Christopher Durang

 

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Q & A #3

 
 
 
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1.  What was your first production?

Well maybe it’s silly to count, but when I was 8 I wrote a two page play, and it was put on in my second grade class.  It was my child’s view of an “I Love Lucy” episode. 

I kept writing plays from age 8 to 12.  Then my best friend Kevin and I wrote a musical together when we were 13 called “Banned in Boston.” 

My mother, who was a bit of a press agent, told the Benedictine priests at the school Kevin and I now attended (a Catholic private school called Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J.) that we had written this show. The priest in charge of drama read it, and even though we were only in 8th grade, he scheduled it for the juniors and seniors to put it on. (And they “borrowed” girls from a neighboring Catholic girls school; Delbarton was all boys.)  And it went kind of great.

So that was the first real production.  Two years later, when we were sophomores, we wrote a second musical,  “Businessman’s Holiday,” and that was put on as well.

And both of these musicals – again thanks to my mother knocking on doors – were put on again during two summers in the town of Summit; and my mother got the Summit Playhouse to donate their little theatre to us.  The Playhouse was small and elegant, and had dressing rooms, and lights, and curtains, and was quite a treat to perform in, especially after the ad-hoc theatre spaces constructed in the school gymnasium.  I was in the two summer shows as well, a supporting role in the first, a lead in the second.

(The Summit Playhouse is still a charming small theatre.  I recently participated in a benefit for the theatre in 2001.)

Right at the tail end of high school, I suddenly wrote a rather dark play, initially called “Suicide and Other Diversions.”  (I later shortened it to “Diversions,” decided the Suicide part of the title was too heavy handed.)  That play was the first in my more grown up, somewhat absurdist style; and I put it on my freshman year at Harvard.  (And songwriter/singer Bonnie Raitt, a fellow Freshman at the time, played the “Hysterical Witness” and kept screaming at the top of her lungs in the witness box.)

My first professional production was years later… a play called “Nature and Purpose of the Universe,” which I wrote senior year of college.  It was the play I submitted to Yale School of Drama grad school, where I was accepted in playwriting; and then it was performed off-off-Broadway in NYC roughly in 1975, where everybody worked for free but we got some very good reviews in the NY press.

And the first larger professional production was “The Idiots Karamazov,” co-written with Albert Innaurato (fellow playwriting student at Yale), which was presented by the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1975.  I had a lead part in it as the innocent monk-turned-pop-star; and the female lead was Meryl Streep, still a student at the time; and she played an 80 year old crazy woman translator, who was ostensibly translating Dostoevesky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” but in her dotage was mixing it up with Chekhov, O’Neill, and 50s rock ‘n’ roll.

 

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2. What was your childhood like?

This is one of the daunting questions. 

[Apologies to readers: much of this was covered in Q & A #2.  I’m choosing to leave some of this that has different information in it.]

I was an only child.  My father Francis Ferdinand was an architect.  My mother Patricia was a housewife, as they used to say in the 50s.  She was also lively and fun, and liked to dance, and perform in local shows.  Looking back, I wish she could have tried the path of being a comic actress; I think she would have been a good one, and I think she had a lot of creativity that didn’t have a full outlet.

My father fought in World War II.  My mother was a Wave in WWII, and was stationed in Florida and had a wonderful time.  She was very social, and was pretty, and flirted with lots of enlisted men.

After the war, she came back to Summit, N.J., where her best friend from high school was Sue Durang.  The two of them had many funny, silly adventures together as secretaries.  My mother enjoyed being “madcap” and was disorganized in her jobs, but liked charming her bosses so they wouldn’t be mad.  Through Sue, my mother met my father (Sue’s brother).

My parents married in 1947.  In their honeymoon pictures from Atlantic City, N.J. they look glamorous and very much of the period.  I was born in 1949.

I was very much a wanted child.  And in the myriad of photos of me from my early childhood, I look happy and close to both my parents, though especially to my mother.

When I was 3, my mother lost her second child – that is, it was still born.  And I later learned that my parents knew that it was likely not to survive, they had been told they had a blood incompatibility – she was RH negative, he was RH positive.

I don’t know if they knew that before they were married.  I was told years later by my Aunt Sue, that they did know it before my birth.  (And my mother initially said that that was okay with her, one child would be enough.)

I also learned the fluke-ish medical news that the first born (me) was exempt from the trouble… because I was first (and had RH positive blood myself), my mother’s RH negative blood did not have time, apparently, to build up the antibodies to the RH positive blood.  The mother’s blood in the subsequent pregnancies reads the RH positive blood as an invading organism, and basically attacks the baby’s blood, weakening it and eventually causing its death.

Science I think has solved this problem… but it wasn’t solved till the 70s or even later.  

I remember at age 3 my mother being in the hospital, and my being told I might have a baby brother or sister.  I remember the day my mother was to come out of the hospital.  I had been told the baby died (… they probably said “God wanted him” or something like that), and that I shouldn’t be scared that my mother was in a wheelchair, she could walk, she was just weak.

I remember her being wheeled out of the hospital on a sunny day, smiling and waving to me.  And then I remember nothing else for two more years.

I think those two years were dark years in my family.  Back then (pre-Oprah as it were), people didn’t know how to talk about their problems much; and they didn’t seek outside help. 

My father had an alcoholism problem.  It wasn’t constant, but it was frequent.  This had been an issue during some of their dating, and during the early years of their marriage too.  But I’m pretty sure it intensified after the death of the child.

I think my parents were heartbroken about the death of the child.  I think my mother wanted more children so much that she started to hope God would make a miracle for her.  Miracles do happen, faith can move mountains – the Catholic Church and society at large said that frequently.

So counting the first stillbirth, my mother tried for miracles three times.  I have a hunch my father, being a more logical person than my mother, was not in favor of this continual trying for what the doctors told them would be pretty much an impossibility.  Though maybe both wanted to try the first time.

So one can only guess what that did to their marriage.  And my father would drink when he wanted to avoid problems.  And my mother went into a depression after the first stillbirth (and told me later on when I was 14, that there was a year of my life back then that she didn’t know I was alive, after the death of the first baby).

So!  Alcoholism, dead babies. 

It’s very sad, and I think I have buried inside me memories of really sad and maybe scary things from ages 3 and 4. 

And then the extended family – there was additional alcoholism on both sides of the families, starting with both of my grandfathers. 

So I grew up with a lot of focus on drinking. Holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, became torturous… there was lots of alcohol at family gatherings, especially in my father’s family… and there were recurrent, electric fights between my parents about my mother wanting my father not to drink.  And even if he managed to stay sober for Christmas, he surely would be drunk for New Years; and my mother would be so enraged, there would be big screaming fights, and we’d leave the house and go stay with my mother’s family, all of whom lived together. 

Or sometimes later on I stayed with a good friend from school… and then learned his mother was alcoholic.

I sometimes think of these early years of my life as “Alcoholics Ahoy!”

For whatever reason, I’m not alcoholic.  Really luck of the draw, because first born son of an alcoholic has a high chance of being one as well. 

I found that most of the alcoholics I saw – some of whom found AA later on (not my father, though) – used alcohol for escape, so they wouldn’t think about problems.  Then they’d feel guilt about drinking, and drink to forget their guilt. 

The non-alcoholics, usually, became great manipulators… trying to ‘arrange” life so alcohol wouldn’t be around.  Trying to control the uncontrollable (trying to control another person's behavior).  And seemingly never giving up, on and on they’d try. 

I became hypervigilante, and could sense immediately tension between any adults (not just my parents)… in that way, I became very attuned to people’s psychologies.

I’ll stop going on about this… but if you know “the Marriage of Bette and Boo,” obviously this play is based on my parents’ marriage and the sadness of it, and the drinking and the dead babies.  It is somewhat fictionalized, though an awful lot is based on the real. 

Well, sorry if this is more than you bargained for.  But that’s what you get from me if you ask “what was your childhood like”?

Addendum – by the way, the fun things of my childhood were: my extended family was lively, often fun and definitely creative.  I loved having production experiences so young (13 and 15, as in question 1).   And my mother passed her love of theatre to me early, with trips to Broadway to see musicals; and reading plays at home, etc. etc.  Both sides of the family were encouraging of artistic endeavors.  And just about everybody had distinctive senses of humor.  So there were fun things about my childhood too.

3. If you could change any events in your past, would you?

Gosh, that question is almost Chekhovian.  Regret is a very large emotion for many/most people.  I had some mainstream career opportunities early in my career (in the film world) that I didn’t pursue, making a decision I wanted to be known as a playwright first.  I have some “what if” feelings about that… on the other hand, I don’t have regrets because I think that’s a whole other road, and I probably wouldn’t have written the same plays, etc. etc.  So I prefer not to have regrets, or to focus on them.  Oh dear, what a difficult question. 

4. Many of your characters have emotional problems, why?

Back off!  Just kidding.

Well, as is clear, I grew up around LOTS of people with emotional problems, so you write about what you know, so that answers your question.

Plus drama is about conflict, and trouble, and things that are hard to get through.  Even if I came from a more adjusted family – and how many people do? – drama still calls out for following people in difficulties.

And we all have emotional problems of some sort.  Tennessee Williams’ characters all do. 

We all have psychology.  Why do we do the things we do?  One thinks about that, tries to figure it out.

I’m going to skip question 5 (what effect do you wish to have on the theatre world) cause it’s too hard, and I don’t really have an answer. 

I’m going to skip question 6  (what is one experience that made the most impact on you as a writer) cause I don’t know; and cause I think it’s probably hidden somewhere in the midst of my earlier answers. 

I’m going to combine questions 7-8-9 about who do I admire, favorite playwright, favorite movie play etc.

7-8-9  What are some of your favorites?

I don’t have a favorite playwright. 

Oddly if I had to choose one, it would probably be Tennessee Williams.  Even though I don’t write like him, I so admire and am taken by the psychology of his characters.  I find them touching, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic.  Some of his dialogue is stunning.  I think “Glass Menagerie” and “Streetcar Named Desire” are both very great plays.

Playwrights I have admired and enjoyed a lot include: 

  • Noel Coward (whose dialogue style influenced me as a child); 

  • Joe Orton (the darkly comic British playwright, who influenced me in early college); 

  • Federico Fellini (a filmmaker, but his playfulness and the way he casually included his Italian Catholic roots influenced me); 

  • the wonderful composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, with his darkly complex view of human relationships; 

  • Chekhov, for his complicated psychology and his characters’ regrets, and for the way some lines “ping” out at you, like “I’m in mourning for my life” from “Sea Gull” or from "The Three Sisters," the young Irina, happy in the first act, but miserable in the third act as she realizes her hopes for the future have faded and that every day she forgets something she used to know, angrily saying the poignant line “I’ve forgotten the Italian for window and ceiling”; 

  • Caryl Churchill (I especially love her plays “Cloud 9” and “Top Girls”). 

  • Thornton Wilder (“Our Town” is beautiful and heartbreaking; “Skin of Our Teeth” only partially works, but it’s marvelously experimental and fun).

  • Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, Samuel Barber.  Well, Barber’s a composer.  Brecht is bold and inventive and told stories differently.  Samuel Beckett was wildly influential for non-realistic theatre; I was excited by his work, my favorite is his “Happy Days” with Winnie buried up to her waist in sand, chattering away.  Samuel Barber’s inclusion is a joke, except having brought up the composer, he’s wonderful too.  (An obscure favorite: Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” set to a text by James Agee, another wonderful writer.) 

  • American musical comedy in general (Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein).  Cabaret, Chicago.  Carousel.  Carnival.  Company.  (Gosh, all with the letter C… just coincidence).  My Fair Lady.  Follies (a big favorite).  Annie Get Your Gun (the score at least).  The King and I.  How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (very cartoonish in a fun way, and I think it influenced me a lot; saw it on Bway when I was 9 or 10). 

I also admire and enjoy Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, Marsha Norman, Wallace Shawn, Edward Albee, Robert Anderson, Arthur Miller, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Jules Feiffer, Albert Innaurato, Arthur Kopit, John Patrick Shanley, David Henry Hwang, Tina Howe, August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, Lanford Wilson, Constance Congdon, Simon Gray, Peter Nichols, John Osborne, Tony Kushner, Craig Lucas…

There are many others I like too, but those are the ones that popped up unbidden to my brain, so I’ll leave it at that.

I love many movies – I’m a movie buff, and one of my early plays was “A History of the American Film,” which kind of assumes knowledge of American movies from the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s.   I like so many movies it’s very hard to choose a favorite.

10. Any advice for an aspiring actress?

Gosh, um.  There’s so little real advice to give.  

I think it’s great to follow your dream; and I think your 20s are the time to do that.  In your 20s, you’re more willing to live in less good places, more willing to still have roommates, more willing to try and experiment.  Theatre is so tough… I do think if you’re in your early to mid 30s, and if you’ve had no encouragement from the world, you should consider giving up and going somewhere else your heart might lead you.  Also, strangely, sometimes once you give up, doors can open for you suddenly, while sometimes when you’re trying, that “trying too hard” energy keeps you from moving forward.

Act in lots of plays; you learn by doing.  Analyze what you like about favorite performances in plays and movies.  But don’t get stuck over-analyzing.  Acting, like writing, is partially intuitive.  And if you think-think-think (like some acting schools will push you into), you’ll lose the flow. 

I acted recently (four performances of my play “Laughing Wild”, as part of a celebration opening of a new theatre at Playwrights Horizons, where the play first premiered in 1987).  Before going on, I’d have a flutter of nerves, and would remind myself of my acting intention, and of one major direction from the director (Ron Lagomarsino).  

In my part, the man I played is giving a lecture to the audience on the importance of thinking positive, of making positive affirmations about life; but he keeps getting off the topic, as various negative thoughts and experiences keep impinging on his consciousness.  So before going out on-stage, to help “remind” myself (and get myself centered) I’d say: Communicate.  Tell the audience about being positive, but (as the director said) when you go off on a negative tangent, go off far, go deep into the negativity, don’t skim it.  Then when the lines take you back to the positive, go to that.

For that particular play, that advice/road map kind of works for the whole thing.  In a Chekhov play, with years skipped and so on, you might need a reminder of intention that might vary more dramatically from scene to scene, or act to act. 

But I find “remember to communicate” a very good bottom line reminder to oneself as one is about to go onstage.  To communicate to the other actors; and to communicate to the audience, don’t be shut off from them.  (That includes speaking loud enough to be heard easily; and keeping your body at least most of the time “open” to them.)

Hope this is helpful.

Christopher Durang  sometime, 2002

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