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.