’s first step to stardom).  Then it won me a playwriting prize at Smith College (where they put the play on).  And then it got me into Yale School of Drama the next year (where I went to grad school in playwriting, and met many wonderful actors, directors and fellow writers).

That’s a long answer to your question – but I guess my motivation to be a playwright was sort of intuitive during my young years; then I lost that drive and questioned myself during college; then it came back suddenly my final year in college, and with extremely good fortune, I managed to get into Yale School of Drama, which was an excellent next step for me.

3. Do you prefer acting or writing more? Why?

I think I’m more unusual as a writer than I am as an actor. 

Also, the playwright really creates the whole event.  It’s a bit scarier, because the whole endeavor becomes your personal expression – and when it’s successful it’s very exciting, and when it’s perceived to be a failure, the blame is usually placed at your door.

I’ve had some small acting parts in movies (“Housesitter,” “Butcher’s Wife,” “Mr. North,” “Secret of My Success” and others); and I actually find it relaxing how little responsibility I have.  I think to myself: “I’m just responsible for making my part in this scene work.”  It’s very different than when I’m a writer, and if a scene isn’t working, due to writing or directing or acting, I know I have to address it and do my best to make sure it’s solved.

I do enjoy another aspect of acting… particularly on stage, acting is very much in the moment.  And I love how you can get in synch with a specific audience, and then almost “ride” laughter like a wave.  Once you get a laugh from the audience, if you hold your expression, or keep thinking about the issue of the line, the laughter can even build.  I love all that.  And acting is also more sociable than writing… you get to act with other people, and hang out backstage, and make friends, etc. etc.  Writing is very solitary.  I have always loved the usually warm family-for-a-while feeling that happens in theatre when a play is put on; and since the actors have to show up every night, their bond in particular is very tight.

So I like both.  But I think I’m more distinctive and unusual in my writing than I am in my acting. 

4.  What do you see in your future, meaning...more plays? More acting? More teaching?

I’ve been teaching playwriting since 1994 at the Juilliard School; playwright Marsha Norman and I jointly teach a very small program, 8 students at a time.  We teach once a week; and twice a month we oversee a “lab” where Juilliard actors read student work aloud.  (Hearing actors read your work is so valuable for a writer; plays are meant to be heard aloud.  Working with student actors at Yale was part of what was terrific about my playwriting studies at Yale School of Drama.)

I like the teaching.  I also like the steadiness of the income – which isn’t enough to live on (it’s part-time after all), but it’s great to have some aspect of my income that is steady.  As a writer or actor, I never know when or how I’ll get the next job; or whether a play will bring in royalties.

And I find it exciting, most of the time, to be around the young, bushy-tailed energy of writers in their late 20s.  Some of the time it invigorates me, and makes me want to write more.

My acting stuff has always just happened – or not happened.  I am getting older, and the parts I would be right for will start to get somewhat different, I think.

I’m not someone who writes all the time.  My late agent, Helen Merrill (who was my agent for 22 years; a wonderful relationship for me) used to soothe me during my periods of not writing by saying, “you’re laying fallow.”  

I like that image… I think you have to “fill up” with thoughts and experience and energy.  You can’t write when you’re feeling depleted, or when you have no new “trigger” that makes you want to write.  

In the past year I did complete two new projects.  A musical called “Adrift in Macao” (music by Peter Melnick, book and lyrics by me).  It was done last summer at New York Stage and Film at Vassar College (a summer theatre program), and it’s been optioned for off-Broadway; so my fingers are crossed.  

And I completed a crackpot Christmas play called “Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge.”  It was commissioned by City Theatre in Pittsburgh, and they did the premiere production (November 2002), which went very well.  It was very well done (and directed by Tracy Brigden), and one of my friends (Kristine Nielsen) was hilarious playing Mrs. Cratchit.

I don’t know what my next play project will be… I have another commission, from McCarter Theatre (in Princeton, N.J.), which is about an hour from where I live.  So I’m happy to have that commission.  I’m in the process of writing it.

5.  Is there a significant point in your career where you knew that you were successful?  Where and why?

Don’t mean to sound like Bill Clinton (as in “depends what the meaning of “is” is”), but it depends on how I define success.  (By the way – in most regards, I like Bill Clinton.)

I had a childhood dream/assumption – based on the Broadway musicals I grew up seeing and having heard of – that success was to have a number of Broadway “hits.” Rodgers and Hammerstein, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, etc. etc.

By the time I finished school (1974), even then Broadway didn’t do many non-musical plays, but off-Broadway did.  And I easily adjusted my hopes to having various off-Broadway hits.  The success barometer for me was having plays that ran a while in NYC.

I have only had one play that had a successful, open-ended run in New York City – “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” which ran 2 and a half years in NYC, and had long runs other places in the country.  But that was in 1981-83; and it’s now 2003!  

I have had many other plays done in NYC; but they’ve been limited runs of 4 to 5 weeks at a non-profit theatre like Playwrights Horizons or Manhattan Theatre Club -- terrific, but not the same thing as having something run so audiences can see your work over a long period.  And I had two commercial Broadway runs, both of which closed quickly – “A History of the American Film” in 1978 (when I was 29 or so), and “Beyond Therapy” in 1982.

So looked at that way, I don’t feel successful.  It’s a childhood dream/assumption in my head that hasn’t been fulfilled.

However, I also do feel successful; I’m lucky and grateful my plays are done many places, and are published, etc. etc.  And I know that choosing to equate success with a show running in New York City is foolish logic.  (But I’m just being honest with your question.)

So here’s where I do feel successful.  I make a living as a writer.  And when I get acting work or teaching work, I sort of throw that in as well, it’s all theatre/performing income.  And I wouldn’t have my particular teaching job if I weren’t “known” in theatre.

When I was starting out and would meet older, established playwrights, I often would ask them: “how do you make a living?”  There was never a clear answer, because there isn’t one.

But I do consider myself lucky, and successful, to make a living the way I do.  It’s a hard thing to do.  And all those plays with limited runs in NYC were, no question, what let me be known in theatre; and helped me get screenwriting jobs, and TV writing jobs, and teaching jobs, etc. etc.

And as for my dream/assumption – well the Broadway I grew up around (as an 8 year old, I saw the tail end of it, I feel) just doesn’t exist anymore. 

So I consider myself successful because I make a living primarily with my playwriting.

6.  What are three words or phrases that best describe you?

That’s a hard question.  I was going to skip it, but let me give it a try anyway.

“Iconoclastic.”  “Quiet.”  Ummmm, don’t have a third word.

I never knew the meaning of the word “iconoclastic,” but it was used in early reviews of my work.

A dictionary meaning says: “a person who attacks or ridicules traditional or venerated institutions or ideas regarded by him as erroneous or based on superstition.”  I think this is less true of me now that I’m older, but it’s not gone entirely.

I know you’re at a Catholic school (right?), so don’t know if “Sister Mary Ignatius…” would be controversial or not.  And it’s important to say the play was written out of a certain time -- the play is based on the dogma I (and my parents and others) were taught by the church in the 40s-50s-60s.  (I was in Catholic grammar school starting 1955.)  And the teaching was more doctrinaire and inescapable back then.

But in terms of iconoclast - I can still get riled up and angry about the Church’s stand on birth control, for instance, which seems so deeply illogical to me.  And the church takes this highly debatable position, and then fights telling people about condom use in terms of protecting oneself from AIDS (sometimes spreading the lie that condoms don’t work against AIDS; they don’t work 100%, but mostly they’re very effective).  And the church doesn’t support family planning around the world, when we have famine and over population to deal with.  I think the church’s opinion and behavior on birth control is actually illogical, stupid and immoral.  And, importantly, it’s hard to come to from studying the gospels.  Christ barely talks about sex, let alone family planning.

So, you see, I still have some “iconoclast” in me.

“Quiet,” just because in life I’m really quiet.  Especially at parties, around strangers.  I find it hard to chatter (though not hard to write lengthy answers.)

And third word?  Just don’t know.  “Hypervigilant.”  I have a tendency to worry about things, and think ahead obsessively.  I know I do this, and choose sometimes to remind myself to let go, stop doing that.

Christopher Durang January 2003

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