Oct 9, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 501: Christopher Durang
Hometown: Berkeley Heights, New Jersey
Current Town: Bucks County, PA (previously NYC 1975-1995)
Q: Tell me about Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
A: I wrote this play on a commission from McCarter Theater – it’s my second commission, the first was Miss Witherspoon in 2005. I feel lucky to work with McCarter – writer-director Emily Mann is talented, and a wonderful person. And producing director Mara Isaac is also terrific to work with. And McCarter and I approached Andre Bishop at Lincoln Center Theater to see if he’d be open to co-producing the play – and presenting it at both theaters. Andre said yes, and I feel very lucky indeed. Andre produced three of my plays early in my career at Playwrights Horizons – Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You in 1980 (on a bill with my The Actor’s Nightmare), then Baby with the Bathwater in 1982, then Laughing Wild in 1987.
Anyway, the new play itself came from the fact that I’m older and that my house on a hill in Bucks County made me think of Chekhov. The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard all have characters who live at pretty country houses “taking care of them,” while the more exciting relatives are traveling the world or living in the city, and the ones in the country houses are feeling stuck and unfulfilled.
When I first read Chekhov in college, I greatly empathized with the sadness and frustrations of the characters – but as with Vanya, say, I was a younger person empathizing with an older character – I had a young person’s remove from the character’s sadness.
But now I’m Vanya’s age – indeed, I think I’m older than he’s listed in the play. And I view the sadness in Chekhov plays more distinctly now that I have less time ahead of me than I have behind. Now I want to acknowledge I am nowhere as despairing as Vanya in Chekhov’s play – I pursued my theatrical hopes, I have been with my partner John Augustine since 1987. So I am not writing from the same well of disappointment that Vanya (and Konstantin) were experiencing. So my play is more of a “what if?” – what if this “farmhouse” I live in had been the home I was born in, and I never left it, and I lived with my stepsister Sonia, and she and I never made lives for ourselves but took care of ailing parents for 15 years, while our sister Masha was an actress, indeed a movie star. She had a life, and we didn’t.
Now I have written a comedy – their interactions are funny. But there is real emotion in it too. And it is set in the present day – Vanya, Sonia and Masha had professor parents who named them after Chekhov characters. So they are not in Russia, they’re in the present time in Bucks County. They have a pond, as I do; and they keep looking for the blue heron to show up, as I do too.
Vanya is also gay in my version – when I was in college (1967-1971), most people were not open about being gay; and indeed some in my generation kind of obeyed the “rule” of you get married anyway. Looking back, my going into theater certainly made it easier to be gay. But I know people of my age who either repressed it all their lives, or came out only much, much later. So I envisioned my Vanya as someone who either shut down his sexuality or perhaps had brief flings on the side, which he kept secret. I purposely don’t say.
So that’s how the play came about. Though I have added three fun characters to the mix – Cassandra, the cleaning lady who like her namesake keeps seeing the future (I always loved Cassandra in Greek tragedy); Spike, who is Masha’s very sexy 27 or 29 year old boy toy (who keeps stripping to his underwear to go swimming in a pond, which is both thrilling but alarming for poor Vanya); and a lovely aspiring actress named Nina (surprise!) who makes Masha feel insecure, and with whom Vanya finds a friendship.
So… it’s a “what if” play. With all my years and years of life experience tossed in, eh?
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I usually don’t work on more than one project at a time. And I get very involved in the production of a play, at least when it’s a premiere as Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is. So last spring I did lots of rewrites. And I was involved in previews in September at McCarter; and in late October we will have previews at Lincoln Center.
I have another play I started, that’s very political as was my 2009 play Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them at the Public Theater. It’s called Consensus or Should We Just Kill Each Other? I started it quite a while ago, but unfortunately it is not dating with time – I say unfortunately because it’s about polarization in our country, and that topic doesn’t seem likely to go away any time soon, regardless of who becomes president. But I am so depressed about politics – the hatred of Obama over the past 4 years seems both toxic and mentally deranged – that there’s part of me that isn’t sure if I’ll work on this play-in-progress next or not.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Well two actually.
Growing up in the 1950s, we didn’t have a TV until 1953 (or so). So I saw I Love Lucy when it was CURRENT. I also watched a lot of 1930s and 1940s movies that were shown on both Million Dollar Movies and The Early Show. (There was also The Late Show with more movies, but indeed I was in bed by either 8 or 9 at the latest.)
But like most of America, I watched The Ed Sullivan Show. He was on at 8 p.m. every Sunday, and he hosted basically a variety show with talent from New York City – opera singers, current Broadway performers. Like most variety shows, some of it was dull-ish, but a lot of it was GREAT. (This program is mentioned significantly in a section of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.)
In any case, my mother loved plays and musicals. And I heard lots of Broadway original cast albums. And some of these people (like Mary Martin, say, or Ethel Merman) would be on the Sullivan Show.
So when I was six, I announced to my mother that I wanted to sing at my Aunt Phyllis’ piano recital. I had seen one or two of the recitals where her pupils, both beginning and more accomplished ones, would play classical pieces. No one ever sang at these recitals – they were about learning the piano. But as a six year old I saw that there was an audience there, and I thought – audience – why don’t I sing for them? For some reason I knew the song I wanted to sing – “Chicago,” which I’m sure I heard on The Ed Sullivan Show.
My mother and my Aunt Phyllis and the rest of the family seemed enchanted by my request. I’ve had so many friends in my life whose parents either criticized them or warned them not to get too a big head or something. But gosh, my family sure encouraged me. Anyway, my mother rented me a white tuxedo (why they had them for six year olds I’m not quite sure), and somewhere toward the end of the piano recital, I was introduced by my aunt and with no stage fright of any kind I strode out in front of the audience and “belted out” “Chicago.” I always spoke in a moderate voice, not too loud, but when I sang I followed the example of many on The Ed Sullivan Show and sang to the back of the house.
Story #2 is was at age eight. I announced to my mother that I was about to write a play. By now, I had seen a lot of the I Love Lucy shows, and I knew my mother loved plays; and I think I had read some. So I wrote my own two page play about Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel.
My mother was always a bit of a press agent for me, so she told my teacher at the Catholic school I attended that I had written this “play.” And the teacher, for some reason, decided to take a couple hours off one afternoon to put on the play. I was allowed to choose who would play the roles (Katy Moran was my choice for Lucy; I have, sadly, forgotten the other names), and I kind of rehearsed them, and then my classmates laughed at a fair amount of it.
I must say I sound like I’m endlessly outgoing and overwhelming – actually for much of my life I have been actually a bit shy. And in college I got really insecure and doubted myself almost 100% - by now I was aware of ways in which my parents and aunts and uncles were troubled, and I literally thought, “well, they think I’m talented, but they’re insane. So I don’t know what I am.”
My parents and relatives were not insane – though there was a lot of alcoholism that somehow could not get solved, so they were troubled.
But whatever sadness was in some of my childhood – wow, the encouragement was generous and complete.
And so I sang at 6, and wrote a play at 8. And I kept writing plays - the next was five pages, the following twelve, etc. etc.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: When I was young, my inspirations were old movies and musicals (especially Rodgers and Hammerstein). And my mother loved Alice in Wonderland, Noel Coward, and James Thurber, and the humor in those authors’s work inspired me for years. (Some of my dialogue has a specific rhythm, and I’m sure I got it from reading Noel Coward.) I also saw and loved the original How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – which was written as a satiric cartoon. I think my early absurdist work was influenced by this musical which I saw when I was 12 I think.
But in my late high school, my world view started to get darker. My family was unhappy a lot, and I didn’t see much solving of problems. Indeed much later in my life (and after a lot of therapy) I realized I had an unconscious mantra that went “nothing ever works out.” That’s a very bad mantra to have…. And it made for a lot of depression in my 20s.
At the same time, the darker view took me to some interesting plays and movies. I found the works of Joe Orton – very funny farces about dark topics, and he mentioned Catholic stuff very casually. At the same time I saw Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, 8 and a Half, and Nights of Cabiria. I loved those movies, and found them very different than the American movies of the 50s and 60s. And Fellini too brought up his Catholicism a lot, often satirically.
Others who inspired and excited me were Brecht/Weill musicals, all of Stephen Sondheim’s work, Tennessee Williams (love his work), Long Day’s Journey into Night, the movie and book They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? I also read Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad when I was in late high school, and I found this play very funny and quirky. His play definitely inspired me.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Exciting theater excites me. Ha ha. Sorry, I’ve written such long answers, I’m running out of steam.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Oh I wish I had some magical advice that made it all work. I don’t.
Let me say what things I do know, in case any of it helps.
The old maxim “write about what you know” is really true. I used to think it meant don’t write about being a car salesman unless you’ve been one. But that’s too literal.
What it really means is write about stuff you know in your bones – the psychological stuff you lived around as a child, what you’ve found out about life as you’ve struggled with it.
When I wrote my absurdist plays in my early years, I assumed they were all strictly fictional – I didn’t know anyone named Edith Fromage who claimed she had invented cheese. However, as I got older, I started to realize that part of my family journey was dealing with an uncle and grandmother who were VERY FORCEFUL. They were not nice or allowing if you didn’t agree with them. And I suddenly realized that in ALL my absurdist plays I was writing about forceful characters who were bullying more sensitive or insecure ones. Over and over I was writing this.
This is part of my “stuff” – struggling against forceful people. (The dogma of the Catholic Church fits that too.) Then my family, both sides, had a lot of alcoholism – and I saw a lot of problems not getting solved. People kept doing the same thing over and over. Anyway, I draw on that too.
You may not know what your “stuff” is until you get older. But if you feel “heat” about an idea for a play – that’s a good sign. Write a play to communicate.
Don’t decide that a specific play is “going to do it” for you. If the play doesn’t get produced or much embraced, hold on to it, but write other plays. You never know what is going to be successful.
I almost didn’t finish Sister Mary Ignatius… because I could tell the play was wrapping up (intuitively), and it was going to be a long one act. And no one could ever make money with a one act. So I was about to put it aside – but I had had a serious writers block during my mother’s sad two year bout with cancer, and I realized it was very unhealthy not to finish this play – so I did. Never expecting it would be a big hit, and actually change my life. (Both in terms of being known as a writer, and financially as well.) So you never know what might work.
Apply to play contests. Get the Dramatists Sourcebook, and find theaters and playwriting events that accept plays without having an agent. I like to tell people I applied to the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference 4 times before I was accepted the 5th time.
Befriend directors and actors. You can learn from one another. And they can help you organize readings of your new work – I find hearing plays aloud so important when one is rewriting.
Find a theater you feel a kinship with – volunteer there, see who you meet.
In terms of theaters and opportunities, I used to say to myself: look for an open door, or for a door that is ajar. If the door is closed, move on. (Well you can knock, I guess, but if it doesn’t answer, move on…)
Every path seems to be different….
Q: Plugs please:
A: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is just finishing McCarter (closes this Sunday Oct 14; but it's mostly sold out). Then Lincoln Center (Mitzi Newhouse) starts previews Thurs Oct 25, opens Nov 12, runs until Jan 13.