The Blank’s Exclusive Interview with Christopher Durang
On the occasion of our West Coast Premiere of his play Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, world-renown playwright Christopher Durang and Literary Manager Sara Israel discuss politics, craft, personal history, actors he loves, and marching to the beat of his own drummer.
Sara Israel for The Blank: How did The Blank Theatre Company’s west coast premiere of Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them come about? And did you have any new goals or aspirations for this production?
Christopher Durang: I knew [The Blank’s Founding Artistic Director] Daniel Henning from when he was a young man graduating from NYU, and our paths crossed again when I acted in my play Laughing Wild in L.A. in 1990.
I have followed his ongoing success with The Blank Theatre, and was excited that he wanted to produce and direct Why Torture… We certainly talked through the play, and had casting discussions. (I’ve worked many times with Christine Estabrook, and once with Alec Mapa. And adore both of them. The rest of the cast is new to me, and I found it easy to trust Daniel in the choice of them.) I didn’t have any “new” goals about the play, or plans for rewrites. With most of my plays, I have a clear sense of when the play is finished. And when things are going well, it’s usually the premiere production where the rewrites happen.
The Blank: There is a line in Why Torture… that gets me every time. Leonard says, “He’s a terrorist. And if he isn’t, well he shouldn’t have acted like one, so everything that happened to him is his fault.” How did that line come into being, and how does it relate to the larger impulses behind your play?
Durang: Leonard says the line after he has moved from threatening Zamir with torture to actually torturing him. Based on misunderstood information. (In my play, Leonard’s friend/spy Hildegarde misunderstands a conversation she has taped. A discussion of a porno movie, whose title is “The Big Bang” and where orgasms are described as “explosions,” is assumed to be reference to a planned terrorist attack.)
Although I didn’t have a point-by-point parallel story line with the Bush-Cheney administration, as a citizen I felt appalled that we WENT TO WAR over faulty information— that felt false or at least “stretched” from the first time they started to push the idea that Iraq and 9/11 were connected, though they didn’t seem to be and there was no logical reason for thinking they were. It’s like your neighbors the Smiths burned your house down, and then the next day you retaliated by burning down the Jones’ house.
I really think going to war is the most fearsome and serious action any country can take. And the fact we were lied to— or at the very least, manipulated with selective use of the information we had (leaving out all the stuff that said “this is unreliable”)— anyway, this going to war on the basis of a faulty assumption is astonishingly wrong. And the Republicans who stand around and act like they’re experts in foreign policy shock me. If Clinton had taken us to war based on mistaken information— well, can you imagine the SCREAMS of fury Republicans would have directed at him?
Anyway, the parallel to that faulty information about WMD’s happened naturally in the story telling: in my play Leonard has done something bad and violent based on incorrect information. And he blames the victim (who indeed DID often act like a terrorist, that part is true).
The Blank: One of the reasons I love your writing is because of your relationship with the fourth wall. I’d describe it as “chipping away at the bricks” rather than breaking the wall down, per se. In the context of Why Torture…, Daniel Henning has described the role of the Voice/Narrator as “Felicity’s personal Jiminy Cricket.” What were your thoughts and instincts about the fourth wall as you were writing this play?
Durang: Going back to a 1971 (!) play I wrote called The Nature and Purpose of the Universe which had a detached narrator who eventually entered the action, I have often had narrators in my play; and/or I’ve “played” with the audience’s knowledge that they’re watching a play.
With this play, I didn’t start out with a narrator in my mind.
The narrator— in voiceover— doesn’t start until the end of the third scene. Which by “playwriting rules” is wrong. If you have a narrator, you should BEGIN with the narrator is the usual assumption (and is how I handled narrators in Nature and Purpose, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and my short Nina in the Morning).
However, I didn’t want a narrator involved in the first few scenes, I was focused on Felicity’s predicament, and just wanted to follow her. (Her predicament: she wakes up in a motel room, doesn’t recognize the man she’s with; tries to leave, but find they got MARRIED the night before, which she doesn’t remember; and then he says various things that start to make her wonder if he’s a terrorist.)
By the end of the third scene, it seems Zamir isn’t going to go away. And I started to want somebody to describe Felicity’s feelings to us. And after a while, he started to show up playing some parts from time to time (the waiter, the odd helper to Leonard named Loony Tunes). And in Act 2, his role of narrator becomes more pronounced. And in the last part of Act 2, he and Felicity confer with one another about how to change the play so it doesn’t keep going in the awful direction that Leonard’s actual torture has taken us.
In terms of Jiminy Cricket, I think that’s an inventive way for Daniel to think of the character. In the play’s final scenes, Felicity really checks in with the Narrator, looking for clarity in what she thinks, and looking for feedback from him.
The Blank: There are some tangible “facts” about Felicity (her daily job and her larger ambitions) that an audience isn’t privy to until she insists upon the “re-do” of the story. Why is that?
Durang: I write intuitively, and with most of my plays, I don’t know what is always going to happen. This means I can sometimes go off on a wrong tangent, and with luck then rewrite it in a better direction. But it means I sometimes surprise myself as I’m going along.
I haven’t watched the Susan Hayward movie I’ll Cry Tomorrow in a while; but in my recollection there is a scene where her alcoholic character wakes up in a hotel room with a guy she doesn’t remember and discovers they’re married! I always thought that was a very vivid example of some of the dangers of being a drunk.
My character Felicity isn’t an alcoholic, but in the story she’s chosen to drink more than she’s used to after a hard day at work; and then later it turns she may have been given a date rape drug as well. So I started with a “basically normal” woman waking up, and faced with a) oh my god, I’m in a motel room with someone I don’t recognize; b) oh my god, I am actually married to him; c) oh my god, he has a terrible temper, he doesn’t have a job, and he seems Middle Eastern and maybe dangerous.
So from that beginning, I didn’t really need to know about Felicity’s job.
Matter of fact, when Felicity breaks the fourth wall and decides she wants the play to go in a different direction, she realizes the only path to that better outcome is to go BACK in time to where she and Zamir first met (a scene that took place before the play began). And it’s in that scene that the play— playfully but sincerely— tries to figure out how Zamir might NOT give her a date rape drug; how she might not drink as much; how they might actually get to know one another.
I wrote the scene because as I was writing the play, Felicity and I became one— we BOTH didn’t want the play to spiral down into darkness that the actual torture seemed to necessitate dramatically. She and I wanted the play to end differently.
In my 20s, I was more cynical/despairing (even though I still wrote comically), but I often sent audiences home with rather dark last moments. After a while though, I don’t want to send the audience home bummed out, or distressed… I want to see what’s hopeful. I’m not overly cheery all the time, and yet I’m not suicidal either. I do think people can make choices that make their lives happier.
The Blank: Moving away from Why Torture… for a moment— I’m a junkie for your endnotes [found in some published editions of Durang’s plays]. Long ago, in the endnotes for The Marriage of Bette & Boo you wrote, “Unless you go through all the genuine angers you feel, both justified and unjustified, the feelings of love that you have will not have any legitimate base and will be at least partially false. Plus, eventually you will go crazy.”
Durang: I’m glad you like the quote from the endnotes to Bette and Boo. That play is my one unabashedly biographical play.
My parents did lose babies due to a Rh negative-positive incompatibility; my father did have a drinking problem; my parents did fight about his drinking endlessly; and the extended families were “odd” and not very useful role models.
I remember in my late 20s saying to a therapist after a visit home to see my mother and her family that the mix of anger and denial and confusion and false realities going on there was so complicated, it felt to me like a hideously entwined mess of electrical wires, that you couldn’t plug in anymore, they were so tangled. And to untangle them, and make them be useable again would take hours to do.
I wrote a one act version of the Bette and Boo play when I was 23 and still at Yale School of Drama. At that point, I even left all the names real.
Though I tried to keep my mother from knowing about or seeing the one act version, she somehow heard about it and went to see it. To my surprise she liked it. She was very critical of my father and her own family, and she said she thought I got it right. Which made me feel better. And as to her own portrayal, I thought to myself: she likes that she’s the lead. In my childhood, she definitely was the leading character. (She was also terrific in many ways; a lot of the dysfunction in my family matches that of every family dealing with addiction. Which I learned later when I went both to Alanon and to Adult Children of Alcoholics.)
My mother died when I was 30, after a prolonged struggle with cancer (first breast, then bone). In the year following her death, I went back to the play, feeling it should be full length. I added more empathetic scenes (such as Bette’s lonely middle of the night phone call to her school friend Bonnie); I added more personal details, such as my testifying in my parents’ divorce when I was 19 (a very bad thing to do for me; but I felt upset that my mother’s family, for their own hidden reasons, refused to testify for her; so I felt I should); and I wrote a final scene in which Bette dies.
Producer Joe Papp upped the intensity for me when he asked me to play the part of Matt, the sometimes narrator, sometimes participant in the play, who is the son of Bette and Boo…as I am.
Olympia Dukakis, who played Boo’s mother Soot, told me in rehearsal she thought the play was about forgiveness. I hadn’t literally thought that; but it was true, if you’re writing comedy, even if it’s dark, you’re not in full fury, are you?
And the ending of the play was mournful and affectionate in relation to both of my parents. I loved the direction Jerry Zaks gave to me, Joan Allen and Graham Beckel about the last scene: it is a hospital visit, he said, she does die at the end, but DON’T PLAY THE SADNESS, play second-to-second, it’s actually a pretty good visit. Bette and Boo have been separated for so long she no longer is engaged in worrying about his drinking, and oddly they recapture some of their fondness for one another. Matt is a somewhat embarrassed witness to that, but he also sees what’s sweet about them. The play ends with Matt envisioning his mother in heaven, being reunited with the dead babies and waiting for Boo and for her favorite sister Emily, and for him. The first preview I startled myself that my voice choked and I could barely speak the speech.
So I’ve had periods in my life of just being furious at the psychological morass I felt I lived in; and how complicated it was to get out of it; and for that two and a half years in college I was barely functional. And yet I got great things from my parents as well; and I was a wanted child, which is almost the most important thing. I feel by not denying my fury (though often said to a therapist rather than to a parent) when I felt it, I opened the door to re-seeing what was wonderful about my upbringing as well.
So I’m glad you liked that sentence.
The Blank: Many of your plays (including Why Torture…) reference other plays and playwrights. Sometimes reverentially, other times… not.
Durang: In my writing, I reference not only plays, but often movies. And my 1977 play A History of the American Film, seen at the Mark Taper Forum, was a madcap race through American popular culture, telling a Candide-ish story through a series of lunatic film references piled on top of one another.
Though in Why Torture… it’s definitely plays that are referenced. The character Luella loves theatre, but uses it obsessively to distance herself from life, and sometimes to “learn how to live.”
When I was in my late teens and all through my 20s and early 30s, I was so excited and engaged in seeing plays and movies. And I loved inventive, non-traditional plays— seeing Caryl Churchill ‘s Cloud Nine in Tommy Tune’s production so excited and moved me. It also featured E. Katherine Kerr in a stunning, Obie award winning performance; a few years later, we became friends, and she was superb playing the Woman’s role in Laughing Wild’s premiere production at Playwrights Horizons.
Now that I’m older, I feel like I’ve seen 78,956 plays in my life. It’s harder for me to get as excited as I did as a young man. (That sentence sounds different if you take it out of context.) Though, I rush to say, I still can get inspired and drawn in by special plays.
But it was fun to write Luella as so in love with theatre.
The Blank: Why Torture… also touches upon the state of theater-at-large, including the presence (or lack thereof) of American playwrights and skyrocketing ticket prices. In the past you’ve also bemoaned the dominance of certain journalistic institutions in determining the “future” of any given production. What are your thoughts on the circumstances of American theater today?
Durang: I don’t have anything new or helpful to add to the power of critics or high ticket prices. The latter are bad for everybody. The web is making critics a little less powerful, I think… I love that you can find MULTIPLE reviews online, rather than just reading one and deciding that’s it.
My only new realization is that off-Broadway doesn’t financially work anymore. Which is awful. Producers can’t make enough profit in the small theatres, but expenses are only a little bit less than Broadway. It is thus way easier for a producer to raise money for a multi-million dollar Broadway show with a star, than to raise one million or a touch less for an off-Broadway show.
This is really bad news for plays and playwrights. Thank God for the non-profit theatres, which are still producing the plays that might otherwise be off-Broadway. But you can’t have an open run at a non-profit. And thus audiences are deprived of the chance to see a really good production over time— the productions are over in five to six weeks. It’s too bad. I don’t know how to bring off-Broadway back. Presently it seems to be for one person shows and/or two person musicals. Or of course slathering yourself in blue paint or banging garbage can lids together. All good things within reason, but gee, no more off-Broadway plays. Sigh.
The Blank: You’ve worked with a colossal roster of talented, successful actors— and you are one yourself. What do you look for, and most admire, in the actors who have inhabited the worlds of your plays?
Durang: I love actors. I enjoy their company, and I get excited each and every time they bring a character I’ve written to life. Every so often a talented actor doesn’t hook in correctly to a character; or someone gets lost in a labyrinth of over-complicated thoughts, and the character and play suffer. However, most of the time I find actors either end up doing exactly what was in my head, or sometimes do something even better.
At Yale School of Drama, I was lucky early on to discover that two actresses in my year’s class had a wonderful instinct for how to do my “over the top” early work while somehow keeping it grounded enough so it also felt psychologically true. Those actresses were Sigourney Weaver and Kate McGregor-Stewart, both of whom I’m still friends with and both of whom I’m excited when I get to work with. Sigourney reminded me recently on Saturday Night Live what a wonderfully willing and goofy comedienne she can be (not to mention her heart-wrenching Emmy nominated performance in Prayers for Bobby.) And Kate, who is also a valued acting coach, recently recreated her Mrs. Wallace character from Beyond Therapy as part of the Inge Theatre Festival and reminded me of her hilarious abilities. She was the first person to play that part (off and on Broadway both), and she makes the comedy euphoric.
Another of my favorite actors from my Yale days is Christine Estabrook, who I mentioned earlier and who is playing Luella in The Blank’s production of Why Torture… She is wildly talented. I’ve seen her break your heart in serious dramas. And I’ve seen her make you laugh and laugh with her innate comic abilities, which are married to a special and wonderful inventive mind. She played the original Lidia in my play Titanic. She played the strange white woman who claimed to be a Black Lesbian Mother in my and Wendy Wasserstein’s When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth. She played the messed-up young mother Helen in the New York premiere of my play Baby with the Bathwater. Recently I saw her be dazzling and funny as the all the adult women in Spring Awakening.
I’ve also sometimes prided myself on working with actors right before they break into bigger success. Dianne Wiest in Beyond Therapy, Joan Allen, Mercedes Ruehl, Olympia Dukakis in The Marriage of Bette and Boo all went on to win Oscars and Tony awards within a couple of years of doing my plays. (I’m not claiming credit for their awards, I rush to explain; I’m saying, I and my directors have had good eyes for talent.)
Elizabeth Franz, Dana Ivey, John Lithgow, David Hyde Pierce (in his first Equity job), Swoosie Kurtz, Kristine Nielsen, Peter Michael Goetz, Mary Louise Wilson, Christine Ebersole, Jean Smart, Guy Boyd… this is just a list that pops into my mind off the top of my head. I feel bad not mentioning more, but the list would keep going on and on. Laura Benanti, Audrie Neenan, David Aaron Baker, Kate Jennings Grant, Christopher Welch, Julie Hagerty, Victoria Clark… well, I have to stop alas. But the list is going on in my head…
I am in awe of actors. They are the life blood of making plays come alive to audiences.
The Blank: Finally, because it’s too tempting not to ask— In Why Torture… when Felicity takes charge of the “re-do” she says, “I want us to have the same characters but. . . better ASPECTS of those characters.” If you could demand a “re-do,” what aspect of yourself would you be most determined to change?
Durang: I think Felicity’s thought of the "better aspect" of our personalities represents an idealistic, earnest aspect to my own personality out of which I don't usually write; but which was very much a part of who I was in my idealistic years of 19 to 21— I was very religious at that point (Catholic), but liberal religious, and involved in peace marches and being opposed to the Vietnam War, and believing Christ was a pacifist, etc. etc.
Later on I became more cynical, frankly. But then in my late 30s little bits of idealism would poke their way through again. And more of that now that I'm older...
I don't have something clear cut in my life that I want to redo.
It's not that I'm happy about everything in my life, but I don't have an equivalent for "better aspect."
I have a stray thought that maybe relates: throughout my career I have said no to various writing opportunities offered from talented/famous people that I've said no because the projects didn't "feel right"– I didn't have a clear connection to the material or idea.
But when I make a list of the people, I think, wow am I crazy? A different personality would have done it to work with these people; or would have come up with an alternative idea. By saying no, most of the time I think it meant I was just "marching to my own drummer." However, maybe working with those people might have brought me more wealth and/or tv/movie fame; but then I might not have written some of my same plays. So though I have a bit of a "did I duck some good opportunities" question in my head, most of the time I'm comfortable with that "my own drummer" thought.
Christopher Durang with Sara Israel, February 2010
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