Frequently Asked Questions
From Christopher Durang:
I've been flattered that people in schools have been assigned to do papers on me, or sometimes have chosen to do them. And in the past two years some people have written me care of my agent and asked me to answer questions. And thanks to computers, I've saved my answers.
So, I've decided to post those answers for other students who might find them helpful if they're asked to do papers on me.
I'm somewhat abashed at how personal my answers to these questions are -- often times, way more information than was probably asked for. But especially when I'm asked how and why I write the way I do, I find the psychology and dynamics in my family of origin to be the inescapable topic I need to discuss. (After all, we're all greatly formed and affected by our families -- good things, bad things, quirky things.)
So here are three "rounds" of questions and answers I did. Two were for college students; one was for high school.
I appreciate the people who asked me the questions, and I hope they don't mind that I'm choosing to post the answers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why, with your obvious grasp on tragedy, did you decide to write works of comedy?
A slightly pretentious answer might be to say I didn’t choose comedy, comedy chose me.
I’m not usually funny in person (unless I’ve gotten very, very relaxed with a person). I do think my parents and extended family all had senses of humor.
And I think my early theatre experiences of seeing musical comedies (which my mother loved) sort of primed me for thinking comedically. Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (which won the Pulitzer Prize, an unusual thing for a musical) was written and designed in a cartoon-ish style, and made fun of the business world. They sold “wickets”, whatever they were. The main character rose to the top out of sheer manipulation. The main executives went ga-ga over gorgeous secretaries, etc. It was lively and fun (and Robert Morse was great in it), and I think it influenced me a lot.
There was a lot of sadness in my family so theoretically I could also have written sad, sad dramas… but I just wasn’t drawn to it. I like to laugh. And even though shy, I have a very pronounced loud laugh. (I have a friend, a funny writer, whose mother would always shush him when he laughed at a play or movie and would say disapprovingly, “Hey, you can enjoy something without being silly about it.” I recently read that Jay Leno had just such a mother. I didn’t though. My mother had a bubbling sense of humor and liked to laugh and make people laugh.
Who are some of the major comedic influences in your life?
I grew up in the 50s and 60s, graduated high school in ‘67, during the Vietnam years. In the 50s there weren’t 100 cable channels, they were about 5 TV channels. So "I Love Lucy” (which captivated the nation back then) was an influence. Screwball comedies of the 30s were an influence… I didn’t watch cartoons (I found them dull), but I watched Million Dollar Movie, a NYC TV station (which we got in New Jersey as well) which ran Hollywood movies 7 days a week, the same movie for all 7 days; then they’d change. You know how children love to re-watch things? So I re-watched many of these movies (not 7 times, but maybe 3)… the movies were classic comedies from the 30s like “The Awful Truth” (a comedy about divorce with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) or “Bringing Up Baby” (a very funny farce with Grant and Katharine Hepburn); or later on, I saw several of the wonderful Preston Sturges comedies. And the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rodgers movies, some of which had funny scripts.
Then musical comedy influenced me. And the books to those usually were comic… even something as commercial as “Damn Yankees” about the baseball player selling his soul to the devil had some first-rate comic writing and construction in it.
Then in high school I started to read lots of plays… Joe Orton was an influence. Arthur Kopit’s “Oh Dad Poor Dad Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad” (which is really a Tennessee Williams parody, kind of) struck me as fun and funny. I’m often said to be influenced by Ionesco… in truth, I only knew “The Bald Soprano,” which I did think was funny. (Oh, and later I did read “Rhinoceros,” where the man turning into one was certainly a coup de theatre. If that’s the correct spelling of that phrase.) And I was influenced by Edward Albee’s “The American Dream,” which came from that brief period when he wrote in the Theatre of the Absurd style. “American Dream” was very much influenced by Ionesco, so I was by default too. Also I realized I was influenced by the very name, “Theatre of the Absurd.” I also loved “Alice in Wonderland” the book, certainly a kind of absurdist work. And James Thurber. And “Winnie the Pooh” (the characters of Eeyore and Owl are actually quite funny).
Do you agree with the theory that most laughter is inspired by the misfortune of "others"? If so, why?
I don’t agree with this theory AT ALL. I laugh a lot, and experientially I never feel like, “Oh ha ha, look at that poor dope, he’s suffering, ha ha, isn’t that funny.” “Oh he got hit on his head, ha ha ha, lucky me, it happened to him.”
I’m very suspicious of theories. I tend to hate any sentence that starts “all comedy contains the element of [blank] in it.” It’s one reason I started to be a bad English major at Harvard; and knew that if I didn’t get into Yale School of Drama to study playwriting (which wasn’t taught theoretically, luckily, back then at least), I didn’t want to go to graduate school in English lit; I found it hard to live in that theoretical realm all the time. (Sorry – and here you are writing a term paper. I think writing about things and analyzing them are fine and interesting; I just hate theories.)
I wonder where that theory (the misfortune of others one) came from. It may have been triggered by silent film comedy, which, without words, was often purely visual; and often was about physical falls and pies in the face, etc. etc. I’ve never loved slapstick, and have felt guilty (sort of) for not liking Charlie Chaplin as well as conventional wisdom tells me I should.
But even something like Chaplin’s scene in “Modern Times” where’s he’s a worker on an assembly line, and he has to repeat his gesture of tightening screws so many times that when he stops doing it, his body can’t stop doing the gesture even on his lunch break – even in this example I don’t think it’s his misfortune that is what’s funny.
Instead I think it’s the cleverness of the idea – he takes the thought that people on an assembly line have a hard and boring job, doing the same thing over and over, and he basically says: “look, it’s so bad, their bodies can’t stop doing it.” Then Chaplin’s skill in continuing to do the gesture adds to making you laugh. And it actually makes a point: assembly lines in modern life (modern times) are inhuman and bad for people. It’s actually a humanitarian point, it’s not a “ha ha, look at him suffer, isn’t that funny” point. (In my view at least.)
A similar comic set-up is Lucy and Ethel in the famous chocolate assembly line episode.
The assembly line goes pretty fast, and they are supposed to wrap the chocolates quickly and put them back on the assembly line. First time out they succeed pretty well, though to make it work out, Lucy eats a few of the chocolates to cover the fact she can’t quite do them all on time. The foreman is impressed (not having her seen her eat them), and the speed of the assembly line is accelerated – past how anyone could do it. Lucy and Ethel react to this by continuing to try to do it – an un-doable task – and they end up putting chocolates in their blouses, in their hats, and in their puffed up cheeks.
Now I guess you could argue that it’s their misfortune we’re laughing at – but I feel it’s their nutty invention, and Lucy’s idea that somehow this will work. I mean the logical response – in the real world – would be to say, This is too fast, I can’t do it. In the comic world of I Love Lucy (where Lucy is always trying to make things work out against odds), Lucy’s instincts tell her to keep going and stuff the chocolates every which way. So it’s her impractical but inventive reaction to her predicament that strikes me as funny, I think; not that it can be looked at as misfortune.
Final example. The classic comedy “Some Like It Hot.” Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon witness a gangland killing in 1920’s Chicago. (Is the killing of the men funny? No.) They’re seen by the killers and have to get out of town. They’re musicians and the only job available for their particular instruments is in all girl band. In this crisis, they decide to dress as women and get this job, which will take them on a train to Florida.
Cut to them dressed as women. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon look funny as women (as men often do); they are uncomfortable in the high heel shoes (an old joke, but funny). And when they get to the bosses of the band and are asked their names, they had a pre-existing plan that Joe (Tony Curtis) would be Josephine and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) would be Geraldine – obvious, “normal” choices. But when asked his/her name, Lemmon says with a little glint in his eye and an irresistible impulse toward improvisation, “Daphne.”
The recurring comedy in Lemmon’s character is in the different, somewhat surprising ways he gets into masquerading as a woman. His impulse to say “Daphne” came from some strange inner voice that thought, “hmmm, I think I look more like a Daphne.” Is that about his misfortune? Not remotely. It’s something odder, and funnier, having to do with the quirks of human nature and character. And there are many other examples like that in the movie.
So no I don’t agree with that theory.
What's the funniest thing you have ever experienced?
I don’t seem to have an answer. Sorry.
Are you a naturally funny person or did your sense of humor evolve with time?
In person I’m not naturally funny. I’m actually kind of shy. When I wrote my early plays (in junior high school), I was surprised at how many lines got laughs. I wasn’t aware the lines were even that funny initially… sometimes it would be a character saying something true in a blunt fashion – and the bluntness would be funny. Or sometimes it would be an eccentric thought, and that would get a laugh. (By the way, the choice of words and rhythm is also part of what’s funny in some humor – certainly in Noel Coward plays, for example. And in my plays, there are often times a line will get a laugh if said exactly as written; while if the actor paraphrases the line or changes it slightly, it won’t get a laugh.)
There’s kind of the cliché of funny people sometimes being very serious; and I think in some ways I fit that. Though most of the time I’m not tortured, and I don’t try to be tortured.
Where do the ideas for your plays come from? Are they based on events you have experienced?
Early in my career – and my early plays were very dark, and very peculiar – I would meet audience members after who would say, “You’re not what I expected! You’re nothing like your plays.”
I always knew they meant that some of my plays “felt” as if the author probably was a madman, hyper and nutty and overwhelming, sort of like Robin Williams on caffeine.
But my demeanor has always been quiet and usually polite, and I don’t dominate a room in any way. I’m a bit withdrawn, and I listen a lot.
So I was personally relieved that people didn’t think I “looked” like my plays. (This was especially true of my early plays, the more surreal ones, like “Nature and Purpose of the Universe,” “’dentity Crisis”, especially the very crazy “Titanic”. I would understand the assumption that the author of those plays would look and act like a madman.)
And as I got better known, and newspaper interviewers would ask where my plays came from, I had trouble answering.
As I got older, it got more and more clear to me that, as I indicated above, my plays came from a fairly dark world view; and that this world view was created, unsurprisingly, by the family dynamics I grew up in.
I was an only child; and had a very close relationship to my mother. I was less close to my father, since he and my mother fought so much about his drinking. Though I always thought him a nice man, actually; and I could tell that both of my parents cared for me and liked me, which is bottom line what you need. My father did have a drinking problem; but he also had a gentle spirit to him, and was the only one in the family who could ever be diplomatic. My mother had a fiery temper, though not with me; she was also very nurturing; and both my parents had senses of humor.
My mother sometimes ended up fighting with her siblings, and at different times that fighting upset and affected me as much as the fighting between my parents. And my mother’s mother took sides in the fighting, which brought the sibling rivalry to constant boiling points. And the issues that got fought about never got resolved, they just got stirred up and served again, like some poisonous cocktail.
So the fighting that went on between my parents and sometimes in the extended family was very hard to be around. And people were often mean to one another, perhaps not realizing how mean, but when the “Irish temper was flaring” usually not caring how it landed. (I can feel it in myself when I get so angry I want to lash out, knowing full well it will only make the issue worse. When I’m feeling adult, I don’t express the upset until the flush of anger has gone.)
Strangely, rarely was anyone mean to me. I was just this quiet bystander, watching other people be harsh with one another; or watch them address a problem by banging their heads against the wall, over and over and over.
My world view actually improved in my early 30s, when I experienced the adult freedom not to repeat the patterns I saw. For instance, an early director I worked with a few times was talented, but also illogical, unfair and prone to temper tantrums. And I realized – I don’t have to keep working with him. I could move on to some other director, who’s talented, but calm. And that’s what I did.
Though I also have a tendency to give up on problems maybe too fast – I can’t always tell if I’m running the other way to avoid conflict, or if I’m being wise. And that confusion comes from seeing my mother try and try and try to change my father. Tenacity’s good; but it can also be crazy.
It wasn’t just fighting. The people I grew up around were also complex and interesting, and I found the extended family – of many aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents – to be very intricate and interesting in how they interacted. And I find, in retrospect, that I took all this behavior in, lived with it, suffered through some of it when it would turn hurricane-like, forgot about it, and then suddenly it would come charging out of me in the form of a nutty comedy. And these comedies were not like my family in any clear ways, but were usually like them in psychologically disguised ways. And disguised by me unconsciously, I didn’t know I was doing it.
Well, that’s kind of a long answer. The short one is: I was very affected by the people I grew up around – good things, bad things, odd things. And I wrote from that.
Has laughter ever helped you through a tough time?
I’m going to give a long, complicated answer.
From age 7 to 13 (when my parents separated), I lived in a house of constant tensions.
My mother was in such a state of constant fury about my father’s drinking (which he denied was a problem) that every day revolved around: would they fight? And I was an only child in a small-ish house, and it’s very hard to be present when two people are screaming at one another.
From an early age, I was also my mother’s confidant (which meant we were close, and also meant I was in an inappropriately adult position for a child); and I would urge her not to verbally attack him if he was drunk or semi-drunk. Left alone, he’d just read the paper. And she would agree, and then as soon as he came in with a bit of haze in his eyes from drink, the Irish temper in her could not be tamed, and she would start in “at” him – and nag him non-stop anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours until he would finally explode into shouting back. And this happened constantly. And when it didn’t happen, I worried it would happen.
When they finally separated when I was 13, I was incredibly relieved; and I “counseled” my mother not to take him back (as he wanted to come back). I “got” after 10 years that he could not change and that my mother could not stop trying to change him. That being the case, as with a dog and a cat fighting, it felt better to separate them.
Anyway, much of family life was a constant strain for me. And even when life was calm, I lived in tension – and hypervigilance – wondering when the next fight would be.
When I went to college, I went through a deep depression for most of my time there.
From this background, I had developed a very dark world view. And going home sometimes was like getting injections of toxins from this family system. So in college I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning – for real for two years.
Therapy at college ultimately helped a lot, and I snapped out of my depression senior year, and regained my ambition and also playfulness. But I guess I never lost an undercurrent of "darkness."
But still aiming to answer your question: after I had “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” produced in NYC (1985) – the play of mine that deals with my parents and the stillbirths they suffered through, and the alcoholism – I met some people who were going to Adult Children of Alcoholics, a kind of off-shoot of AA and Alanon. (Note: my parents were no longer around to see the see the play, by the way; though my mother, to my surprise and relief, had liked an early version of it.)
In my childhood my mother herself eventually went to Alanon, and it helped her a fair amount – she finally got that you can’t change another person, the alcoholic will seek sobriety if and when he or she ever gets to that place themselves, you can’t nag or push them to it. And it was after that (her finding Alanon), my parents separated.
And so all those years later, in 1985-86, with a friend I started to go to Adult Children of Alcoholics. This group was formed by people who grew up in alcoholic families and who discovered that even though they were seemingly functional, they had internalized various beliefs and behaviors which were formed in their years growing up in alcoholic families; and that these almost unconscious beliefs and behaviors formed back then were impinging on their present day lives, and causing troubles.
Anyway, these meetings were very intense… people spoke one at a time (as in AA), sharing their thoughts of what was going on in their lives. And many of them reconnected with the feelings of anger and hurt they had from their childhoods. But it eventually helped them to figure out when upset in the present was being “contaminated” by upset from the past. So the “shares” in these meetings were sometimes incredibly intense.
(I once went to one on Christmas Eve, and the people were so upset by their awful memories of past Christmases, that it was almost like “rock n roll” suffering, it was visceral and over the top. And by the way, going to these meetings inspired me to write the Woman in “Laughing Wild” – her intensity and her lack of logic sometimes.)
The healthy part of this program (Adult Children) was the getting in touch with the buried feelings; and also analyzing how patterns from the alcoholic families were still affecting one.
The unhealthy part (I saw after about two years) is that some people in this program kind of fell in love with their pain, and didn’t actually want to get better; and so you’d hear them with the same complaints and the same level of anger months and years later. No progress.
At that point, I decided to go to Alanon, even though I didn’t really have any active alcoholics in my life.
Alanon is for spouses or relatives of alcoholics, and teaches you to focus on yourself. You can change your own behavior; you can’t change other people’s behavior.
Alanon was also a less volatile atmosphere than was Adult Children of A, and being an older organization, had more of a commitment to getting better (and made use of the AA 12 steps, though adapted for non-alcoholics).
Anyway, inside these meetings, you would often hear a story from some woman (it was usually a woman) who was in some ghastly relationship with an alcoholic man. And she would tell a long history of he promised this, then he pushed me the down the stairs, then he seemed better but he got drunk and drove the car off the road and it broke my nose, then he passed out and the cigarette burned the living room down, and then… etc. etc. And sometimes these stories would be sad and awful.
But sometimes the details of these stories would accumulate in the room as we all listened, and all of a sudden the enormity of the foolish and hopeless behavior would hit everybody at the same time – and we would all laugh, including the person whose story it was.
And what was that laughter? It was laughter of recognition and clarity – the litany of awful things happening suddenly “added up” for everyone in the room as too much – obviously the woman speaking needed to get out of this relationship, it wasn’t working, she had obviously stayed in it way too long cause she’d been too close to it.
This laughter wasn’t AT the woman. Indeed the woman would be laughing too – it was an across-the-board, shared laughter caused by suddenly seeing the ridiculousness of the stuck behavior all at once, all at the same.
It was a kind of healing laughter, a relieving laughter. You also suddenly felt a sense of perspective at how crazy it all was. The woman had started her story stuck in the details; but the overview suddenly hit her, and laughter occurred.
It’s strange. If the extremes in her situation didn’t add up in story telling terms just in the right way… it might not be funny.
It was something about the specific accumulation of detail, said aloud in a live room.
And I think that my plays sometimes have that kind of humor in them. Sometimes the extremity of suffering, or the extremity of bad behavior, is so extreme, that you see and feel the overview, and it’s awful and it’s funny.
So in answer to your question thousands of paragraphs ago – I think that the "Alanon kind of humor" I sometimes found in discussing my family history was helpful to me, it helped me figure out how to put the family suffering in perspective, see it from a distance for what it was, what the patterns were. And it really isn't laughing "at." It's laughing "because," I think.
When someone approaches you for tips about writing or performing comedy, what if anything do you tell them?
Play the comedy for real. Exaggerated acting (like in Mel Brooks movies, which I enjoy) is fun, but it wears out its welcome and it never achieves that mixture I like of comedy and seriousness underneath. A lot of comic acting comes from playing the stakes for real, and with great intensity. Jack Lemmon deciding his name was Daphne acted it with a true psychology underneath… he was a man who suddenly a little bit liked the play acting he was doing, and decided for real he would prefer Daphne as his name. Additionally, he had a “lightness” to his playing, which communicated technically a “permission to laugh.” But his core was psychologically truthful. (I have seen some humorless people play comedy for real, but it’s not funny because it’s too real, it’s too strenuous, they’re trying too hard, and they don’t have that little touch of giving permission to laugh. In terms of giving permission, that’s a strange undercurrent in a performance; and for someone who doesn’t know how to do it, I don’t think I know how to teach it. But I know it when I see it. And I think I have it on stage.)
Out of all your works which is your favorite and why?
“The Marriage of Bette and Boo” because it’s psychologically so close to me. I’m proud to have done something constructive with the unhappy parts of my childhood.
Why in your opinion has tragedy taken precedence over comedy both historically and presently? It just seems to me that comedy is an infinitely harder task and yet tragedy has all the prestige. I don't get it.
It is frustrating. I can love touching works. I love “Streetcar Named Desire,” which is predominantly tragic (though written with some humor too).
But I think that audiences and critics who dismiss comedies are being a bit pretentious. Cause if you either are made to cry or to suffer, sometimes people think “oh, I’ve had a profound experience.”
1959 was the year of “Some Like It Hot”; it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, which went to the heavy-handed, endlessly long Biblical drama, “Ben Hur”. (I vaguely liked “Ben Hur” as a child; but as an adult, I find it kind of unwatchable.) Another nominee was “On the Beach,” about the end of the world after nuclear fall out; a worthy, grim topic, but not really a wonderful picture, but it sure felt Important. A good nominee was “Anatomy of a Murder,” a complicated (and long) trial drama that was kind of cynical and seems modern still today.
But in terms of movies I cherish from that year, “Some Like It Hot” and “North by Northwest” (a Hitchcock suspense with lots of wry humor) are way out in front. And they are both on those AFI “best 100 movie” lists, while those three serious nominated films are not. But “Some Like It Hot” and “North By Northwest” were not taken “seriously” or valued as highly back on their first release in 1959 because they were comic.
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.
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.
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.
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 the question "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 the question "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 about who do I admire, favorite playwright, favorite movie play etc.
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.
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.
A kind of wrap-up:
I like the mixture of comedy and seriousness in a work. At college, I remember seeing Feydeau farces and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Both were fun, but both tended to go on for about 3 hours. And I’d find after about an hour and three-quarters, I would have had enough of both… they remained in the same tone, on and on; and the comic cartoonish of both started to fatigue me… I wanted some sort of real feeling somewhere.
Then I recall seeing on TV Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in a stage version of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Maggie Smith is a verbal wizard, and so her Beatrice was funny, as expected. However, somewhere in the play she read a series of lines suddenly with great sadness (about life and suffering), and she did it with all psychological sincerity and depth of feeling, and I suddenly felt riveted. The comedy reverberated for me.
And in another Maggie Smith film, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” she was hilarious playing the teacher’s pretensions and odd quirky thoughts…. Yet two thirds through, upset with an argument with her ex-lover the art teacher, she shows her girl students slides from her trip abroad, and in the speech that accompanies it, she reveals this enormous “longing” for love and for personal connection that is very moving, very mysterious. The movie is mostly a comedy, but one with real elements of sadness in it too; and with repercussions – the nutty things Miss Brodie does have consequences, bad ones, for both herself and some of her students.
Well, that’s all for now. I’ve exhausted myself.