Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2339

Article abstract: A founding member of the Open Theatre in the 1960’s and playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre since 1974, Megan Terry is one of the most prolific American dramatists, having written more than sixty successful plays. She is one of the major pioneers in the development of transformational drama and is also considered one of America’s first feminist dramatists.

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Early Life

Megan Terry was born Marguerite Josephine Duffy on July 22, 1932, in Seattle, Washington, to Harold Joseph Duffy, Jr., and Marguerite Cecelia Henry Duffy. She later recalled her interest in a film career when she was four years old, although “it changed to theatre when I was seven”—the result of a visit to the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. Except for theatrical activities—grade school plays, amateur theatricals in the Duffy backyard—her childhood was uneventful until 1942, when her father left to fight in World War II. During the war, young Marguerite played at defending the Duffy home with toy guns and bullets. In the seventh grade, she wrote, directed, and acted in her first musical and became convinced that she was destined for the theater.

When Harold Duffy returned to Seattle after the war, he and his wife were divorced; when Terry was fourteen, she and her sister left Seattle to live with their father. Harold Duffy did not encourage his daughter’s theatrical aspirations—he called her Tallulah Blackhead and Sarah Heartburn—but he did instill in her a love of the outdoors and taught her carpentry and bricklaying. Returning to Seattle to live with her grandparents during her last year in high school, she rediscovered the Seattle Repertory Playhouse and came under the tutelage of Florence James, a Stanislavsky-trained director, and her husband, actor Burton James.

Terry later described her time at Seattle Repertory as her upbringing. At the theater she learned design, studied the work of Gordon Craig and Adolph Appia, and discovered the links between theater and politics from Florence James, who combined her work in theater with running for public office as a Progressive Party candidate. During those years, Terry also discovered classical drama. She spent the summer of 1950 as a scholarship student at the Banff School of Fine Arts, where she took the stage name of Maggie Duffy and played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From 1950 to 1951, she studied at the University of Washington in Seattle, and when Seattle Repertory was closed in 1951 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, she moved to Canada to study at the University of Alberta.

Her two years in Canada widened Terry’s theatrical experience by exposing her to the work of Antonin Artaud and giving her the extensive backstage work that led her to decide to become a playwright instead of an actor. Her grandfather’s illness forced her back to Seattle, and she reenrolled at the University of Washington. From 1954 to 1956, she taught at the Cornish School of Allied Arts, where she reorganized The Cornish Players, a theater group composed of students from the school as well as any others who wanted to act. She also wrote four children’s plays that were performed under her direction in the Seattle area. After her graduation in 1956, she returned to the Banff School of Fine Arts, where she earned certificates in directing, acting, and design.

At some point during the early 1950’s, Marguerite Josephine Duffy—briefly Maggie Duffy—became Megan Terry, a name she chose in honor of her Welsh heritage. The name “Megan” came from the Celtic version of “Marguerite,” and “Terry” was a reference both to the actress Ellen Terry and to “terra,” or the earth.

Life’s Work

In 1956, Megan Terry left the Pacific Northwest and moved to New York City. The move to New York unleashed Terry’s playwriting talent, and for the next eighteen years she was a major figure in the New York theater scene. Her plays were produced by some of the major Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theaters—the Open Theatre, LaMama Experimental Theatre Club, Genesis Theatre, Cherry Lane Theatre, and the Manhattan Theatre Club, among others—as well as by the Firehouse Theatre in Minneapolis and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. She won the Stanley Drama Award for Hot House in 1965. Other fellowships and grants followed: two awards from the Office of Advanced Drama Research at the University of Minnesota (1965 and 1969), an ABC-Yale University Fellowship (1966), Rockefeller grants (1968 and 1974), and a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship (1972). Her plays won a number of awards, including a 1970 Obie for Approaching Simone.

During her New York years, Megan Terry became a founding member of the New York Open Theatre, the brainchild of Joseph Chaikin, who brought together a group of young writers and actors—Jean-Claud van Itallie, Sam Shepard, Richard Gilman, Roberta Sklar, and others, in addition to Terry. The Open Theatre, which was to become a major influence on both experimental and traditional theater, focused on improvisation as the first step to developing a script and, ultimately, a performance piece. The emphasis was on the ensemble and on acting that combined the ideas of Stanislavsky with Chaikin’s own “psycho-physical” technique.

Megan Terry was playwright-in-residence for the Open Theatre from 1963 to 1968—five years during which she created or revised for production eight plays. An important play from the Open Theatre years is Calm Down Mother (1965), which is often cited in discussions of transformational drama as an excellent example of the genre. Transformational drama is what critic Robert Pasolli describes as “a theatre of abstraction and illusion,” in which actors “[delineate], consecutively and concurrently, concrete objects, stereotyped individuals, human relationships, impartial observers and abstract actions.” Calm Down Mother involves three actresses who play several roles, transforming themselves into different characters and acting out new relationships from scene to scene. The most significant of Terry’s Open Theatre plays is Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie (1966). The play grew out of her Open Theatre workshop, in which the actors improvised scenes from newspaper stories and television coverage of the war. It opened at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club on May 21, 1966, in New York, and later it was produced at Yale and at other theaters around the United States.

Viet Rock was the Open Theatre’s first full-length production, and, like Calm Down Mother, it is a transformational piece with shifting characterization, episodic structure, and the subsuming of individual identity into the collective creativity of the ensemble. The play, a series of variations on war, was intended as an antiwar piece and a commentary on American involvement in Vietnam. Theatrical experimentation aside, Viet Rock is historically significant in a number of ways: It was the first full theatrical treatment of the Vietnam War, the first commercial production of a transformational play, the first American rock musical, and the first American play in which barriers between stage and house were broken down when the actors left the stage to make physical contact with the audience.

Viet Rock was Megan Terry’s only collaborative creation with the Open Theatre, although that group produced seven of her other plays. Her formal connection with the Open Theatre lasted until 1968, after which she went on to help found the New York Theatre Strategy and the Women’s Theatre Council, both in 1971. Meanwhile, Terry continued to experiment with the role-shaping transformations that had become an integral part of her work, and her plays were given productions both on the stage and on television. The most important work of Terry’s late New York period would prove to be Approaching Simone (1970), which is still one of Terry’s best-known plays.

Throughout her career, Terry has stressed repeatedly the need for strong role models for women. Approaching Simone is a dramatized biography of French philosopher, theologian, and mystic Simone Weil, whose life ended tragically when at thirty-four she committed suicide by starvation. Terry portrays the gradual development of Weil’s political and theological beliefs—from Judaism through socialism and communism and finally to Catholicism—by creating a series of evolving supporting roles against which the character of Weil remains fundamentally a woman seeking ways to continue being a strong and responsible citizen of the world. Approaching Simone premiered in Boston before moving to New York, where it was honored with the Obie Award for Best New Play of 1969-1970. For Megan Terry, the production of the play set in motion the next phase of her career. Playing the role of Simone was a young actress named Jo Ann Schmidman, who had already—in 1968, before she came east to study for a B.F.A. at Boston University—founded the Omaha Magic Theatre in Nebraska. Schmidman’s performance in Approaching Simone earned for her a place with the Open Theatre, with which Megan Terry was still loosely connected, and the two future collaborators briefly became Open Theatre colleagues.

Since 1974, Megan Terry has lived and worked in Omaha, Nebraska. Several circumstances impelled her to move away from New York: The Open Theatre had disbanded in 1973; she was being blacklisted by Actors’ Equity for withdrawing Hothouse from a showcase production; and, most important, she wanted to work with Jo Ann Schmidman and the Omaha Magic Theatre. As playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre, Terry has been productive and innovative, continuing her work with transformational drama and moving into new thematic territory.

Babes in the Bighouse (1974) has been one of Terry’s most popular Magic Theatre plays, with its combination of documentary with musical theater and cross-gender casting to explore the lives of women in prisons and reformatories. Other plays treat equally disturbing subjects: sexism in language, domestic violence, and teenage alcoholism, among others.

Another item on Terry’s creative agenda at the Magic Theatre is the creation of plays that address society’s need for appropriate female role models. Mollie Bailey’s Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones (1983) has received critical acclaim for its juxtaposition of the imaginary Mollie Bailey, a nineteenth century housewife and the center of a traveling “family” circus, and the historical Mother Jones, a political activist from the same century.

Summary

Megan Terry’s dramatic achievement is unique in the American theater. In her three decades as a playwright, she has produced a body of work that can be read as a history of American drama in the second half of the twentieth century. Her plays range from the realism of her Seattle period to the avant-garde experimentation of her New York plays; she has created ensemble pieces, naturalistic drama, performance art, musical theater, and transformational drama. Although she developed her transformational techniques out of the need to discover a theater that was relevant to the concerns of a 1960’s audience, her experiments in theatrical image-making and the use of language have proved valid even for audiences in the closing years of the twentieth century.

Terry’s continuing commitment to social change through the agency of a strong people’s theater is responsible for two forms of drama into which she puts a great deal of creative energy: role model plays and public service community dramas. Critic Helen Keyssar has called Megan Terry the mother of feminist drama, a label that is particularly apt for the woman whose pioneering work in transformational drama is a major step toward breaking down gender stereotyping and freeing actors to play more varied roles. In her plays that highlight the activities and achievements of strong women characters, Terry not only provides American theater with excellent female roles but also gives audiences strong women with whom to identify. In her work with the Omaha Magic Theatre and its outreach programs, Terry is effecting social change by sparking dialogue about community concerns and political issues.

Bibliography

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, eds. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. Includes an informative interview in which Terry discusses her creative process, influences on her work, women in theater, sources of her ideas, and the state of American theater. In addition, she reminisces about her work with the Open Theatre and the Omaha Magic Theatre as well as with a number of America’s most significant contemporary playwrights.

Fenn, Jeffery W. Levitating the Pentagon: Evolutions in the American Theatre of the Vietnam War Era. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992. Contains an excellent analysis of Megan Terry’s Viet Rock as transformational drama and as political commentary. Fenn studies the play in the contexts of both the experimental theater of the 1960’s and the earliest American plays that focused on the Vietnam War.

Hart, Lynda, ed. Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989. A wide-ranging collection of essays that includes Jan Breslauer’s and Helen Keyssar’s “Making Magic Public: Megan Terry’s Traveling Family Circus,” an analysis of Megan Terry’s Mollie Bailey’s Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones as new feminist drama. The other essays are equally valuable in that they provide a theatrical context for Terry’s work and ideas.

Savran, David. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988. Features an in-depth interview with Megan Terry in which she describes the plays that have influenced her work and the emotions that lead to ideas for plays. She discusses specific plays and the genesis of each one, and she identifies her favorites among her plays. The interview closes with her speculations on the future of the American theater and her work with the Omaha Magic Theatre.

Schlueter, June. “Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place: Megan Terry’s Transformational Drama and the Possibilities of Self.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 2 (1987): 59-69. A lucid and interesting treatment of one of Megan Terry’s more significant transformational dramas as an example of the Open Theatre’s contribution to redefining the creation of dramatic character. Schlueter points out that Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place is a work that strongly represents Terry’s transformational experimentation and its impact on the definition of self in American drama.

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