Terry, Megan (Drama Criticism)
Megan Terry 1932-
Considered among the first dramatists to embrace feminist causes and avant-garde techniques, Terry's work often presents female characters in situations that test them or require them to challenge their own gender preconceptions. In other plays, Terry explores the psyches of such societally marginalized characters as battered women, teenagers, the elderly, and prisoners. As a director of many of her own works, Terry advocates a community theater approach in which she sometimes recruits individuals from the audience or from the streets outside the theater to act. Her philosophy of each participant bringing their “own reality” to the play, along with her use of space and music, are among the key identifiers of her work.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Terry became fascinated with the theater when she was seven years old after attending her first live production. Determined theater would be her career, Terry mounted theatrical productions in her neighborhood and school, serving as actor, writer, director, designer, and set builder. While still in high school, she interned with the Seattle Repertory Playhouse where she worked with director Florence James and actor Burton James, whose political views influenced Terry's later dramas. As a student at the University of Edmonton, Terry immersed herself in set design and technical direction, skills that later affected her approach to theatrical writing. After completing college, Terry continued to write and produce dramas, some of which were performed at New York City's Open Theatre. The experimental environment at the Open Theatre helped Terry conceive her plays as a series of action blocs rather than sequential scenes. She also began using her scripts as starting points for dialogue and action and allowed the participants to ad lib their parts.
Terry’s prolific writing resulted in the production of more than fifty plays and numerous awards. The Magic Realists (1969) signalled Terry’s experimentation with postmodern techniques, which included songs and dream sequences. Her first success and perhaps best-known play, Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie (1966), is generally regarded as the first rock musical as well as the first drama about the Vietnam conflict. Despite its topicality and popularity, Viet Rock received mixed reactions to its innovative form and antiwar message. Viet Rock is also noted for Terry's use of “transformational drama,” a highly influential postmodern technique she defines as “a dramatic action composed of brief sequences that are suddenly transformed into different sets of characters and circumstances.” In contrast to her previous work, Approaching Simone: A Drama in Two Acts, which received the 1970 Obie Award for best play, received wide acclaim from critics. The play portrays the life of philosopher Simone Weil, who, at age thirty-four, committed suicide by starvation to protest World War II soldiers starving at the front line. During the 1970s, Terry wrote several plays concerning family, societal, and gender issues, including Hothouse, The Pioneer, American King’s English for Queens, and Goona Goona. Family scenarios used in her 1978 play American King’s English for Queens demonstrate the sexism Terry perceives as inherent in the English language, and the 1979 play Goona Goona depicts the abuse that occurs in some families.
Although she received favorable notices for her one-act plays Calm Down Mother: A Transformation Play for Three Women (1966) and Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place (1966), Viet Rock was the first of Terry's plays to receive serious critical notice. While some critics found the play's use of rock music and subversive politics offensive and amateurish, others applauded Terry's use of such innovative theatrical techniques as nonlinear time and refusal to maintain the play's action within the confines of the stage. The play, however, was highly influential, inspiring other musicals, including the well-known play Hair. Approaching Simone, however, was received enthusiastically by critics, many of whom admired the humane themes Terry employed. In her play Hothouse, inspired by her relationships with her mother and grandmother, Terry explores the expectations society places on female behavior. While admiring her treatment of feminist themes, some critics faulted Terry's reliance on autobiographical material. In contrast to the negative reviews Hothouse received, Terry's Babes in the Bighouse: A Documentary Fantasy Musical About Life Inside a Women's Prison (1974) was lauded: the plays use of humor and satire was considered by critics as an inspired means to portray potentially controversial issues of sexuality and the degradation of female prisoners.
Beach Grass 1955
The Dirt Boat 1955
Go Out and Move the Car 1955
New York Comedy: Two 1961
Eat at Joe's 1963
Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills 1963
When My Girlfriend Was Still All Flowers 1963
Calm Down Mother: A Transformation Play for Three Women 1966
Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place 1966
Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie 1966
Comings and Goings: A Theatre Game 1967
The Gloaming, Oh My Darling: A Play in One Act 1967
Home: Or Future Soap 1968
The Key Is on the Bottom 1968
Massachusetts Trust 1968
The People vs. Ranchman 1968
Sanibel and Captiva 1968
The Magic Realists 1969
One More Little Drinkie 1969
The Tommy Allen Show 1969
Approaching Simone: A Drama in Two Acts 1970
American Wedding Ritual Monitored/Transmitted by the Planet Jupiter 1972
Choose a Spot on the Floor 1972...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Megan Terry,” in American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, Vol. 1, by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta, Drama Book Specialists, 1981, pp. 183-92.
[In the following excerpt, Marranca and Dasgupta critique Terry's career, focusing on the author's use of various styles.]
Megan Terry began her theatrical career in the mid-fifties in Seattle, Washington, where she first had her plays produced and worked as a director and actor. But it was her work as a member of The Open Theater from 1963 to 1968 that brought her to prominence. In the mid-sixties Terry ran a playwrights' workshop for that company in which many of her own plays were developed. Since 1971 she has been working with the Omaha Magic Theatre, founded in 1969 by another former Open Theater member, Jo Anne Schmidman.
Terry's work in the theatre is characterized by her use of “transformations,” an approach to acting which reached its dramatic high point in productions of The Open Theater, but which she has experimented with since the mid-fifties. Transformations are defined by a nonpsychological, action and image-oriented conception of character which negates the notion of a fixed reality or situation in favor of the continuous displacement of one reality with another.
Besides Terry's early work with transformations, they grew from several sources, namely Viola Spolin's theatre games, the work of...
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SOURCE: “Megan Terry: Mother of American Feminist Drama,” in Feminist Theatre, Macmillan, 1984, pp. 53-76.
[In the following excerpt, Keyssar explores Terry's extraordinary impact on feminist theater, contending that her work does not invite radical revolution but instead calls attention to the power of women.]
Since the early sixties Megan Terry has been a sustaining force in feminist drama, nurturing other American women playwrights and continually extending the reaches of her own plays. Captivated by theatre from the age of fourteen, Terry, now in her early fifties, has written more than fifty dramas most of which have been both produced and published. Reviewers whose attention is fixed on New York commercial successes tend to ignore Terry's work, but she has received public recognition and support over the last twenty years from numerous foundations and government offices. As playwright in residence of the Omaha Magic Theatre since 1970, she has, with the Magic Theatre's artistic director and founder Jo Ann Schmidman, been able to sustain one of America's most innovative theatres for more than fourteen years.
Terry's own definitions of feminist drama are deliberately broad: ‘anything that gives women confidence, shows themselves to themselves, helps them to begin to analyze whether it's a positive or negative image, it's nourishing'. Her plays, however, consistently reveal a...
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SOURCE: “Language and Meaning in Megan Terry's 1970s ‘Musicals',” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, December, 1984, pp. 574-83.
[In the following essay, Klein concentrates on the meaning and power of the language in Terry's musicals.]
American King's English for Queens is the most clearly articulated of Megan Terry's language plays of the 1970s, explicitly concerned with the ways in which the text and context of language mold thinking, seeing, and believing. In four full-length plays, Tommy Allen Show, Babes in the Bighouse, Brazil Fado and American King's English for Queens—all “musicals” performed at the Omaha Magic Theatre—although ostensibly savaging television, Middle American family life, marriage, sex, or prison, Terry challenges the perceptions molded by language itself and the clichés about language as a vehicle for communication. Whereas words seldom say what they mean, the reverse (that they mean what they say) is often true. What is conveyed between characters onstage, or between them and the audience, is seldom confined by either the connotative or denotative meanings of the words used; and yet these deliberately chosen words and phrases are capable of creating meaning for both speaker and auditor.
Using the notorious American snipe hunt as a metaphor in American King's English for Queens, Terry identifies the parameters of...
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SOURCE: “Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place: Megan Terry's Transformational Drama and the Possibilities of Self,” in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 2, 1987, pp. 59-69.
[In the following essay, Schlueter discusses how Terry's transformational drama acknowledges the extent to which the self is shaped by modern culture.]
In order “to make it,” we need to make images of ourselves. We compose ourselves from the cultural models around us. We are programmed into a status hunger. Once we have masked ourselves with the social image suitable to a type, we enter the masquerade of the setup. Even the masquerade of our ethnic and sex roles permeates our life so thoroughly that many of us are afraid to give them up. In giving them up we fear we would be giving up our identity, and even life itself.
Joseph Chaikin's comment represents part of his response to what he and others involved in the Open Theatre of the 1960s called the “setup.” In advertising for an “ingenue,” a “leading lady,” a “character actress,” a “male juvenile character,” and so on, trade papers reflected a disturbing coincidence between theatre and society: both based their vocabulary of character on the stereotype. Both assumed there were “fixed ways of telling one person from another” and found security in...
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SOURCE: “Megan Terry and Family Talk,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 296-311.
[In the following essay, Babnich provides an in-depth discussion of Terry's Family Talk, including an interview with the author.]
For the last ten years Megan Terry, playwright in residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre since 1974, has been writing plays focused on themes of particular interest to the American family. Her newest musical comedy, Family Talk, is the fourth in a series of plays tackling the problems of domestic life. Common to all these plays is Terry's concern of “how are we going to get closer to one another and get a feeling of forward momentum as a family?”1 Terry believes the actual process of being an effective family has been in deep trouble for a long time and she hopes her plays will suggest possible solutions.
Her interest in the family as a main subject for her plays began in 1977 with American King's English for Queens (AKEFQ) which investigates the ways language shapes male and female roles within the family. She wove her play around the central question, “Do you think like you talk or talk like you think?”2
The story revolves around the Connell family: Daniel Connell (Dad), an ambitious business executive in his 40s; Julia Connell (Mom), his...
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SOURCE: “Making Magic Public: Megan Terry's Traveling Family Circus,” in Making A Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre, edited by Lynda Hart, The University of Michigan Press, 1989, pp. 169-80.
[In the following essay, Breslauer and Keyssar examine Terry's Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus, a play that shows people how to make a difference in their world.]
When Megan Terry moved to the Omaha Magic Theater in 1974, she began a new phase of the feminist discourse she had begun to shape in the experimental theatre of the 1960s. The energy that she had directed for more than a decade toward collaborative production endeavors, primarily in New York City with the Open Theater, now became more precisely focused on joint endeavors with her colleague, Jo Ann Schmidman, and on efforts to engage and address the local community in Omaha. While Terry was one of the few feminist playwrights to have had her work from the sixties and early seventies published, after 1974 fewer of her texts were commercially printed, even though she and the Omaha Magic Theater made serious efforts to arrange for low-cost script publication and willingly made copies of new scripts available to anyone who asked. Awareness of Terry's work since 1974 has also been limited because, although the Omaha Magic Theater has toured extensively in the Midwest and occasionally on the East and West Coasts,...
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SOURCE: “Two Pages a Day,” in The Drama Review, Vol. 21, No. 4, December, 1977, pp. 60-4.
[In the following essay, Terry discusses her passion for writing and her everyday, artistic life.]
I was bused to the theatre at the age of seven. There was a program, sponsored by the Junior League, to bring children to live theatre. I lived in a small fishing village outside of Seattle; it was a long bus ride, but it changed my life. Professional actors, who had worked together for twenty years under the direction of Mrs. Florence Bean James (who had studied with Stanislavsky) were playing Rumplestiltskin. That was it. I fell in love.
As soon as I was allowed to go about on my own (fourteen), I went back to that theatre and hung around and begged to clean johns and sort nuts and bolts until they took me into the company.
Mrs. James and her actor husband, Burton, inspired me to write for the theatre. They always hoped a playwright would emerge from their theatre. When I joined, I was more interested in design. But watching her direct and teach acting, I got hooked on all aspects of theatre. I was fascinated by her sense-memory exercises and her classes in improvisation.
Watching improvisations, I saw that the actors would be sometimes marvelous; the improvisation would be more real than life, but it was also fragile—difficult to repeat and keep that...
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SOURCE: An interview in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, Beech Tree Books, 1987, pp. 377-401.
[In the following interview, Betsko and Koenig cover an array of topics including how Terry describes her creative process to the message the author would like to convey to the world.]
Megan Terry was born July 22, 1932, in Seattle, Washington. A founding member of The Open Theater and The New York Theatre Strategy, she is now Literary Manager and Playwright-in-Residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. Ms. Terry has written more than sixty plays, including X-Rayed-iate, Family Talk, Porch Visit, Above It: Speculations on the Death of Amelia Earhart, Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones, Fifteen Million Fifteen-Year-Olds, High Energy Musicals from the Omaha Magic Theatre, Kegger, Objective Love, American King's English for Queens, Brazil Fado, 100,001 Horror Stories of the Plains, Babes in the Bighouse, Hothouse, Nightwalk (with Jean-Claude van Itallie and Sam Shepard), American Wedding Ritual, The Tommy Allen Show, Approaching Simone, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, Comings and Goings, Calm Down Mother, Eat at Joe's and The Magic Realists. Ms. Terry graduated from the University of Washington, earned...
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SOURCE: “Anybody Is as Their Land and Air Is,” in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 4, 1989, pp. 83-90.
[In the following lecture, Terry discusses her life in theater, focusing on the need of individuals to give of themselves in order to make a difference in the world.]
I think it's more fun to think in groups than alone with a typewriter. Maybe that's why, of all the writing fields, I chose playwriting. My mind has always worked faster than my typewriter. At times I lay this malady to the fact that I got a “D” in typing in high school and may not belong in this technological age. Contrary to popular belief, typing isn't natural to all women.
Most of my early life was spent in trees, because I was into building treehouses. By the time I was 12, I'd built a subdivision and I'm proud to say most of my friends preferred to live in my treehouse than with their parents, except when it rained. I think skill in the use of tools is a good prerequisite for playwriting.
The lay of the land dictates the placement of towns, the path of railroads, the direction of the interstate, and has been known to inspire poems, songs, novels, paintings, laments, loneliness, several wars, and both possessive and altruistic love.
In some ways the artist is a distiller of the landscape. I use the term artist in all its definitions. Some artists go beyond...
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SOURCE: An interview in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. X, 1992, pp. 191-203.
[In the following interview, Terry discusses her play Turn Your Headlights On.]
In 1969 Jo Ann Schmidman, a young actress, founded a theatre in Nebraska amid the rolling plains of middle America. She named it the Omaha Magic Theatre and described it as a place open to everyone. Its initial goal was to produce four new musicals by untried American writers and composers each year, and by so doing, to attract new American playwrights to Omaha. The group assembled by Schmidman included actors, actresses, directors, writers, and technicians, all devoted to the process of theatre, all offering a living example of alternative theatre.
In the twenty years it has been in existence, the Omaha Magic Theatre has proven to be one of the few working alternative theatres in this county. Since it was founded, the theatre has been a highly “avant-garde” experimental theatre, a strictly feminist theatre and its present status a humanist theatre, exploring meaningful social issues. Regardless of the labels—avant garde, experimental, feminist, humanist—which Schmidman dislikes, the Magic Theatre is first and foremost a professional theatre which is driven by a need to produce the highest quality artistic work and by so doing make their audiences think. Dedicated to fostering humanism,...
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SOURCE: An interview in Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Philip C. Konlin and Colby H. Kullman, The University of Alabama Press, 1996, pp. 138–49.
[Below, Londré provides a brief overview of Terry's career followed by a 1989 interview covering an array of topics.]
From her days as a founding member of the Open Theatre in New York (1963–67), to her current activities as resident playwright and literary manager of the Omaha Magic Theatre, Megan Terry has used the stage to tell the truth for and about the communities in which she worked, while her innovations in theatrical form have emerged from the creative process itself. The community of seventeen actors and four writers that made up the Open Theatre provided the impetus for Viet Rock (1966), her best-known play of the Vietnam War period. Today she draws upon the concerns of the Midwest communities that the Omaha Magic Theatre visits on tour, demonstrating in her plays the possibility of change through “creative action.”
Megan Terry is the author of over sixty plays and the recipient of numerous awards, including the Stanley Award, an ABC-Yale University Fellowship, two Rockefeller Grants, an Earplay Award, a Creative Artists Public Service Grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Terry's way of creating a script by “playing with the elements of theatre”...
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