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.
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.
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....
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