Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

Megan Terry 1932-

American playwright.

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...

(The entire section contains 56398 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Megan Terry study guide. You'll get access to all of the Megan Terry content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Megan Terry 1932-

American playwright.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307

Beach Grass 1955

The Dirt Boat 1955

Go Out and Move the Car 1955

Seascape 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

Changes 1968

Home: Or Future Soap 1968

Jack-Jack 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

Grooving 1972

Off Broadway Book 1972

Nightwalk 1973

St. Hydro Clemency; or, A Funhouse of the Lord: An Energizing Event 1973

Susan Perultz at the Manhattan Theatre Club 1973

All Them Women 1974

Babes in the Bighouse: A Documentary Fantasy Musical About Life Inside a Women's Prison 1974

Couplings and Groupings 1974

Fifteen Million Fifteen Year Olds 1974

Henna for Endurance 1974

Hospital Play 1974

Hothouse 1974

The Narco Linguini Bust 1974

The Pioneer 1974

Pro Game; The Pioneer: Two One-Act Plays 1974

We Can Feed Everybody Here 1974

Women's Prison 1974

Pioneer 1975

100,001 Horror Stories of the Plains 1976

Women and Law 1976

Brazil Fado: You're Always with Me 1977

Lady Rose's Brazil Hide Out 1977

Sleazing Toward Athens 1977

Willie-Willa-Bill's Dope Garden, A Meditation in One-Act on Willa Cather 1977

American King's English for Queens 1978

Attempted Rescue on Avenue B: A Beat Fifties Comic Opera 1979

Goona Goona 1979

Advances 1980

Fireworks 1980

Janis Joplin 1980

Flat in Afghanistan 1981

Katmandu 1981

The Trees Blew Down 1981

Winners: The Lives of a Traveling Family Circus and Mother Jones 1981

Kegger 1982

Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones 1983

Amtrak 1988

Headlights 1988

Retro 1988

Body Leaks 1990

Breakfast Serial 1991

Do You See What I'm Saying? 1991

Sound Fields: Are We Hear 1992

Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta (essay date 1981)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4280

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 Nola Chilton, and Second City techniques—acting strategies based on “games” and “role-playing.” As an acting idea (and an approach to the creation of a text), transformations have been an important development in performance theory in the American theatre, the first significant break with the Stanislavsky system.

Not all of Terry's plays are transformation plays, however. She has written in several styles which include naturalism (Hothouse), satirical comedy (The Tommy Allen Show), and absurdism (The Gloaming, Oh My Darling, The Magic Realists). Many of the plays are musicals (Viet Rock, Massachusetts Trust, Brazil Fado). Generally they are loose, free-form structures that agitate for unconventional modes of dramaturgy.

Whatever the form, Terry tends thematically to explore social issues in contemporary American society: the Viet Nam war (Viet Rock), crime (The People vs. Ranchman), politics (Massachusetts Trust), sexism (American Kings English for Queens). She is interested in ways in which society fuels itself on deception. But the plays do not propagate a doctrinaire political point of view; instead they lean toward more abstract treatments of subject matter, frequently through comedic means.

Terry's characters are usually outsiders, people struggling to keep their individuality in a system which pushes them to conform to the status quo. The theme of dominance-submission runs through many of the plays and the characters have rich fantasy lives which help them triumph over banal or oppressive surroundings (Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place). Because of the emphasis on transformations and the absence of conventional plots, characters easily create realities for themselves.

Terry has, throughout her career, tried to embrace new forms, though her most successful works are the transformation plays. Her plays tax the capabilities of actors by requiring rapid and frequent changes of character and situation, and a great deal of physical work (Comings and Goings, Viet Rock). Usually they need few technical effects and hardly more than a few ramps and props.

Not mere formal exercises, however, the works explore human relations in a variety of circumstances, ranging from contained domestic settings to more epic-style scenes. Many of them are specifically about women and their relationships to other women and to society. If some of the plays are more consciously feminist in perspective (Approaching Simone, Hothouse), others nevertheless depict female imagery (The Gloaming, Oh My Darling, Sanibel and Captiva). Terry's drama is dominated by characters victimized by others or by the “system”—characters for whom she shows a great deal of compassion.

This is evident from her earliest work in the theatre, Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills, which unfolds as an encounter between two garbage scavengers, B.A. and Crissie, and a stoned, down-and-out young woman. It takes place just before dawn on New York's Lower East Side. B.A. and Crissie meet Copper Queen on one of their morning routines, and though not very bright themselves, they outsmart the newcomer and run away with her shabby fur coat. The play ends with the trusting Copper Queen—who describes herself as an ex-beauty contest winner from Montana and the mother of an illegitimate child taken from her by her own parents—waiting on the street for the two women. They have promised to let her look after the “baby” they pretend to be wheeling in their dump-heap carriage.

A highly sentimental play in the realistic mode, Copper Queen attempts to show how feelings of trust and affection can exist in an urban atmosphere of degradation, a dominant theme in many of the plays of Terry's contemporaries, though the strong may overpower the weak in the fight for survival. It also offers characters whose lives of fantasy energize the mundane reality of their existence, a frequent theme in Terry's work. Still, this is a minor play for a writer who had not yet begun to work in her more exciting transformation style.

Transformations first surface in Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, a play which focuses on three men—Jaspers, Gregory, and Michaels—in a prison cell. Far from the prison melodrama one might anticipate from its setting, Keep Tightly Closed is not a conventional play with a story, but more a fragment of a possible narrative. In a series of rapid transformations it shifts realities in which the men—all of them jailed, it appears, for the murder of Jaspers' wife (that may or may not be true)—continually create new identities for themselves.

The play is framed by scenes in which the men act out the routine, mechanized aspects of their lives. But in between there are a number of transformational scenes which help the characters transcend their environment. They “become” General Custer, an Indian chief, a soldier at war, figures in Captain John Smith's Jamestown, drag queens, movie gangsters, and criminals reenacting the murder of Jaspers' wife. At other times they are simply themselves, trying to cope with the terror of confinement.

These improvisational-style scenes—developed by The Open Theater, which premiered the play—are acted out in a variety of styles that encompass naturalism, camp, vaudeville, gangster movies, costume epics, melodrama, and abstraction. Uninterested in the psychological probing of her characters, Terry instead devises a series of images that flow together, in an effort to explore confinement, dependency, domination-submission, ritual, friendship, deprivation, and loneliness—all of the emotional conditions that characterize a prisoner's life—through action rather than plot. The men, in other words, are defined by the “roles” they play in the transformations.

This continual exchange of one reality for another proposed by the transformation reflects the modern temper. It is a notion of dramatic character that revels in action, fragmentation, and the divided self—unlike naturalism and its insistence on story and character built through the accumulation of emotional and intellectual details which conspire to make a composite of a total, unified theory of self.

In conventional drama aspects of a character are successively peeled away, ultimately revealing the defining center of a personality. In transformational plays, however, as many aspects of the self are revealed as there are layers. The audience is forced in conventional theatre to sit passively and watch the drama develop onstage, while the audience for an innovative transformational play is invited to actively and continually adjust its expectations of “reality” onstage.

Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, though not the most skillful of transformation plays, is a good example of the style's radical approach to character, plot construction, and acting. All of these will reach their fullest potential in Terry's most accomplished play in this style, Viet Rock.

Another transformation of the same period, 1966, is Comings and Goings, which its author calls a “theatre game.” Indeed, this series of about thirty successive transformations illustrates how important the notion of “play” is to the concept of transformation.

Comings and Goings explores various ways He and She relate to one another: sexually, emotionally, socially. Scenes take place at home, in a night club, a diner, a police station, and outdoors, among other places. The dialogue is deliberately ordinary and concise (often one word exchanges) to set up the reality of a situation.

The short scenes flow smoothly into and out of each other, unlike the more fragmented Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, which was tied to a narrative structure while often growing out of the final image of the previous scene or from its dialogue. He and She, not always human beings, are even called upon to become inanimate objects—a plug and a socket, a pencil and list, two galaxies—as was frequently the case in the sixties, when American actors first began on a wide scale to experiment with alternatives to naturalistic acting. Often, especially in The Open Theater, this meant a highly physicalized, nonpsychological treatment of character in the sparest of settings.

Comings and Goings, referred to by Terry in a Note prefacing the play as “a trampoline for actors and director,” is perhaps a highly polished series of skits about role-playing rather than a play, and that is not to belittle this transformation, which calls for virtuosic acting con brio. It is, after all, about acting—that is, gesture, tone of voice, facial expression, attitude, movement.

One of the highlights of the piece is the scene in the diner between a customer and a waitress, which is played in five different ways ranging from casual transaction to sexual encounter. In other scenes Terry has He and She—who, incidentally, have been played by more than two actors—reverse positions in a scene or repeat the same dialogue with different actions.

Comings and Goings is bright, original, witty, and unpretentious. Unfortunately, it is so rooted in the theatrical experimentation of the sixties that now it seems more an acting exercise that reveals its age than a piece for the permanent dramatic repertoire. Still, it accomplished what it set out to do, and that is perhaps all one should ask of it.

In a totally different vein is The Gloaming, Oh My Darling, which grew out of a section of an earlier fragmentary play, Calm Down Mother. In this absurdist-style work two old women pass their time in a nursery home, intertwining memory and fantasy for as long as they can resist death. They alternately fight, console, insult, hurt, and charm one another when they aren't fooling with “Mr. Birdsong,” the object of their sexual fantasies. In fact, much of their fantasy life revolves around sex. When Mrs. Tweed says, “I hear a man's voice,” Mrs. Watermellon replies, “It's your longing.”

In Gloaming all time flows in a continuous present which Terry attempts to imbue with a special female presence. The actual situation of the play reflects the triumph of the human spirit against death, an unfeeling nurse, and the visits of grotesque family members. The Gloaming, Oh My Darling embodies themes that are important to Terry, showing particular interest in female imagery, but it is too sentimental to succeed as absurdism, dramatic territory she has never seemed very comfortable in.

Sanibel and Captiva, a later radio play, continues the absurdist attempt to slightly more successful ends. In this one-act poetic drama an elderly husband and wife are fishing, their conversation orchestrated with the sounds of the surf, gulls, minahs, a barking dog, a car approaching, an airplane overhead.

In the play, which reflects the influence of Beckett, Terry succeeds in creating a certain amount of ambiguity and sensuality, but it is less arresting as a dramatic experience than the transformation plays. These action-oriented works seem better suited to Terry's temperament than the reflective, more static dramas. Terry's manipulation of imagery is plainly more inventive than her dialogue. Finally, if the development of character becomes too central in the play, she has a tendency to fall into sentimentalizing.

Transformations are the driving force behind Terry's antiwar play, Viet Rock, which developed in an Open Theater workshop she conducted (1965-66). A counterculture musical termed by the author “a folk war movie,” Viet Rock combines marching cadences and the frug to the accompaniment of bitterly satiric rock music.

When the bombs fall
The Viets rock and rock
When the napalm bursts
Then the Viets roll.

Viet Rock is a political play but not an ideological one, even as Terry makes her sympathies known in the structure of images which coalesce around the various themes the play develops in its nonnarrative movement. She presents a panoramic sweep of conflicting attitudes toward the war (military, domestic, governmental, protest)—not the war itself. Alternating parody and sentiment, moments of joy and those of disaster, Terry's view of America—far from Norman Rockwell's uncomplicated portraits—evolves from its advertising slogans, antiwar chants, rock and roll dances, and movie-style gestures, all of them set in relief against the militaristic, sexist, racist machine that grinds out soldiers for a war in Southeast Asia. The result is a broadly satiric rock musical style that indeed gave a new shape to the new expression characterizing the political, social, and cultural upheavals of the sixties.

In Viet Rock scenes move rapidly from one event to another, emphasizing the social aspect of events without regard for conventional laws of space and time. When the play opens the actors are in a circle on the floor, which breaks apart in an instant transformation as the male actors become babies and the female actors their mothers. This image soon gives way to the scene of an army physical, then the women becoming mothers and sweethearts saying goodbye to young soldiers, then men in drill formation, and so forth. All of these scenes occur quickly after a situation has been established, so that a large number of perspectives can be shown.

Since Terry tends to disregard gender roles where possible, women play soldiers and become airplanes; they are also shown in active protest against the war. In the final scene of Act I—in which a Senate hearing takes place—the actors take turns playing senators and witnesses; when an actor finishes his place as one character, he quickly becomes another. There is no development of character because the style of the play does not allow for it, and reality is not fixed, character never rigidified. Viet Rock embodies the frenzy, passion, and conflict of a certain period in American life in a style that echoed the fragmentation of the times.

Viet Rock also reflects many of the experimental theatre techniques of its era—not only in the transformational style it represents but in its rock musical form (the play is a contemporary of Hair), the highly physical demands it makes on actors, its need for audience contact, the structure of choral configurations, the improvisational, open shape, and literal development of imagery.

On the thematic level it represents the sense of engagement exemplified by many of the theatre groups who were performing during the war in Viet Nam. In recent years, and with the end to the war, politics has given way to more formalistic, perceptual explorations of theatre.

Though Viet Rock seems dated now from a stylistic point of view, in its time it provided a strong communal experience of political protest. The final scene of the play—in which the “dead” rise up, walk through and touch the audience in a “celebration of presence”—is typical of theatrical experiences of the sixties when theatre companies made a special effort to emphasize the shared experience of theatre, disregarding the space between actor and audience. That was perhaps the significance of Viet Rock as a protest play—not its politics, which are more an emotional reaction to the war than an analysis of it.

In other plays of this period Terry continues her interest in social themes and political issues, but to less successful ends. The People vs. Ranchman tackles the theme of capital punishment while also trying to suggest that in a sexually repressed society people live out sex fantasies through the crimes of others. Massachusetts Trust is a more ambitious work of political satire in an allegory-fantasy mode, but it is gimmicky and lacks a strong focus due in part to the confused intermingling of different styles and themes.

Approaching Simone is a unique play for Terry—not in form, for it continues the structural experiments of Viet Rock, but in its positive depiction of a modern historical figure who is able successfully to struggle for her individual liberation. That character is the French thinker and mystic Simone Weil, whose life is capsulized in roughly chronological scenes from her childhood up to her suicide in 1943 at the age of thirty-four.

Weil is shown in scenes with her parents and brother, contemplating suicide at fourteen; in a nightclub with Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus; later as a professor, factory worker, and political radical; then in Spain during the Civil War, in America, and back at work for the French underground; and, finally, her death from voluntary starvation. The play, which unfolds on a series of ramps and platforms situated throughout the performing space, and interweaves several musical numbers, is organized to show Weil in active struggle against oppression and unimaginative and conventional thought.

Approaching Simone, while certainly a feminist attempt to create a heroic female protagonist who makes conscious decisions regulating her life, gives only an outline of the brilliant, tortured French philosopher. The play demonstrates no complexity of thought, no examination of the act of suicide (or glorification of death), nor religious extremism. It simply takes the facts of Simone Weil's life at face value, trivializing them in the process. Terry is content from the very beginning to show Weil as a martyr and saint who transcended the material world through her religious faith. With no dramatization of real conflict, and no worthy opponents of Weil's philosophy, Terry allows herself to move Weil through a series of scenes which do no more than create a skimpy hagiography in a silly musical form.

The Tommy Allen Show continues the vision of a crazed America that Terry expressed in earlier plays, though this time she does not rely on transformations as an organizing principle. Instead, she offers a three-part structure, at the center of which is a television talk show parody; Parts One and Three are autonomous environments for the audiences to wander in. In Part One the audience, as if at a carnival, walks through a series of rooms before the play begins: “Room of Strange Walls and Floors,” “Room of Mirrors,” “Room of the War Toys,” “Chekhov Room,” “Tai Chi Room”; in Part Three actors' “Speeches on the Cross” are accompanied by individual torture scenes.

The middle section of Tommy Allen is the actual TV talk show—complete with commercials—done in a satirical revue style. Tommy Allen (the character is played by four men and women) has as his guests a country-western singer, suburban housewife, child molester, and gay comedian whose shenanigans—interspersed with commercials for dope, vaginal deodorant, and violence—make Saturday Night Live seem innocuous in comparison. Terry's America is a country degraded by its perversion of moral values and ruled by consumerist ethics—a land virtually wishing itself to death. Its inhabitants are adrift in a world of meaningless talk and unfulfilling relationships. “… I show the public dreaming,” says Tommy 2.

Though Terry's intentions are obvious, she is not always lucid in exposing them dramatically; the play's excess of energy contributes to its own disintegration. Whatever real satire there exists in Tommy Allen is easily diluted by the flaccid comedy which frequently takes over. In the long run The Tommy Allen Show fails to follow its own formal logic; the images, strongest in the first and third sections of the play, simply cannot make up for the weak narrative structure they frame and are intended to amplify. A play such as this one—self-indulgent, unmanageable—points to the limitations of its comedic style.

It is somewhat surprising to see Terry turn to conventional naturalism in Hothouse, a 1974 domestic drama, after her experiments of the sixties. Hothouse centers on three generations of women—Ma, her daughter Roz, and her daughter Jody—in its attempts to make a feminist statement on solidarity among women, mother-daughter relationships in particular.

Terry's focus is a lower class family living in Seattle in the mid-fifties. The family home is symbolically isolated from the outside world by the vines, bushes, and trees which overrun the house and yard. But this “hothouse” is hardly a breeding ground for human life. Ma and Roz are always drunk, and Jack (Roz's husband) has run off, after one of their fights, to live alone on his boat. The central character in the play is young Jody, struggling to keep the family together despite the booze, violence, and deception which polarize her parents. “This isn't any family. This is a pack of wolves!” Roz acknowledges.

The one outsider who enters the household is Jody's boyfriend, David, who wants to marry her. She seems willing at first, but in the end rejects his promise of a stable, conformist future in the hope of a better life at home. Roz is right when she remarks of David, “He's not our kind of people.” By rejecting him Jody refuses the opportunity to run from the degradation of her environment and create the possibility of a new life for herself. Home is a “hothouse” which stifles emotional growth and personal independence, but marriage may be another kind of entrapment, hints Terry.

If marriage is shown as a bourgeois alternative, a kind of bondage, the brutal conditions Jody faces living with her mother and grandmother and their various boyfriends are glossed over, even dismissed, in favor of Terry's “thesis.” The fact of showing women without men interests Terry, even though the prospect of young Jody living with these two women, who spend all their time drinking, is disheartening and presents a false sense of support if one thinks of them serving as role models.

Intellectually, Terry is being fair when she insists that women turn to each other and away from men who try to brutalize and dominate them (Jack and Roz) or remold them (David and Jody), but she hangs her premise on some pretty shaky characters. Hothouse doesn't make as strong a feminist statement as it apparently sets out to, and it is disappointing to see Terry fall prey at this stage of her career (perhaps it is an old play?) to old-fashioned psychologizing and simple notions of fate, heredity, and environment (now she is in O'Neill territory). Hothouse is an unsatisfying representation of family life, all the more so because it fits potentially provocative subject matter to a conventional form, conventionally and falsely fashioned.

Terry moves into a nonnaturalistic world in another recent play which uses transformations. In her opening speech of American Kings English for Queens Silver Morgan, a young girl raised by prairie dogs until she was taken at seventeen into the Connell family home, asks, “Do you think like you talk, or talk like you think?” Terry's play, performed by the Omaha Magic Theatre, sets out to explore the ramifications of that question in the style of musical fantasy.

A series of scenes conspire to offer lessons—the play is a teaching tool, it seems—about the uses and abuses of language, sex roles, concepts of romance, and the socialization process. The lessons are self-conscious and simplistic, as if American Kings English were prepared for grade school audiences. Whatever insight Terry has to offer on the imaginative possibilities of language when it resists rigid socialization dissipates in the inanity of the dialogue and in banal song lyrics. Here even transformations, which Terry has used elsewhere to expand the imagistic and structural potential of her plays, are merely illustrative or functional. Caught in a mix of satire, musical comedy, and didacticism, American Kings English for Queens is a lackluster attempt at uniting linguistic and feminist thought—not to mention the “wild child” theme—in a critique of contemporary society.

Another new play from the Omaha Magic Theatre is Brazil Fado, a return to the earlier transformation style. In this satirical musical that evolves simultaneously as two plays—one taking place in an American home, the other in a TV news station—Terry sets out to examine the Brazilian socio-political situation in the context of American society.

Unless it is done in the style of the grotesque or black humor, a play that combines scenes of torture with Carmen Miranda-type numbers is hardly likely to succeed as serious politics. Aside from its trivializing of the thematic material, and its ineffectual attempts to comment on either Brazilian or American society, Brazil Fado lacks the organization and focused energy of the best transformation plays. It is marred by a certain tackiness and self-indulgence that, unfortunately, has characterized Terry's work with the Omaha Magic Theatre.

Sadly, Megan Terry's most recent efforts have not equalled her achievements with The Open Theater. Her plays are tending more and more to be shapeless and unfocused. Where transformations once gave a style and structure to the plays, they now seem to have outlived their innovativeness. Terry hasn't found a new form to give her current work the structural foundation it needs. The unhappy truth about most of the adventurous writers who came to prominence in the sixties—and Terry is one of that period's important experimental writers—is that their writing has not maintained its earlier level of originality and invention.

Helene Keyssar (essay date 1984)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7229

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 precise criticism of stereotyped gender roles, an affirmation of women's strength, and a challenge to women to better use their own power. In Terry's plays we witness a sustained yet never repetitive development of transformation as the central convention of feminist drama. ‘Transformation', she asserts, ‘reveals to us an efficient universe. Nothing is lost—it's just transformed.'

Born in Seattle, Washington, on 22 July 1932, Terry ‘hung around' a community theatre until its director, Florence Bean James, took her in and she began to work on set construction and design. For Terry, the concept of transformation and its development as a key technique of her dramaturgy began with this early training in design and collage; she still thinks of what she does as a kind of architectural process in which she ‘builds' plays.

Despite her father's refusal to pay for her education because she would not join a sorority, she took a BA in education at the University of Washington. Her studies included creative dramatics, taught by her cousin Geraldine Siks. Growing up, she had loved cartoon characters and impersonators; working with young children who naturally used role transformation in their daily play led her to think that adult plays could be written that used the same process.

Terry left Seattle in 1956 when a double bill of one of her first plays and a play by Eugene O'Neill was lambasted by local critics. She promised her father on her departure that if she had not made it in the theatre by the time she was thirty-five, she would give up and become a teacher. For the next ten years, she endured the struggles of a young, unknown playwright in New York, a life enriched and complicated in the early sixties by her association with Joseph Chaikin, Peter Feldman, Maria Irene Fornes, Barbara Vann, and more than a dozen other young actors, writers and directors who were rejecting the stylistically and commercially ‘closed' theatre of Broadway to create what they soon called the Open Theatre. Many of the original Open Theatre company members had been trained by Nola Chilton, whose teaching emphasised the freeing of the individual actor's body and voice through exercises that focused on imagined objects and sensations. Even more important to the development of Megan Terry's work, however, was the structure given to daily workshops by transformation exercises originally created by a Chicago artist and teacher, Viola Spolin. Spolin's theatre games meshed perfectly with Terry's vision of a theatre in which actors created and altered the world in front of the audience, relying on their own resources of body, voice and imagination.

In its first few years, from 1963 until 1966, the Open Theatre was a set of workshops, led by different members of the company, including Terry. By the spring of 1964, Terry had drafted a new one-act play, Calm Down Mother, inspired by her Open Theatre Workshops. That summer, on a month's Rockefeller Foundation Grant at the Office for Advanced Drama Research in Minneapolis, she revised this as well as an earlier, full-length drama, Hothouse, and another one-act play, Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills, written when she first arrived in New York. In that one month of Minneapolis heat, she also wrote another one-act play, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place. The three one-act plays became part of the Open Theatre's repertory and were first performed by the company in 1965 at the Sheridan Square Playhouse which the company rented for public performances.

Hothouse is unmistakably drawn from an earlier period of Terry's life and work (although it was not actually produced until 1974, by which time it seemed outdated to some reviewers). Set in a fishing village near Seattle in 1955, it is the only one of her plays that could be called a conventional, realistic drama. In contrast to most well-made modern plays, however, the central characters are women, and the world of the play is distinctively female. Three generations of women from one family inhabit a small house in which an uncountable number of houseplants seem to have taken over the living space. Ma, the grandmother of the group, is a spirited, not-so-old lady, who has ‘started again'—with men, booze and life itself—so many times that she's lost count. Her daughter Roz spends much of her time drinking, swearing and making love to one man or another. Jody, Roz's daughter, is caught between the invigorating but crazy life of her female family and the naïve passion of her university-student lover, David. Each of the women has and wants her man, and much of the play revolves around the pending divorce of Roz and Jack, Jody's here-again, gone-again father.

Much like Shelagh Delaney's Lion in Love, Terry's Hothouse, while realistic in its detail and dialogue, relies little on narrative development, and instead builds a distinctively female environment. The experience of watching either of these plays has more in common with that of listening to a jazz trio than with witnessing Ibsenesque modern drama. Already in Hothouse, Terry's extraordinary ability to make every word a gesture is apparent. Hers is not the skill (or inclination) of the eighteenth-century playwrights who strove to differentiate characters through language; rather, more like Samuel Beckett than any other notable predecessor or contemporary, Terry's words function on stage as physical actions, as mediations that gradually change the people who speak and the relations between them.

Hothouse reveals a political coherence between the assertiveness of the language and the speaking voice. Terry's women defy expectations of ways women talk, especially to each other. Jody, Roz and Ma are acerbic, witty and candid; they make us laugh as few female stage characters do. But they have not simply been allowed access to the male domain of verbal aggression. The lines these women speak express thoughts inseparable from feelings; these are intelligent people whose perspicacity reveals rather than conceals caring. When, at the end of the play, Roz gazes down at Jody who has crumpled into an exhausted sleep, she claims both her connection to and her separation from her daughter:

Roz: My glass is empty. Who's the bartender around here? … Don't be mad at me, Jody? Jody? I love you more than anything in the world. You hear that? You never have to do without love, Angel. … You were so little. Look at you now. Tall and pretty. As tall as your old lady. And a hell of a lot smarter. A hell of a lot.

Hothouse none the less has as much in common with the predecessors of feminist drama as it does with Terry's subsequent work and the other plays that come to define contemporary feminist drama. Like almost all of Western drama, the strategy of Hothouse pivots around a covenant of expectation between audience and characters: the implicit promise is that at some point, usually near the end of the play, a recognition scene will occur in which a character reveals herself or himself in some new way to us and to another in the world framed on stage. In this process of revelation, both the character and the spectator learn something new about who each is. In the classic example, Oedipus endures a series of such recognitions and revelations, discovering step by step who he is and, in our witnessing of these illuminations, we assumedly discover something of who we are. The revelation of erotic attraction in Hellman's The Children's Hour functions strategically in an almost identical way.

The structure of Hothouse sustains this basic pattern. Both Jody and Roz are caught in elemental confusions about their own identities. Jody seeks self-definition through David's love for her, but finally discovers that she ‘can't live off feelings of other people'; to find herself, she must acknowledge both her separateness and her ties to the women who have reared her. Roz, in turn, must acknowledge her identity as a mother, and must reveal her love for her daughter. That she initially does so half-drunk, with Jody asleep, is a resistance to the recognition scene and a source of partial frustration for the audience. But a moment later, as the play ends, the traditional convention is completed: Jody awakes in her mother's arms, returns Roz's embrace and welcomes the outside world to participate:

‘Come in Bugs … Come in Flies.'

Such recognition scenes at once assert and resist change. In the terms of ancient Greece, it is through such moments that one comes to ‘know thyself'. This, of course, implies that there is some primary, core ‘self' in each human being, and that the process of becoming a better person is one of shedding delusions and defences, of making the hidden seen. Within such a framework, progress is ironically a movement backwards in history, a matter of retrieval and purification, and, finally and essentially, a matter not of transformation of the self but of acceptance. It is the individual will that makes recognitions possible; context and relationships with others may inhibit or inspire the process but are secondary agents.

If one's goal as a playwright is to inspire radical alterations in human actions, then the 2500-year-old dramaturgical fixation on the recognition scene might well be viewed as a prison. The 1960s were a time when a major shift in the structure of drama became possible. But possibility is not the same as necessity, and for many male playwrights there was no compulsion to reject the old forms. (There are, of course, exceptions, like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.) For women, or at least for women who saw that self-awareness and self-discovery were only first steps towards change, it was crucial that a new way be found. A theatre that genuinely included women had to take as a central convention, the overt display of people becoming other.

In this context, the work that Megan Terry produced in the mid-sixties was genuinely experimental, a struggle and testing of a whole new way of doing theatre. In the plays that follow Hothouse recognition scenes vanish, and in their place appear series of transformations. Instead of characters gradually and painfully discovering their true selves, actors take on one role only to discard that role in front of the audience for another. What was always true of theatre—that the human being could in this arena transcend her or himself—now became not just an unquestioned aesthetic principle but a manifestation of political and aesthetic struggle.

Within a short period of time in the mid-sixties, Terry produced half a dozen plays in this new transformational mode. The one-act Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills reveals its earlier roots and suggests the transition between the more conventional strategy employed in Hothouse and the transformational structure that would inform all of Terry's subsequent work. In Ex-Miss Copper Queen three marginal women meet on the street somewhere on the Lower East Side in New York City. The character known only as ‘Copper Queen' is an embodiment of a dramatic transformation: as she lies half-drunk, half-drugged on a front step at the beginning of the play, we see both the naïve beauty queen that she was ten years before and the bedraggled streetwalker she has become at twenty-six. As Copper Queen sips her wine and talks to the pavement—half-succeeding in animating it—two old women, B.A. and Crissie, appear. B.A., the more assertive of the two, wears three wigs, each a different colour and suggestive of a different age; each woman wears a rubber glove on one hand; Crissie wears a white lace glove on her other hand. The two women are scavengers. They salvage items of value from the garbage of the city streets, placing the retrieved items in an ancient but polished pram. Like Copper Queen, their appearances are perplexing and defiant of categorisation.

During the brief encounter of these three women, Copper Queen tells her story of decline from riches to rags, from innocence to brutal experience. Her success in a beauty contest in Butte, Montana, had transported her to New York, where she lost a second contest and became pregnant. Helpless, she yielded to her parents' plan that they rear the child as their own, while she stayed as far away as possible. The tale is of a transformation, but in this play, the alteration of character remains within the familiar mode of narration of past events. We do, however, witness a hint of a destructive form of transformation in the ironic tranquillity that emerges from Copper Queen as her various pills take effect.

As in Hothouse, it is not so much what happens, but the nature of the bond established among the women that is important in this play. Each of the women is elusive, unfixed in any history or type. What connects each to the others and to us is their fierce determination to work and their pride in their own endurance. Within this very limited and particular group, collecting garbage and whoring are legitimate. Just as the pram is transformed from a traditional sentimental object to an efficient work tool, so work itself and its relation to women is at least redefined.

Terry's next three plays move more completely into the transformational mode. Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place begins with an archetypical transformation in which the three male actors combine to become a machine. Consistent with Viola Spolin's urgings that change be developmental, the actors make a transition from the machine image to prisoners in a cell by moving in ‘a military manner' to their bunks. During the one hour in which we witness these three men in their jail cell, we learn that all three have been convicted of murder of the wife of one of the men. In her production notes, Terry makes clear that the script is deliberately ambiguous as to whether a murder has been committed and if so, who is responsible for it. In contrast to some dramatic works, however, where ambiguity is intended as a device to challenge the audience, Terry's intention was at least as much to create a challenge to the players and directors ‘to decide what matters to you'. The script stands as a score for actors who must, in Terry's words, ‘come to understand that they are connected with one another by muscle, blood vessels, nervous structure—impulses felt by one member may be enacted by another'. In the final sequence of the play the three men lock arms facing outwards in a circle and turn like a machine wheel chanting ‘And roller and roller and roller, And rocker and rocker and rocker.' This image captures the interdependence as well as the constraints of the prison these men inhabit.

Calm Down Mother, written during this same period and often hailed as the first truly feminist American drama, embraces the transformational form even more persistently than does Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, but it is also an obvious complement to the latter work. Calm Down Mother calls for three women players, who are named in the cast of characters simply as ‘Woman One', ‘Woman Two' and ‘Woman Three'. As in Keep Tightly Closed Terry has here moved into a theatrical style that unhesitatingly focuses on the actors; in the manner of the ‘poor theatre' heralded by Jerzy Grotowski, the play is set on a bare stage, with the only props being four straight chairs. As the lights come up on the three women ‘clustered together to suggest a plant form', we hear a taped speech in the voice of an amused gentlewoman describing the evolution of three one-celled creatures from passive life in the sea to rooting on the land.

At the close of this speech, one of the women breaks from the group structure, walks towards the audience and identifies herself as Margaret Fuller. The abrupt transition, different from the more flowing transformations that characterise other experimental work in the sixties, is the first appearance of Terry's own distinctive signature. The woman's brief speech also contains a quotation from Fuller that identifies Terry's own hope for women in this and other plays. ‘I'm Margaret Fuller,' Woman One begins. ‘I know I am because from the time I could speak and go alone, my father addressed me not as a plaything, but as a lively mind.'

For most women, however, it is difficult to know oneself as a ‘living mind', and the montage of scenes that follow in Calm Down Mother catches moments in that struggle for a variety of women characters. Structurally, each of the scenes is similar in its triangulation of interaction among three women and in a common tension between generation, between mothers and daughters, symbolic or literal. In one early scene, two older women, sisters who run a Brooklyn delicatessen, become nostalgic when a young female customer enters whose hair reminds them of their own youth and their mother. In another scene, one woman lies still on the floor while her two daughters meet in a distant city and acknowledge their mother's impending death from bone cancer. This crisis allows the ‘strong' sister to reveal her own vulnerability.

While Terry centres on mother-daughter relationships, she does not sentimentalise them. In the penultimate scene of the play, two sisters fight about the morality of contraception, and their mother, after attempting to stop their argument, rejects the daughter who advocates the pill. ‘You're no daughter of mine,' Ma cries, ‘Pack your things.' That line resonates through the final scene in which all three actresses paradoxically declare their self-sufficiency and their identification with reproduction: ‘The eggies in our beggies [sic] are enough … Are enough … Are enough.'

This last scene serves as an ironic counterpart to Margaret Fuller's assertion of the struggles to be a ‘living mind', and also unites the varied transformational devices used to move one scene into another. Some of these transformations, links between sets of characters and contexts, are abrupt freezes in which the end of one scene is held, then released into a new context. Most of the transformations exploit a gesture or emotional beat to allow the passage of the actresses from one role to another. At the end of a nursing-home scene, the two patients, already objectified by their context, become mechanical subway doors, through which the third woman, the nurse in the previous scene, tries to pass. During the movement pattern, the women chant ‘Please keep your hands off the doors.' What makes this transformation effective is that it picks up on one motif from the previous scene—the mechanisation of the lives of these women patients—and then creates a context in which a motif of the next scene about three prostitutes is ironically announced in ‘keep your hands off'. By the end of the play, Terry has brought the audience to accept persistent change in the bodies, voices and roles of each actress. The image of three women, smiling sweetly at us while they touch their bellies, breasts and sides and chant ‘Our bodies, our bellies … our funnies … our eggies' seems perfectly right.

Terry employs a number of similar devices in Comings and Goings, a play that like Calm Down Mother, was and remains central to feminist drama. Although many of the roles in Comings and Goings can be played by two women or two men, this play's tension emerges from pairings of many kinds and focuses particularly on male-female relationships. Class is not explicitly an issue here, but power and its relationship to gender roles are key issues to the conflicts that occur repeatedly in the play.

The opening scenes in Comings and Goings attune the spectator to the language-based transformations of this play. Like many of Terry's dramas, this one unveils the rituals that structure and inform our daily lives. The context of the opening of Comings and Goings is the awakening of a couple to a new day. The key lines exchanged between the two are ‘Time to get up', and ‘In a minute'. Stage directions suggest that this scene be repeated a number of times with the actors reversing roles and lines. In performance, actors stress the different meanings and infinite variety of interactions possible by varying modes of deliverance. ‘Time to get up' can be spoken cheerfully, reluctantly or commandingly, and ‘in a minute' can be a refusal, an acceptance or even a seductive invitation to return to bed.

The elemental frame for this opening scene sets up the performance strategy of displacement that structures Comings and Goings. Stage directions urge repetition of some scenes, and require that the entire company be prepared to play any role at any time. As many devices have been used to accomplish this as there have been performances. Some companies have labelled performers with numbers or names and put those labels in a hat to be randomly drawn by members of the audience. Other companies have used an onstage stage manager to decide the moments when one performer will replace another and/or to decide who replaces whom. In some productions an arrow on a wheel has been spun by members of the company and/or members of the audience. Whichever device is used to provoke change, transformations occur both within and between scenes. Describing this outside of the context of a performance might lead to the conclusion that Comings and Goings is fragmented and disruptive in production. In fact, however, with any well-rehearsed company the continual exchange of actors, while emphasising the concept of improvisation within a frame, is accomplished very fluidly.

Comings and Goings is strikingly successful in performance precisely because its theme and its form are inseparable. It is a play about role definitions and role change which relies on theatrical role transformations to move the play forward. Each of the mini-scenes presents a moment of encounter between two people, in which the tension of change, of coming and going, is central. Individual control over the scene is a crucial issue of content as well as of performance. In one segment towards the middle of the play, for example, a waitress and customer enact a common ritual of ordering food; by the repetition and variation of interpretation, at times the waitress appears to be the servant to the customer, whereas in other presentations the customer is at the mercy of the waitress.

In addition to calling attention to improvisation, ritual and role-playing as basic elements of theatre, Comings and Goings stresses the particular relationship of social roles to gender roles. In most of the scenes a predictable male-female relationship sets the frame but awaits violation or criticism. The restaurant scene, for example, illuminates gender roles by alternating control between the waitress and the customer; differences in inflection as well as reversal of the source of identical lines of dialogue make the waitress either servant or expert. As male and female performers replace each other within scenes, it becomes impossible to dismiss unequal power relations between men and women as ‘merely' a matter of individual greed or condescension. We come to see that it is the roles we have defined for men and women that determine domination.

Again paradoxically, Comings and Goings is not simply a condemnation of social and gender roles in contemporary society. Indeed, the experience of the play for both performers and audience is constantly joyous. While the scenes portray a world in which human beings are persistently alienated from each other, unable to acknowledge each other's needs and desires, the uncertainty for any performer of when she or he will be on and each's responsibility for every role demonstrates an ensemble process in which each member is dependent on the other in a positive and constructive manner. The performance transcends the world portrayed and makes the mode of playing appealing to the spectator.

A similar juxtaposition of sharp political criticism with intoxicating energy in performance characterised productions of Viet Rock, the play that brought Terry fully to public attention. Written in 1966 in conjunction with her Saturday Workshop at the Open Theatre, Viet Rock was one of the first plays to confront the war in Vietnam and the first rock musical ever written. First performed on 25 May 1966 by members of the Open Theatre at Café La Mama the importance of the play was at first blurred by the more successful opening during the same season of another Open Theatre production, Jean Claude van Italie's American Hurrah. It was not, in fact, until after Viet Rock received high praise on European tours that it received respectful attention in the United States.

Viet Rock is a difficult play—both to perform and to witness—but it gradually overcame its initially negative response and lingered on in numerous productions, in the growing antiwar consciousness of many Americans, and in its dramaturgical effects on contemporary theatre. Subtitled ‘A Folk War Movie', it fulfils that title both in its obvious satire of scenes from war movies and its evocation of known and newly created American rituals. The opening circle, in which actors gradually rise from prone positions like spokes of a wheel, bounce, then fling themselves around the stage floor, typifies the explosive conjoining of lyrical and satirical attitudes that permeates the play. The human circle is accompanied first by a male voice singing the lyrics of the play's theme-song ‘Viet Rock' and then by a taped voice that begins ‘Things could be different. Nobody wins. We could be teams of losers.'

Following the opening circle of Viet Rock is an ‘instant transformation' of the kind Terry employed in Calm Down Mother and Comings and Goings: male actors become baby boys and female actors become mothers who then ‘lovingly' undress the males down to their underclothes. Subsequent scenes relentlessly survey the variety of contexts that comprised the Vietnam war for Americans. We see army physicals, soldiers departing for Vietnam confronted by antiwar protesters, women burning in the final stages of death, soldiers parachuting into Vietnam and arriving mistakenly in ‘Love's quicksand' in Shangri-La. The long central scene is set ‘back home' at a US Senate hearing of the war that ends Act I with the ironic singing of ‘America the Beautiful'.

Act II begins with the oral presentation of letters ‘sent' between soldiers and the mothers back home. It then cuts, in Brechtian fashion, back to the American soldiers in Vietnam; male actors play the Americans, while female actors play South Vietnamese soldiers. At the end of the play, we are returned to an explosion and a circle, but this time the circle is tangled, ‘the reverse of the beautiful circle of the opening image', and there is no sound but a ‘deathly silence'.

Terry criticises war and the values that are a context for it. She misses no chance to note the sexism of the military: the Sergeant demeans his men deliberately by calling them ‘girlies', the interchangeability of the weak is designated clearly by the casting of women as Vietnamese soldiers, and ‘Mom' is perceived by the men as a correlative for sentiment. Because these gestures remind us that female attributes are commonly used derogatorily, they suggest a particularly feminist perspective.

Equally pertinent to the development of a feminist dramaturgy is the insistent sounding of song in this play. For Terry, as was the case for Bertolt Brecht, music renews the possibility of a poetic theatre, a theatre that at once engages and ‘alienates' the audience. Here, and in some of her other plays, songs perform two apparently antithetical tasks: they transcend ordinary discourse through melody and metaphor while providing a frame in which the harshest sort of criticism can occur. Music intoxicates. It is capable of transforming not the actors but the audience. When that possibility is exploited as Terry and subsequent feminist dramatists rediscovered, it can be conjoined with words that lead us in our ‘transformed' state to think differently about the world. It is thus difficult to refrain from singing ‘America the Beautiful' at the end of Act I of Viet Rock, but as we do so, it is equally hard to avoid recognition of the lie this war gave to that song.

The tension and public attention provoked by the productions of Viet Rock and America Hurrah led to significant changes in the Open Theatre's structure. The company abolished its assortment of workshops and, with the help of a Ford Foundation Grant, decided to focus all its work on one collaborative effort under Chaikin's direction. With this change of direction, Megan Terry gradually moved out on her own, writing, with increasingly precise language, dramas that unabashedly questioned the American dream and its corruption in the hands of the greedy and mendacious. The domineering male power structure loomed large in Terry's The People vs. Ranchman and Massachusetts Trust, and women who were just beginning to address their position in American society welcomed these plays.

One of her most intriguing scripts from the late sixties was a television drama, Home, produced in 1968 by public television. The play envisions a futuristic world in which overpopulation has created small, isolated, dense communities that live in tiny cubicles from birth to death. All groups are overseen by an external controlling power that regulates everything from food to reproduction. A rare instance of a drama fully conceived for video, Home's environment is its source of power and conflict. For the television production, fold-up beds were installed in walls, and one wall contained a large, circular television screen surrounded by cameras. Television and control were thus the medium and the message.

This apparent divergence from Terry's theatrical work retains many elements of her previous dramaturgy. While the characters remain constant throughout the ninety-minute production, the day is ritualistically divided into segments, and when Central Control commands, new activities are instantly initiated. Women dominate the internal space, both in number (of the nine onstage characters, five are female) and in the urgency of their presence. But power ultimately resides in the male voice of Central Control, and the ‘intruder' who eventually penetrates the cubicle is a man. The play ends in a rock song, reminiscent of the final songs of both Viet Rock and Comings and Goings.

Terry's next leap as a playwright came in 1969-70 with the creation of the Obie-award winning drama Approaching Simone. The Simone of the title is Simone Weil, the French writer and martyr who starved herself to death in 1943 at the age of 34. Terry had been intrigued by Weil since she first came to know of her in the fifties. Her goal in writing the play, Terry told one Interviewer, was to place Simone's heroic spirit, her enormous will, in front of other women: ‘Then people will say, “My God, it is possible; women are free to do this and can.”'

This focus on one complex, transcendent woman is unique among Terry's works, but the playwright's signature remains vivid in the deployment of the rest of the cast, an ensemble who repeatedly transform into characters from Simone's life and externalisations of Simone's pleasures and pain. Terry's architectural, episodic style lends itself well to a biographical drama, in which the epiphanic as well as the ordinary moments of Simone's life and death are equally embraced. Some of Weil's power lay in her own words and the poetry she loved, both of which Terry caresses in the play, but equally remarkable are the visual metaphors that evoke Simone's construction and destruction of herself. A familiar theatre exercise in which the entire company lifts one member takes on particular force in Act II when the entire cast suddenly appears to raise and caress Simone's body, which is wracked with both physical and spiritual agony. Each actor in the company removes and puts on a piece of Simone's clothing, in a haunting attempt to take on her pain. But no one can remove Simone's pain, and in the end the ensemble vanishes. Simone is left in a pinpoint of light that slowly, slowly fades to black.

Few theatrical images of the last twenty years have been as compelling as this last moment of Approaching Simone, and, for the first time, critics were fully appreciative of Terry's success. Instead of exploiting this success to turn to commercial theatre, however, Terry joined with five other women playwrights in 1972 to form the Women's Theater Council. This group, which included Fornes, Drexler, Bovasso, Kennedy and Owens as well as Terry, came together to demonstrate the existence of feminist drama and to support each other as well as other playwrights in achieving productions of plays that arose from women's visions. As a formal body, the Council was short lived, but it did serve to establish a network that has continued into the 1980s.

For Terry, the establishment of the Women's Theater Council and its successor, the Theater Strategy Group, did not suffice as an environment in which to pursue her own commitments to an experimental, community-based theatre in which women could thrive. In 1968, one of Terry's colleagues from the Open Theatre, Jo Ann Schmidman, had returned to her native Omaha, Nebraska, where she had established a new more central, storefront theatre, the Omaha Magic Theatre (OMT). The goal of the theatre was to effect social change: ‘We want to have an impact on the community of Omaha, Nebraska. We believe that change is possible here. There's responsiveness.' Terry visited the OMT in 1970, and thus began a lasting association with the company. By 1974, while productions of her plays were blossoming throughout the country, she had moved her resident to Omaha, where she has remained ever since as resident playwright.

An early aim of the OMT according to Terry and Schmidman was ‘to crash some barriers for women'. But at first, the company, which was and remains open to anyone who wants to participate, attracted mostly male actors, writers and musicians. Then in 1974, following Terry's move to Omaha and perhaps because of the increasing force of the women's movement, the desired feminist orientation of the theatre began to be realised and OMT was able to focus on plays about women by women.

The play that served as one catalyst for this change was Terry's Babes in the Bighouse, one of the first big successes of the OMT and one of Terry's most provocative dramas. Set in a woman's prison, Babes is a ‘documentary musical fantasy' that interweaves clichéd public notions of life in a women's prison with documentary material drawn from prison interviews and visits. Songs and stories reveal the internal lives of the inmates. When the OMT performs the play, the audience is seated on at least two sides of the playing area; for the original production, audience members entered the theatre and were immediately confronted by brightly-coloured metal scaffolding arranged in two tiers to represent double-decker prison cells. The actors, who repeatedly transform from inmates to guards and matrons, address many of their speeches directly to the audience, and often more than one activity and discourse occur simultaneously. Despite moments of comic relief and the characteristic inclusion of song and dance, for the audience the experience of Babes in the Bighouse is undeniably troubling.

Throughout this play the prison world strains towards the audience, threatening yet reminding us that we are on the outside. The inmates first present themselves in a grotesque version of our projections of ‘bad women': costumes for the opening utilise a wild mixture of corsets, feathers, long gloves, leather, spike heels and heavy make-up. The performers replace these costumes with simple housedresses and colourful band uniform jackets for most of the play, but the ambience of hostility of many kinds is sustained by the starkness and vulgarity of the language and the raw physical violence that repeatedly flashes or hints its presence. There is no comfort for the audience in the stripping of new inmates or the fight between two characters named El Toro and Jockey over the attentions of another prisoner. It is crucial, however, to Babes'; intentions, that the most aggressive and distressing actions of the production are not predictable prison behaviours but are the stories the women tell us of their past and present anguish.

With Babes in the Bighouse, Terry's development of a distinctive feminist dramaturgy achieves a new force and cohesion. In a gesture similar to one Caryl Churchill would make in Britain a few years later, Terry and Schmidman cast men as well as women in the roles of the female prisoners and matrons, and by their own account this led the entire company to a more rigorous study of ‘women's speech patterns, their physical and emotional behaviors and just how it is to be a woman.' Here, as with Churchill's Cloud Nine, there is no campiness or hidden grin in the performance of female roles by men; rather, we quickly accept from the all-female context of the women's prison that our perceptions of gender are based on social roles, gestures and styles.

Transformations also take on a more precise and fluid form in this play. According to the stage directions, the dominant dramatic image for Babes is ‘How the Women Walk'. As spectators, we experience the walks of the performers as a continuous chord that permeates each scene. The walks serve as the occasion for transformations of one character to another, and they visually express the condition of being a woman ‘in prison'. Changes in characters are facilitated and underlined by the physical rhythm of the walking movement itself.

Four years after writing Babes in the Bighouse, during which time she had written and helped produce another six plays for the OMT, Terry turned her attention to another kind of prison for women, the more pervasive confinement of the English language. Entitled American King's English for Queens, this ‘musical in two acts' reveals the many sides of sexism in the uses and abuses of American English by a ‘typical' American family. In the first act, we see the Connell family at home in their ordinary, daily rituals. The second act sharpens the focus and suggests new possibilities for a language of cooperation and genuine communication through the invasion of the family by Silver Morgan, a seventeen-year-old feral child.

The first hint we are given of the play's direction is a wonderfully funny yet tense scene in which Mom Connell insists, carelessly, on referring to a rabbit as ‘he'. Jaimie, her young daughter, is confused and frustrated by the pronoun, because her mother's consistent reference to the rabbit as male contradicts her understanding that rabbits have lots of babies. Her mother never comes to appreciate the source of her daughter's distress, and Jaimie can only escape her confusion by asking ‘If all the rabbits are boys, are all the cats girls?'

The most irritating character in the play is Dad who sets the drama's tones and tensions by his constant admonitions that his family must speak ‘proper' English. For Dad, ‘proper' means the absence of slang and the use of correct grammar, but he fails to see that within those rules language users make continuous decisions that shape the world in sexist terms. Dad does learn, however, and, by the end of the play, is able to ask ‘Do you think like you talk?' The question is never explored in its philosophical intricacies, but it does lead the audience to agree that although language may initially define our humanness, the ways we use language determine what kinds of human beings we are and can be.

Like many of Terry's most recent plays, American King's English for Queens addresses central feminist issues in terms that are accessible to any spectator. On the page, these concerns sometimes seem simplistically articulated as when Susu, the oldest daughter, explains to her siblings that ‘We'll have to think of a way we can teach her [Silver, the feral girl] to talk without making her feel that being a girl is not as good as being a boy.' But in performance, Terry's controlled use of dramatic conventions creates a more subtle context for the verbal statements. Transformations appear again, this time both to show different aspects of Mom's dreams and to demonstrate the changes in Silver Morgan. And the OMT's discovery of the possibilities of soft sculpture, of sets created out of the traditional female art of quilting, adds a meaningful, striking dimension to the spectator's experience.

American King's English for Queens is indicative of the kind of path that Terry and the OMT have taken in recent years and of one possible route for feminist theatre. This path is characterised by the desire to engage the largest possible community and to do so through lightly comic, colourful, song-filled confrontations with social problems that concern every American family. One of Terry's most recent dramas, Kegger, pursues this route by confronting adolescent drinking; another OMT production, Running Gag, takes a number of light-hearted pokes at the current American obsession with jogging.

Neither of these plays directly addresses the economic and political structures that some feminists find it crucial to confront. For more than twenty years, Megan Terry has illuminated the lives of American women through her drama. Although she is a critic of sexism, violence, materialism and social corruption, her work does not call for a radical social revolution as much as it calls attention to the enormous strength she perceives in women, especially in the ability to will transformations. Hers is explicitly not a Marxist understanding of culture or society; in a distinctly American fashion, she protests inequality and injustice but does not analyse society in terms of class and economic oppression. But by utilising an ever-evolving set of feminist theatrical conventions and by putting in front of an audience a genuinely free ensemble that persistently emphasises the value of collaborative work and of women's work, Terry's dramas do suggest the possibility of transforming the texture if not the structure of everyday life. For Megan Terry, ‘the real news is not that women are down, are victims, but that women are in good health and making it'. And at least in Omaha, Nebraska, feminist drama is in good health and making it, too.

Kathleen Gregory Klein (essay date 1984)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4386

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 language-meaning discourse. But action and reaction also create a context for meaning which either validates or rejects language's implications. Two features are vital to Terry's context for language: the transformations which illuminate the shifting realities purported to have acknowledged meanings; and the songs which redefine the circumstances of the characters and storyline seriously or mockingly. Unlike the absurdists, Terry does not investigate language to devalue it, nor meaning to abandon it, nor action to replace them both. Instead, all of her challenges testify her reluctance to allow the idea of meaninglessness to mask the uses made of language, action, and meaning.

From Martin Esslin's early appraisal of the absurdists to Ronald Hayman's 1979 summary of their efforts, critics, playwrights and directors alike have acknowledged that the last thirty years of drama have been primarily, not only antiart or antitheatre, but also antilanguage.1 They posit the notion that it is impossible to communicate at all, by whatever means attempted; or that language is an unacceptable vehicle for successful communication; or that language communicates what the speaker had not meant; or, at best, that what language can communicate is extremely limited and probably not worth the attempt anyway. The most respected playwrights of our time have leaned toward minimization; some de-emphasize language to convey meaning through action, while others script both language and action in the most limited ways. Beckett's dramatic works quite clearly follow the latter pattern: in Waiting for Godot, language and movement frequently contradict each other, what had come before, or what was clear to the audience; in the later works, bodies are lost in urns or behind curtains, and brief, disconnected phrases (or even sounds and musical notes) replace comprehensible speech. Pinter is committed to the same reconsideration of communication, frequently allowing his characters a torrent of words, often emphasizing silences as strongly as the language which surrounds them: Pinter thinks of “talk” as covering over silence. In Theatre and Anti-Theatre, Hayman examines how, in the same period, three important directors—Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, and Joseph Chaikin—turned away from language-meaning parallels.2 Separately, these directors evolved practices which accommodated their beliefs that language, being culture specific, could not communicate as successfully as movement, more universal. In short, the absurdists and their successors seem to have perceived language (words, sentence structure, constructions) as meaningful to the speaker and the auditor—though seldom, if ever, having the same meaning. What they seem less willing to grant is the meaning accorded to language by social practice. Where this influence is acknowledged by the absurdists, it is used in ironic ways—e.g., greetings and other socially ritualistic exchanges in Godot, Happy Days, The Birthday Party—often recognized by the characters as well as the audience.

In the four full-length musicals named above, Terry admits that a speaker does not always say what she or he means, but does mean what she or he says: something is communicated by language. And in a structured world, socialized auditors recognize general language use as well as irony, clichés, and stereotypes to which they react.3 These responses may have been conditioned by the social climate, and the word choice of the speaker or the verbal response of the listener may not actually correspond with what they believe themselves to be saying, but these factors do not lessen communication. Normal utterances, lacking the precision of poetry's language choice, expand rather than contract the range of communication, especially when joined with action rather than separated from it.

For most speakers and listeners, language (i.e., a word for something) defines, identifies, or places an object so that it can be discussed without consideration of what the word means in any precise way. For example, the female human being may be identified by either of two terms—“woman” or “girl”—which distinguishes one from the other by differences in age; however, ordinary usage does not differentiate them that way, as is obvious when a group of middle-aged women is called “the girls.” In more ordinary use, terms like “lady,” which has overtones relating to behavior, or “gal,” which is both the female equivalent of “guy” and a frequent variant of “girl,” carry their overtones implicitly from speaker to listener. Neither they nor the audience are aware of these meanings, treating them as natural extensions of the terms requiring no explicit acknowledgment.

American King's English for Queens poses a series of questions about language and gender; its form and impact are basically feminist. “What is the difference between boys and girls or women and men?” leads to “What is appropriate behavior for these sex-differentiated people?” and culminates in “What is the social place for girls and boys or men and women?” “English is such an expressive language,” Silver Morgan says in the play's first scene.4 The all-American family, the Connells, have captured her in a snipe hunt from the prairie-dog town where she was raised. The great snipe-hunt fantasy serves here to define the limits of language and its meaning. If there is no such animal as a snipe, as we know, then the Connell children cannot find one; but whatever is captured on a snipe hunt must obviously be a snipe. Played by a woman, Silver looks like a woman; conditioned by her upbringing, she thinks she is a prairie dog; but described as the “only one in captivity” (p. 51) and worth “at least twenty-five thousand, if not a hundred million” (p. 72), she/it must be a snipe. The family response to Silver Morgan arises not from what they see or think, but from what they call her.

This process of eliciting meaning from the words used to talk about something dominates the Connells. The only boy in the family, Doug refuses to play a careers game with his sisters because he might have to be a ballerina or stewardess. When he draws cards for “good personality” or “bad makeup,” he is threatened by the careers his sisters propose: nurse, teacher, or model. The “simple game” becomes a “stupid girl's game” as his rejection of the game becomes a rejection of all girls with whom he associates stupidity and criticism: “Girls are crazy! Girls are crazy! Lazy-crazy!” (p. 29). Doug and his father consistently distinguish the household by gender:

Dad: You women outnumber us five to two. (p. 72)

Doug: But two men against five women? (p. 73)

Yet eleven-year-old Katie proposes that they are “seven human beings” (p. 73), although Doug is not sure: “Are we human beings and men too?” (p. 73). Both men acquiesce slowly and reluctantly to this dual status and the proposed team effort of raising Silver Morgan. Dad's earlier lyrics associating “you sissies, girls and dinks / Couldn't shoot a chink in a holler. …” (p. 45) show how he feels about girls by the ways he names them: they join the apparently prejudice-free term “girls” with the highly charged, pejorative terms “sissy,” “dink,” and “chink,” so that “girl” is no longer a value-neutral term. Because this is true, Dad must teach Doug how to behave like a man:

Now here is the way a man stands.

You must hold yourself like a man. (Doug follows too literally and holds his crotch.)

You protect your sisters.

Men don't cry. If you cry I'll make you wear your sisters' clothes to school. Good … good … You look cool! (pp. 37-39)

Men's behavior is seen as a function of what they are called: Doug is a boy at nine years old, but when called a “man,” he can be one. Crucial to the meaning of “man” is its negative, i.e., not-girl, the ultimate degradation. Not only Doug acknowledges what Dad is teaching him, but Mom and his sisters recognize the same connotations surrounding the terms “man” and “girl,” reacting at one point by inverting them to “boys” and “women.” Simply as a result of this name change, the females feel stronger and more unified while the males feel threatened.

This assignment of meaning occurs in the transformations as words are given visual reality. When Mom sings about her lost life while chopping stew vegetables, she is trapped by a net the full width of the stage:

Somewhere in this murk of me

There really may still lurk a me

Who's free

(Kids drape a net over Mom's head and hold ends like ladies-in-waiting.)

What is she like?

And where did she go

For the last twenty years or so?

(Kids spin Mom in net, beat her with vegetables.) (p. 29)

Trapped in her own stew, Mom gets stuffed with a carrot and tormented with celery. The limits on her life, her imagination, and her opportunities are presented more clearly to the audience than to the characters; their impact is clear and direct. Here, action is meaning.

Babes in the Bighouse, set in a women's prison, uses all the B-movie implications of its title directly and in reverse. Notably, the tension between prisoners and guards is diluted by visitors from the community who are urged to rethink their attitudes about the institution and disregard some of the prisoners' complaints because of so-called changes in the system:

I want to welcome you to our campus. I think some of you may have noticed the new sign just to the right of the front gate: “Women's State Correctional Facility.” The legislature was kind enough to vote us a new name this year and we were able to paint a new sign with the materials left over from repairing our “Adjustment Center.” In the dark ages of penology, there was a place where inmates were confined for punishment, which our charges referred to as “solitary confinement,” or euphemistically, as “the hole.” But since the sociological-anthropo-sensitivity-psychiatric revolution has brought us into this new age of enlightenment—and thus more humane treatment geared toward rehabilitation—what used to be called “the hole” is now a gaily painted place where inmates who may be feeling upset may go to meditate—alone—away from the hubbub of correctional life.5

But the prisoners are not confused by talk; nor are the audience, having already been told by one of the inmates:

They got a hole in here—they call it “The Adjustment Center.” They want everything here to sound like a hospital or a school so you'll think that with a new name somethin's changed around here. No matter how many times they call it a “campus,” this place is still a joint. (I, 1)

Because they understand the rules, the prisoners also recognize how to avoid them. Since reading aloud from a dirty book is forbidden, they mock the regulations by proposing to circumvent them: Jockey offers to “croon a dirty book to you. They couldn't take it away, hey? No, there'd be nothing for 'em to confiscate. Nothing to go against me in my file for the parole board, because it would go right out into the air” (II, 32). This strategy reverses the previous notions of language and meaning whereby saying makes it so; in this case, “saying” goes right out into the air because regulations acknowledge written words as though the obscenity were in either the writing down or the reading rather than the action described. (It is ironic that in this lesbian setting the sexual aggressor in Jockey's dirty book is male and the narrative directly parallels those in Playboy or erotic romances.)

The play consistently stresses the confusion among language, behavior, and meaning which the authority figures and the prisoners manipulate. Language is a weapon in the hands of both. Having just refused a new prisoner's correction of her name in the records from Bessie to Betsy, the Matron calls roll to which each inmate responds: “Mamie Eisenhower … Ida Lupino … Happy Ford … Betty Rockefeller … Tricia Diet-Rite … Amy Carter … Marlena Dexadrine” (II, 2-3). Emphasizing her arrogant stance, a prisoner later turns aside the Matron's entrapping question “When did you stop engaging in homosexual behavior?” with a twist on the question's classic form: “When I stopped beating my husband” (II, 19). As they comprehend the power struggle between themselves, both groups try to hold an advantage through language as well as action.

The operational defining of the term “lady” appears half-a-dozen times in the play. Like its extended form “Christian ladies,” the word is used by the guards to categorize approved behavior they hope to promote. “Ladies,” apparently by definition, do not act smart, do get respect; they do not fight like men, do have their hair curled at a beauty parlor. Viciously the Doctor, who had injected one angry prisoner with a muscle relaxant which affects breathing, identifies the term: “Do you promise you will become a feminine person, demure and self-controlled? To smile whenever you see me walk by? To control your temper and learn to walk like a sexy woman?” (II, 27). In short, a “lady” is exactly what two inmates had previously claimed—“a prostitute.” This emphasis on isolated bits of behavior, while different from the standard, societally accepted definition, nonetheless focuses on the same aspect—behavior which restricts the ways in which women can act. It becomes clear that this redefinition is a feature of the prison authority's lexicon when an inmate, wanting to shower more than once a week, appeals to the “ladylike” nature of her request. She is ignored. Her listeners know exactly what they understand the term to mean; all other definitions, especially by prisoners, can be disregarded.

In this play, transformations illuminate meaning for the audience as the actors become one another, shifting from prisoner to guard to visitor, and being treated by others onstage or behaving themselves according to the parts they play: they become what they are named. No one needs to have the precise natures of the terms “guard” or “prisoner” explained to her; even the audience share the social meanings of these terms automatically. Through the transformations, the actors and audience participate in the apparently different but essentially limited roles available to women in the Bighouse. Because no fixed identity is attached to any actor or character, the woman becomes the women. Their survival and satisfaction are group functions; each relies implicitly and explicitly on the others; each knows that she can rely on the others' recognition of her identity and its meaning.

Transformations like those of Babes and the split-stage presentation of Brazil Fado elaborate more clearly than specific language the meaning of the latter work. Two scenes play simultaneously: one, in an American bedroom, is a bizarre sex scene with sadomasochistic components juxtaposed against the second, in a Brazilian TV station, with news reporters broadcasting information about political repression in Brazil. The dramatic irony resulting from the audience's simultaneous awareness of both and the effect of secondary dialogue provide meaning as a counterpoint to language. While armed Brazilian police brutally beat a local family on one stage, the American couple, Danielle and Barton, move toward sexual orgasm as he whips her with the head of a mop and tantalizes her with a rubber shower attachment on the other stage. Abruptly, she insists, “It's gross.”6 She is referring neither to the torture nor to the sexual activity, however, but to her unbreakable habit of chewing on her lips. The contrast between the lovers' routine and the reports of torture unrealistically sung in a Carmen Miranda style makes both appear ludicrous and serious.

The “newscasters” are continually transformed into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing a tango, the stereotyped Latin spitfire Carmen Miranda, the Bride of Frankenstein, brutal police, cowed peasants, corporate spokespersons, tortured prisoners, pornography salespersons, guerrillas, or government officials. With as few as four actors playing all these roles, the frequency of the transformations keeps the audience from settling into any familiar pattern of expectation. This unpredictability adds to the impact of the statements made by the various characters; they are simultaneously more and less shocking and believable. The transformations also give the newscasters opportunity to overuse the jargon of each group (identified by language choices, clothing, and behavior). The Finance Minister rationalizes in governmentalese:

The use of torture is very prejudicial to our world-wide economic progress and the improvement of our financial system. … We believe that economic expansion will solve our internal social problems, but to bring this about, we still need three or four years of social stability at home. (p. 16)

The educational jargon is equally contrived:

This statement I want to share with you children, comes from a primary resource group of what are known in the adult world as “political prisoners.” (p. 17)

The business world, smothered in style rather than interested in content, is similarly structured:

(Warm Announcer Approach) This is the only time the sponsors will interrupt this program about the terrible things going on in Brazil. We feel it's more important for you the public to be aware of the terrible tortures going on in Brazil than to be interrupted all the time by commercial messages. We'll keep our message short as a riding crop, tight as a bit in your teeth. (pp. 20-21)

The advertisement which follows, juxtaposed with Barton and Danielle's continued sexual activity, is for “Obedience, an S and M extravaganza. … Humiliation, spanking, bondage, only fifty dollars for a six-month trial offer” (p. 21). The melodies used to sing reports of death and torture are light and upbeat, contradicting the words used; the groups' jargon and clichés are persistently used. “Newscasters … march upstage left on hands and feet, bellies up, like ants and sing”:

They'll never call me Nero
(March in Place) In my country's
uniform.
(March Left) When I turn the thumbscrew
I do so as a hero. (p. 31)

When one newscaster challenges another about their reports, she is told: “If I listened to what I read, I might respond, and if I responded I would get angry, and then I would get depressed that I couldn't do anything about it, and then I would get exhausted, and face would get puffy. I would look terrible on camera. I would lose my job” (p. 30). If people do think as they talk rather than the reverse, as proposed in American King's English for Queens, then the newscasters seem to be clinging to jargon and scoobedo to keep from acknowledging the meaning of what they are saying.

The power of language is clearly recognized by this repressive dictatorship; censorship is one of its primary aims. Reports of seized letters being written to the Free World by political prisoners are themselves cut off. Censored newspapers are filling their blank columns with poetry. “Thus all Brazilians enjoy classical culture with … what's left of the news … I mean what's right with the news … rather, the news that's fit to … still be in print” (p. 10), according to a news announcer transformed to a terrorist with a paper bag over his head. Despite all this, the barrage of information directed at the audience through language and movement, delivered by a rapidly transforming cast, is unmistakable and obvious in its meaning.

Terry clearly recognizes the role of television in contemporary life and the fascination of Americans' response. As a molder of ideas and reactions, an influence on attitudes, it outdistances all other media. Its pronouncements, entertainment, and very existence are accepted with seriousness. The earliest of these four plays, Tommy Allen Show, is a superb parody of every TV talk show ever produced in America. There are four Tommy Allens (one woman, two men, and two people in a horse costume), multiple announcers, guests named Mrs. Assbite and Child Molester, and commercials for Avon's “Pussy Off,” the Trinity, and the High Heaven Heroin Company. Its plug is aimed at a growing audience:

And for the kids, try our Johnny Junkie Kit, with a complete set of toy works, black jack, rubber tube, monogrammed spoon, and a little pink pail to throw up in. … Ages three to six. For the girls, needles and heroin bags for Barbie and Ken, and a little prostitute outfit for Barbie when she has to support Ken's habit, and a drag costume for Ken when Barbie is too sick to stroll. Remember, buy your junk only from authorized dealers of the High Heaven Heroin Company.7

Nothing escapes commercialization and the hard sell. To “quit,” “sleep more,” or “dream/escape,” Tommy Allen 1 fantasizes aloud as a “commercial for his dreams” plays in the movie area of the studio, showing him in a nightshirt, using stylized gestures, running through a forest, between trees, and into a lake. His fantasy is making love, gathering plastic bottles from the beach, learning to take out the garbage, and finally, smiling angelically while he is beaten by police with billy clubs. Announcer 3, who cannot believe Tommy 1 would want to escape “(pointing to the audience) All this,” tries to interrupt the dream fantasy by calling his name; he is helped by Tommy 2's question: “What's the best way to get the crud out of your belly button?” Interrupting his dream program, Tommy 1 delivers the answer in his “best commercial selling voice,” concluding with the standard plea: “Don't go away folks, we'll be right back.” As the fantasy ends—“Hello, folks, we're back”—Tommy 1's dream is reduced from whatever meaning it might have had for him or others to a device filled with nonsequential, unrelated attention-grabbing statements designed to elicit an immediate, if empty, sense of identification or response from the audience both in the studio and at home (p. 44). Parodying the American dream fantasy, the Show demonstrates how easily images and language manipulate the listeners.

The Show suggests that people are often dragged along by the force and flow of words rather than using language thoughtfully, that language and meaning can exist in the public sphere as though unassociated with their speakers or creators. The television commercials, selling either “good” or “evil,” have this kind of independent life, even as “real” TV commercials tout the typical and normal American family as consisting of male and female parents with two or three children (some of each sex) while statistics demonstrate that fewer than ten percent of American families fit this norm: the autonomous meaning of TV advertising's words and actions convinces ninety percent of the population that it is unusual. The ubiquitous “informed source,” “unnamed spokesperson,” or “highly placed official” of contemporary news releases is a speaker similarly separated from the language and meaning attributed to her or him.

Tommy 3, who first sings in imitation of Streisand, Dietrich, and Garland, and plays with her microphone like Tina Turner, begins her monologue by acknowledging the relationship between thinking and speaking. When she meets people, her conversation switches to certain automatic responses; she talks but does not think. This habit has led her to more than the boredom she admits; she has apparently forgotten how to think. Because the social exchanges of “how was your day?, how was school?, etc.” (p. 45) fit so many situations, she has been able to convey greeting, interest, concern or friendship to a listener as conditioned by language conventions as she. When Tommy 3 tries to explain how she began to think and to notice what was around her, she is interrupted by the TV laugh track at points which make a potentially serious comment merely laughable. Hearing the laugh track, the audience are supposed to assume that her monologue—like its standard late-night model—is an extended joke. Whether they see the humor or not, they laugh: no one wants to be singled out as the one who missed the punch line when laughter indicates apparent understanding of the apparent joke.

Television's lunacy is easily parodied; it is separate from life's, yet reflects it while claiming to represent it. These three positions of outside, reverse, and duplicate are often mistaken for the thing which is rather than the thing which is as it is. So too with language. Obviously, words do not exist in a vacuum; they have a societal status, are rarely idiosyncratic for speaker or listener, and often mean what the speaker would not acknowledge having said. Both spoken and heard, of course, they have the capacity to influence those who use them. Communication, however defined, is achieved through language as well as through action; people mean what they say, even when they do not realize it. Language with its various auras influences individual and societal behavior. As Terry's musicals insist, it is never without meaning or power.

Notes

  1. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, rev. ed. (Woodstock, N.Y., 1973).

  2. Ronald Hayman, Theatre and Anti-Theatre: New Movements Since Beckett (New York, 1979).

  3. See such extensions of the Whorf-Sapir position as Anthony Wootton, Dilemmas of Discourse (New York, 1976), an examination of sociological interpretations of language; or M.A.K. Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic (Baltimore, 1978), on the social interpretation of language and meaning.

  4. Megan Terry, American King's English for Queens (Omaha, c. 1978), p. 3; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. Megan Terry, Babes in the Bighouse (Omaha, c. 1984), Act I, pp. 4-5; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  6. Megan Terry, Brazil Fado (Omaha, c. 1978), p. 9; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  7. Megan Terry, The Tommy Allen Show, in Scripts, 2 (December 1971), 37-61, passage from 41; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

June Schlueter (essay date 1987)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4366

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.

(Chaikin 13)

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 institutionalizing that assumption. As a consequence, Chaikin points out, “Each element of the societal [or theatrical] disguise, the acceptable image, can be assessed on an almost absolute and exploitative scale of values: ‘It is better to be Caucasian’; ‘it is better to be heterosexual and male’; ‘it is better to be rich’; ‘it is better to be Protestant’” (12-14).

Megan Terry's early transformation plays—Eat at Joe's, Calm Down Mother, Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, Comings and Goings, and Viet Rock—represent a further response of the Open to the “setup.” Abjuring the rigidity of appointed and anointed roles, the Open made transformational drama a staple of its early repertory, creating theatrical exercises and plays in which actors shifted freely and suddenly from one character, situation, time, or objective to another. As Terry's colleague Peter Feldman put it, “Whatever realities are established at the beginning are destroyed after a few minutes and replaced by others. Then these are in turn destroyed and replaced” (201). From the perspective of two decades of subsequent theatre, it should now be clear that Terry's work with transformation challenged more than the individual actor seeking versatility and range. In freeing the actor from the prescriptiveness of the assigned role, transformational drama challenged the prevailing character of realistic theatre, which reinforced social and theatrical expectations. Terry's work in neutralizing fixed assumptions, dismantling the stereotype, and reevaluating the institutional hierarchy proved seminal in forming emerging principles and modes of New York's alternative theatre.

Chief among these emerging principles was Off-Broadway's conception of character. Until Beckett's Waiting for Godot startled Broadway in 1956; until Joseph Cino opened the Cafe Cino in 1958; until the Becks went public with the Living Theatre in 1959, with Jack Gelber's The Connection; until Edward Albee turned to playwriting, staging The Zoo Story in New York in 1960; until Ellen Stewart opened La Mama in 1962; and until the Open Theatre became a presence in 1963, the prevailing mode of American drama was realism. The principle of construction was the cause-and-effect relationship, the plot proceeding neatly through units of action that raised a dramatic question, satisfied that question, and raised another, even as a dominant dramatic question sustained itself throughout the play. Character became clear through motive, often discovered in a past event that justified a character's present perversions. The social-psychological-moral paradigm pursued by Ibsen in A Doll House and Ghosts remained the model for serious postwar American drama, which placed its faith in causality and its attendant claims.

Modern American drama took little notice of Pirandello's radical assault on the theatre in 1923, when Six Characters in Search of an Author rocked its Paris audience and changed Europe's theatrical vocabulary. In his 1953 study of “Modernism” in Modern Drama, Joseph Wood Krutch needed only to append a brief chapter on American drama, asking how modern it was, even while he was expressing moral outrage over Pirandello. The Italian playwright, he argued, of all the moderns, made “the most inclusive denial of all, namely, the denial that the persistent and more or less consistent character or personality which we attribute to each individual human being, and especially to ourselves, really exists at all” (77). For Krutch, the “dissolution of the ego” that Pirandello's plays present obviated all moral systems, “since obviously no one can be good or bad, guilty or innocent, unless he exists as some sort of continuous unity” (78).

Krutch's reaction might well be justified if one assumes the moral function of theatre, in which case consistency, plausibility, and growth are all essential elements of the continuous self. But a play, as Megan Terry and others have shown, might also be designed to play with the epistemological question of how the self takes form, without identifying a self that is morally accountable, psychologically consistent, or socially defined.

Transformational drama acknowledges the multiple and shifting selves that at any moment or collection of moments constitute a developing self, placing that composite in a context that is itself shifting. The consequence is a drama of perception analogous to a Picasso painting of a woman's profile seen in the same canvas as the woman's frontal view. Neither has priority, neither negates the other, both suggest the complexity of the dynamic process that we can only tentatively call the self. Moreover, transformational drama acknowledges the extent to which the modern self is shaped by popular culture—advertising, movies, fictional heroes, romanticized history, TV commercials—the stereotypes provided by the media that steal into ordinary lives and shape expectations. In its involvement with media propaganda as the living artifacts of our culture, transformational drama becomes a kind of found art, a collage of the objects that incipiently form, reform, and transform models of self. And, finally, though transformational drama of necessity negates Krutch's concept of an identifiable and continuous self, it curiously affirms the relationships between self and others that Krutch's more traditional analysis of character would also assert. As Feldman points out in his “Notes for the Open Theatre Production,” rehearsals for Keep Tightly Closed began with improvisations dealing with “dependency, enclosure and isolation” (199). And as Bonnie Marranca notes in her study of American Playwrights, Keep Tightly Closed explores “confinement, dependency, domination-submission, ritual, friendship, deprivation, and loneliness” (185). Terry's approach to these relationships is, of course, different from Ibsen's, but, like realistic drama, it affirms the invariables of human experience. Unlike the dominant paradigm, however, transformational drama accommodates and affirms the variables as well.

Any of Terry's transformation plays might serve to illustrate the Open's contribution to redefining dramatic character, though her technique is not always the same. In Comings and Goings, randomly selected actors replace other actors, often in mid-sentence, and are themselves replaced, continually subverting the identification of actor and character or of audience and character. In Calm Down Mother, three actresses assume changing roles, becoming first one character and then another. In Viet Rock, the technique, as Richard Schechner describes it, is variously employed: “In the opening scene the actors become, in rapid sequence, a human, primordial flower, mothers and infants, army doctors and inductees, inductees and mothers. In the Senate Hearing scene actors replace other actors within the framework of a single scene” (16). In Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, not only do the three inmates change into other characters as the play progresses, but the situation being dramatized changes as well. Schechner sees Terry's techniques in Keep Tightly Closed as accomplishing three functions: “They explode a routine situation into a set of exciting theatrical images; they reinforce, expand, and explore the varieties of relationships among the three men; they make concrete the fantasies of the prisoners” (13). It is this play, mounted at the Open Theatre in 1965 in a double bill with Calm Down Mother, that I find most diverse, most fascinating, and most representative of the potential and the impact that Terry's work with transformational drama has had on the American theatre. I would like to look at the transformations in that play more closely and then offer some comments on Terry's contribution to off-Broadway's redefinition of the definition of self.

Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place, like all transformation plays, does not ask its actors to find some coincidence between themselves and the characters they are portraying, nor does it ask its actors to create subtexts. In place of this psychological work, it offers a sequence of opportunities for verbal and nonverbal behavior, each involving an abrupt shift in roles. Transformational drama is clearly both a challenge and an opportunity for the actor wanting to see himself or herself not as a trade magazine type but as an actor capable of moving with facility among diverse roles. Yet transformational drama is not simply “for the actors,” as Gerald Weales suggests in his unappreciative assessment of Terry's work (240). Transformational drama, like all drama, is for the audience, whose response to the abrupt changes the form demands helps create this alternative model of presenting dramatic character, one that says more about the epistemology of character, onstage and off, than realistic drama can.

The three men who share a prison cell in Keep Tightly Closed, all sentenced for their part in the collective murder of Jaspers's wife, provide a centering situation—not necessary for transformational drama but immensely effective here. Jaspers, an attorney in his thirties, hired Michaels to hire Gregory to murder his wife so he could collect half a million dollars in insurance payoffs. Though Gregory accomplished the deed, he was apprehended, offering a confession that implicated the other two as well. Now cellmates, Michaels has taken refuge in illness, Gregory in dreams and orgasms, and Jaspers is restless and angry. Though confined as the other two are, the lawyer still attempts to exercise his authority and to employ whatever strategy might help him get free. He bullies Michaels into agreeing to torture Gregory. When Michaels frustrates Gregory by repeating everything he says, Jaspers offers calculated comfort, advising the humiliated man not to sign the confession when he is upset. Still later, he contrives to get Gregory to join him in persuading Michaels to confess.

As the drama of Jaspers's power struggle progresses, the three remind themselves of the circumstances that led to their incarceration. At one point, Jaspers assumes the role of prosecuting attorney/judge/arresting officer, interrogating Gregory and attempting to reshape the arrest and trial into the scenario he would have liked to see. The three speak of the murder, reproaching and comforting one another, and Gregory tells stories: one of a dream he had of raping a woman, the other a fantasy of a woman who swallowed a snake's egg and was eaten away inside by the snake. Though arranged with no special respect for chronology or causality, each of the episodes in the centering situation contributes to the audience's conception of the three cellmates: Jaspers is arrogant, authoritative, angry. Michaels, a server rather than a leader, is burdened by conscience and compassion. Gregory is a weak but dangerous sexually-preoccupied underling.

But if presentation of the socially-psychologically-morally recognizable character were all transformational drama achieved, it would be indistinguishable in effect from realistic drama. What is special about transformational drama is that it provides multiple perspectives through providing alternate situations and roles. In Keep Tightly Closed, the centering situation, which itself admits recollection, wishful thinking, and fantasy, is punctuated repeatedly by actions among other characters outside the cell, played by the same three actors. Hence at one point Jaspers becomes General Custer, Michael a bluecoat, and Gregory their Indian victim. At another, the three become characters in a Jamestown drama, with a dying fifteen-year-old begging for water from Captain Smith. In one especially chilling vignette, Gregory recreates the moments in Jaspers's kitchen immediately preceding the crime, while Jaspers becomes his soon-to-be-murdered wife and Michaels his eight-year-old son. Three times, the trio become mechanical devices, and in one sequence they are transformed into a vaudeville trio, drag queens, and movie gangsters.

In none of the transformations is an audience to see the three as Rosalind playing Ganymede playing Rosalind (Shakespeare, As You Like It) or Solange playing Claire while Claire plays Madam (Genet, The Maids), even when Gregory as the murderer replays the kitchen drama. For each transformation, the three actors, not the characters, assume different roles or join in the mechanical representation of a container, a lead pencil, and a labeling machine—all identifiable through the prescriptions and restrictions spoken by the actors. Even if the transformation is completely convincing, however, and the audience understands that Jaspers is not General Custer or the dying boy but that the actor has merely shifted roles, its perception of character changes in a number of ways. For one thing, as Chaikin points out, the wearing of a disguise affects the actor: “In former times acting simply meant putting on a disguise. When you took off the disguise, there was the old face under it. Now it's clear that the wearing of the disguise changes the person. As he takes the disguise off, his face is changed from having worn it” (6). The face that is changed from having worn the disguise is the face the audience sees. Though an audience understands that it is not Jaspers who is playing General Custer but an actor shifting roles, the afterimage of the character that actor has just played necessarily informs the next. Hence an audience's perception of Custer is affected by the afterimage of Jaspers, and the afterimage of Custer, in turn, changes the audience's perception of Jaspers. As the actor who plays Jaspers assumes other roles as well, the layering multiples: images and afterimages combine in a densely layered portrait that challenges the clear, sharp outlines of the realistically drawn face.

Moreover, as it is creating the Picasso face, transformational drama is also engaging, even exploiting, the special double vision that an audience brings to every theatrical experience. While the transformation requires the actor to abandon one role for another, at the same time it plays on the knowledge that an audience never achieves the same abandonment. Though willing by convention to believe the masquerade and to enter the fiction of the play, an audience watching Olivier playing Lear never forgets that it is watching both Olivier and Lear. Nor do recidivist playgoers discard their recollection of Olivier playing Hamlet when they watch Olivier playing Lear or, for that matter, their image of Olivier playing Hamlet when they watch Jacobi in that role. Transformational drama demands that the audience not only be aware of the multiplicity of selves generated by a multiplicity of roles but that it become an active participant in the process of definition and redefinition that never ends.

Were we talking of Comings and Goings, which shifts arbitrarily from one situation to the next and randomly appoints actors to assume specific roles, we might stop our discussion here, without attention to context. But Keep Tightly Closed presents a nuclear trio of characters whose prison experience is central to the play. Given this centering situation, it is safe to assume that Terry's choices of transformations in Keep Tightly Closed are not random but are chosen for their specific content to contribute both to an audience's perception of Jaspers, Michaels, and Gregory and to its understanding of how character takes form. In shifting to the situation with Custer, a bluecoat, and a redskin, for example, Terry provides a vignette that might well have served as a subtext or a preparatory improvisation for the trio had the group been operating under the Method. Jaspers—arrogant, authoritative—changes into the General, “buckles on sword, tips hat forward, climbs on horse, gallops in circle, comes back to Michaels,” and commands; “Tie that redskin up.” Michaels, who followed Jaspers's orders in securing a hired murderer, now changes into the obedient bluecoat, responding with a “Yes, sir!” Gregory, who is about to be interrogated by Jaspers and coerced into signing a confession, becomes the Indian, laughing derisively and refusing to sign the treaty even when tortured (163-4). Or Jaspers, exhausted from Gregory's refusal to sign, becomes a fifteen-year-old dying in Jamestown: “Please, water … a taste … only one … then I'll ask for nothing more … a drop. …” The others take verbal jabs at the absent Captain Smith, creating a portrait of a hellish old “pisspot”—not unlike Michaels's and Gregory's perception of Jaspers—and cursing the day they “signed on this voyage.” As the lad's life fades, Gregory becomes Captain Smith, assuming the position of authority figure and father (173-4). In both cases, history provides an analogy that works through association of the relationships and emotions of the past with those of the present. In this duo of vignettes, the actor (and, by association, Jaspers) becomes both father and son, tormentor and tormented, the dominant figure and the submissive one.

If history provides a subtext for the centering situation, so also do the collection of offbeat characters recognizable to any contemporary audience: the vaudeville trio, drag queens, and gangsters. Earlier I spoke of how at times the prisoners discuss and act out events of the recent past, sometimes reshaping them in response to their needs, and how Gregory, when encouraged by Michaels, speaks of his dream and, on his own initiative, tells the story of the woman whom an interior snake emaciated and killed. In describing two of the play's alternate situations—the General Custer and Captain vignettes—I spoke of shifting situations and roles, in which the audience is asked to think of the historical characters and relationships in the context of the centering situation and the characters and relationships of the centering situation in the context of the historical vignettes. When, halfway through the drama, Terry has the actors wrap themselves in a prison blanket, lock arms, and break into a song and dance, then shift into a vignette as drag queens, then into one as gangsters, she is introducing another order of transformation, one that crosses the line between the centering situation and the alternate situation through more than analogy. In these vignettes, the actors retain their identities as Jaspers, Michaels, and Gregory even as they engage in the transformation, so that style and tone reflect the drag queen or gangster even as content betrays their prison identities. The shift between role playing and transformation is subtle and ill defined, a tactic that requires the audience to think of the three cellmates at the same time it is thinking of the offbeat figures.

Here again, we have relationships similar to those profiled in the historical vignettes: Jaspers becomes the dominant queen; joined by Michaels, he torments Gregory, who tries to swallow an embarrassing love note. But “Swinging Woolf's” love note was “sent to this cell” (179), apparently by a prisoner, or perhaps by a guard, attracted to one of the three cellmates. In the gangster vignette, Michaels's movie gangster discusses his seduction of Gregory's movie gangster as he primed him for the murder assignment. To Michaels's gangster's “I buy lots of slobs drinks when I want a few laughs,” Gregory's gangster, or Gregory, replies, “Some laugh. You're in for life for a few laughs. You aren't laughing now” (180).

These offbeat vignettes comment as well on the peculiar way in which a uniquely modern character, both national and individual, takes form. These products of Hollywood—singers and dancers, drag queens, and movie gangsters—are merely another part of the propaganda machine that advertises for an ingenue or a leading lady. These seemingly harmless representations of humanity are surface rather than substance, which, through mass dissemination, acquire legitimacy of form. Terry's introduction of these recognizable pieces of Hollywood celluloid wrenches us away from the individual confinement of the prisoners and reminds us of the social and personal confinements that media stereotyping prescribes.

The culminating vignette of the play, in which Jaspers becomes a preacher, his cellmates altar boys, and then the three become father and sons, brings together the centering situation, the transformation vignettes, and the vignettes in which role playing and transformation are difficult to divide. Having just tried to persuade Gregory to help him get Michaels to confess, the actor playing Jaspers, or Jaspers, changes abruptly into a preacher, speaking before a congregation about a man “in our midst” (194) accused of murdering his wife. After delivering an exhausting sermon that warns the congregation of impending losses and urges community as a countering strength, the preacher collapses into the arms of Michaels and Gregory, who become Jaspers's eight-year-old son, Richard, and his ten-year-old, Mark. Both offer comfort to their father, assuring him that “Mommie's in heaven” (196); then all three engage in a chanting prayer to “Our father, Our Father” (197-98).

In his notes to the Open Theatre production, Feldman remarks that he took it that “Jaspers' mind cracks completely at the end, and the ‘Dearly Beloved' speech shows him in the midst of a wild, pseudo-religious, ecstatic delusion” (204). Yet Walters's notes reveal that he told his actor not to play Jaspers playing a priest but simply to play a priest (208). That the two directors approached the moment with opposing assumptions suggests the complexity of this culminating vignette, in which a preacher who looks just like Jaspers says what Jaspers would have said had Jaspers been in the pulpit—or in which Jaspers himself (or a Jasper who has lost touch with himself) orates. The figure in the pulpit is at once a preacher before his congregation, one of any number of TV evangelists (Feldman used a Cardinal Cushing oration as his model [204]), Jaspers in prison adopting the role of a preacher, and a mentally incompetent Jaspers who has collapsed under the moral weight of confinement, isolation, and loss. The vignette curiously accommodates the social-psychological-moral inscriptions of realistic drama, urging affirmation of the invariables of human relationships and experience that the previous vignettes individually and collectively record. But it departs from the realistic model in not yielding to the static face. This shifting portrait of Jaspers provides a stage image not of the morally accountable, psychologically consistent, socially-defined self that Krutch values but of the dynamic process of character formation and the multiple layers that constitute an anatomy of self.

Terry's understanding of transformational drama as more than an acting exercise, as an opportunity to explore with intelligence and with force the modes of self-definition in a contemporary arena, helped move American theatre beyond the cliche. A decade after Terry's work with transformational drama at the Open, Sam Shepard, acknowledged high priest of off-Broadway, framed a note to actors in Angel City: Instead of the idea of a “whole character” with logical motives behind his behavior which the actor submerges himself into, he should consider instead a fractured whole with bits and pieces of characters flying off the central scheme. Collage construction, jazz improvisation. Music or painting in space (qtd. in Gilman xv-xvi). Shepard might have been describing Terry's transformational drama, created a decade earlier at the Open.

If Terry's work with redefining character has found legitimacy in the American theatre, so also has it been influential in feminist theatre. Helen Keyssar, who has written on women playwrights of the last two decades, calls Terry the mother of American feminist theatre (53). Today's Terry, in residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre, where she and Joanne Schmidman have created new theatre for nearly twenty years, calls herself a feminist—and a humorist, and a humanist, and, most importantly, a theatre person (Leavitt 286). Yet her motherhood rightly began in the sixties at the Open, not only because she was writing plays for and about women but because she was writing transformational drama. That form's theatrical efforts at dismantling the stereotype, freeing the actor from the prescriptiveness of an assigned role, and reevaluating the institutional hierarchy speak with force to the comparable goals of feminism. Terry's work in neutralizing fixed assumptions helped prepare off-Broadway for the gender deconstructions of the burgeoning phenomenon we now call feminist theatre. In an interview with Diane Leavitt in 1977, Terry spoke of her desire to “explore the possibilities of what a woman could be.” She remarked, “We don't know what a woman could be like because we've had so many outlines and definitions forced upon us” (288).

Terry dedicated Keep Tightly Closed to Chaikin, whose words began this paper. Perhaps it would be appropriate to end as well with a quotation from Chaikin's The Presence of the Actor: “The joy in theatre comes through discovery and the capacity to discover. What limits the discoveries a person can make is the idea or image he [or she] may come to have of himself [or herself]” (1). Terry's transformational drama is a theatre of discovery, in which all things, and joy, are possible.

Works Cited

Chaikin, Joseph. The Presence of the Actor: Notes on the Open Theater, Disguises, Acting, and Repression. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

Feldman, Peter. “Notes for the Open Theatre Production.” Viet Rock: Four Plays by Megan Terry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 199-206.

Gilman, Richard. Introduction. Seven Plays. By Sam Shepard. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. xi-xxvii.

Keyssar, Helen. Feminist Theatre: An Introduction to Plays of Contemporary British and American Women. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. “Modernism” in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1953.

Leavitt, Dinah L. “Megan Terry: Interview.” Women in American Theatre: Careers, Images, Movements: An Illustrated Anthology and Sourcebook. Ed. Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins. New York: Crown, 1981. 285-92.

Marranca, Bonnie, and Gautam Dasgupta. “Megan Terry.” American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. Vol. 1. New York: Drama Books Specialists, 1981. 183-92.

Schechner, Richard. “The Playwright as Wrighter.” Introduction. Viet Rock: Four Plays by Megan Terry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 7-18.

Terry, Megan. Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place. Viet Rock: Four Plays by Megan Terry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 153-98.

Walter, Sidney S. “Notes for the Firehouse Theatre Production.” Viet Rock: Four Plays by Megan Terry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 206-09.

Weales, Gerald. The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's. London: Macmillan, 1969.

Judith Babnich (essay date 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4762

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.]

I

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 wife, a homemaker in her late 30s; and their four children Susu, 16, Kate, 11, Doug, 9, and Jaimie, 6. Dad, who has worked in a corporate office all his life, now fears that his job might be lost due to cutbacks. Mom, filled with fantasy and frustration, remembers Dad's broken courtship promises and cries in her veal stew. The children throughout the play harass each other and pester their parents. The central event of the play occurs when Mom and Dad send the children off on a snipe hunt, that legendary pastime. Instead of a snipe, the kids catch Silver Morgan, a human being raised by prairie dogs. Never taught the English language, Morgan can speak only in barks and chirps. The children for the remainder of the play try to teach Morgan to speak their language and become one of the Connells. The problem, however, is that the Connells do not all speak the same English. Daddy Connell speaks the authoritarian language of the male business world, Mommie echoes her husband's language, and the children wallow in sex-oriented words and ideas.

In 1979 Terry wrote Goona Goona, a play about violence within the family. This new musical comedy asked the question, “Do we look like goons to our children?”3 The story line centers on the affluent West Omaha family known as the Goons. The father, Dr. Granville Goon, an “M-Deity” is a workaholic surgeon by day and a wife and child beater by night. June Goon is his quaalude-popping wife. Imprisoned in their expensive home, she tries to escape her life through pill-induced euphoria and sleep. The children Gaga and Garfield, who try to love their parents, are confused and bewildered by their beatings. The youngest child, the hyper-violent Gogo Goon, is kept in chains all the time so as not to hurt himself or his family. Rounding out the family is sadistic Grandmother Goon who at one point in the play scrubs her grandchildren's backs with steel wool before forcing them into a boiling bath.

Hearing the cries of agony from the Goon household but afraid to call the police are the two snoopy neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Marriott. Their dilemma, and one of the major questions of the play, is that even though there is something seriously wrong next door, should they become involved in someone else's domestic problems? Appearing at various moments in the play are the three visiting nurses whose job it is to keep an eye on reports of family abuse. As they travel around the community they provide factual information about abuse for the audience. Toward the end of the play, the Nurses and the Police do try to deal with the Goon's problem, but because of professional standards and red tape, it's too late to help. Gogo Goon eventually kills his parents, grandmother and the visiting nurses.

The third of Terry's family plays is the 1981 Kegger. Billed as an educative, preventative piece, Kegger examines alcohol use and abuse among teenagers. Most of the action of the play occurs at a keg party, where many young teens, due to peer pressure, not only drink but become totally inebriated. Once in this intoxicated state the teens begin their litany of why they drink and how much each of them can drink. In the early morning hours the party finally ends and many of the nauseated participants who drank too many “purple passions” are faced with the dilemma of driving home drunk.

Interwoven into the play's structure are monologues or what Terry called “testimonies” from teenage alcoholics, recovered teenage alcoholics, and their parents. It is through these testimonies that Terry shows the myriad of effects of heavy drinking on the teenager. Oftentimes alcohol does more damage to the growing body in its effects on emotional development, growth of judgment, and logic skills.

II

In Family Talk Terry investigates the breakdown of communication within the nuclear family. A focus of this work is to explore problems of familial interaction in a world of video domination. The family's “hypnotic routines” play a pivotal role in character development and theme.

Family Talk, like all of Terry's plays, is written as a series of transformations. An alternative to realistic playwriting, the transformational style involves a change of realities, of time, place, and character which is considered a major innovation in both playwriting and acting style. It violates linear plot development (with a beginning, middle, and end) and well-defined characters. Transformational theatre has an entirely different kind of construction. Plays are more circular, intuitive, and personal. The audience's usual habit of identifying actor and character is challenged and broken. Characters continually transform into other characters.

Richard Schechner, in the introduction to Terry's book Viet Rock and Other Plays, commented that an audience member's attention while watching Terry's transformational theatre is “divided between the virtuosity of the group of performers (an appreciation of ‘pure performance') and a close scrutiny of the action which seems almost abstract when stripped of its usual actor-character identification”.4 In trying to evaluate Terry's plays Schechner further added: “… Miss Terry's plays in print do not have the same authority as, say, the texts of Arthur Miller; and this lack of authority is to the play's advantage. The texts remain ‘pretexts' for productions; their staging should not be a recreation so much as a reconstruction.”5 This important point must always be considered when transformational plays are read. The script does not give an adequate idea of the play because so much depends on the actors' movements and characterizations.

In addition to being transformational, all of Terry's plays are written as comedies that are full of parody and satire and never intended to be dogmatic or propagandistic. Said Jo Ann Schmidman, founder of The Omaha Magic Theatre, “The work we do is entertainment … fun and light, even though the subject matter may often be heavy.”6 In essence, Terry's plays are a combination of pure entertainment and a social message, a difficult but most effective combination to achieve.

Dedicating Family Talk “to the evolution and constant redefinition of the American family,” Terry depicts the stereotypical suburban family: mother, father and five children ranging from seven to sixteen years of age.7 The Kraaz family has lost the fundamental ability to communicate. An exasperated mother Kraaz calls her family to dinner in Act I, and is answered by an almost commercial-like singsong unison reply from her T.V.-dominated children—“That's O.K. Mom, put it in the microwave.” After persistent, thwarted attempts, such as banging her pots and pans to get her family's attention, she takes drastic action and unplugs and apparently breaks the television.

Mom: I'm sick of eating alone.

Gregg: Be right there, Mom.

Mom: You always say that.

Diane: Be right there, Mom.

Mom: From now on you can cook your own dinner.

Davey: Thanks, Mom.

Mom: You know what we're having for dinner tonight? Baked alligator and swamp rat souffle.

All: Make mine rare, Mom.

Mom: Molten lava has rolled all the way from Hawaii and is eating away at the dining room table.

All: One more minute, Mom.

Mom: (Puts bucket over head, makes menacing cutting gesture with arms and moves into family room to cut the T.V. cord.) One … two … three … four … five … six … seven …

(Electrical malfunction sound and lights black out as cord is cut.)

Kids: MOM!

Gregg: What’d you do?

Kids: Mom?

Davey: The TV's broken.

Kids: Mom!

Davey: You broke the TV.8

Without the drone of the T.V. to distract them, the Kraaz children are forced to communicate with their parents.

Throughout Act I the family confronts familiar problems: television, name calling, overly authoritarian parents, and a teenage daughter who lives for the phone. Electronic entertainment infiltrates every aspect of their lives, even driving a wedge between Mr. and Mrs. Kraaz. Caught up in being the breadwinner, father Kraaz loses himself in the newspaper during his off hours, and a simple shopping trip to a Nebraska furniture mart erupts into a spousal fight.

Mom: Going shopping with you is the most terrifying thing a person could ever attempt to do!

Dad: It's not my fault you lose your glasses! You always undercut yourself by losing your glasses.

Mom: I never lose my glasses.

Dad: I know—you've just “mislaid” them.

Mom: I've just … You always lose your keys!

Dad: And you always find them for me.

Mom: That's right.

Dad: I'd find your glasses for you, but I'm afraid of the alligators in your purse.

Mom: Don't try to make me laugh when I'm feeling so hurt.

Dad: You're not the only one who gets hurt.

Mom: That Nebraska Furniture Mart was a snake pit.

Dad: I thought it would make you happy.

Mom: Why would you think it would make me happy to go further into debt?

Dad: Those plane tickets put us in debt.

Mom: My dad was sick, I thought he was going to die. I had to go to him; I had to help Mother. She had to live on Valium the whole time. She could never have gone through it without my help.

Dad: I'm not begrudging you your trip to help your folks. I'm only pointing out where the extra debt came from.

Mom: And I'll pay it off, every cent!

Dad: Calm down. I'm not Scrooge. What's going on here? I took you out to buy you a present and we end up one step from the divorce court.

Mom: A new stove isn't my idea of romance.

Dad: Oh, no. That's it! I'm going for a run.9

To relieve his frustration Dad jogs around the block and Mom plunges into a deep depression that even her sympathetic children cannot alleviate.

A particularly strong scene demonstrating the verbal and physical abuse among siblings is that of thirteen-year-old Jennifer on the telephone. Each of the other kids is holding onto multicolored wires attached to Jennifer's symbolic phone which is a baby doll with a mouthpiece attached to its head. Throughout this scene the children prey on Jennifer and eventually tangle her up like a captured animal. Mom intervenes only to have yet another argument with her daughter.

An acting motif used throughout is the image of a constant swirling haze symbolic of the chaos in the family. Throughout the first act the actors grope aimlessly about trying to communicate their dilemma. They are constantly moving in directionless patterns literally bumping into each other as they search for an answer. Complementing this swirling movement is the occasional use of a specially rigged microphone (vocoder) that electronically distorts the actor's voices.

The stage environment, designed by Diane Ostdiek, consisted of a large monopoly board-like floor cloth with such designated areas as: “Danger—Mom at Work,” “Fallout Zone” and “Zombie Land” and central to the action is a large abstract television set. Due to its placement, the T.V. takes on an ever present God-like focus. The entire ground cloth is framed in a blue outstrip known as the “Stargazing Strip.” This area is critical to the set and production. When domestic life becomes too overwhelming, Kraaz family members escape to the “Stargazing Strip” to get away and think. A limited but selective number of props were used in the production. Five large gallon white paint containers without handles were used in several clever ways. Kraaz children could disappear or hide by placing the buckets over their heads. The containers also doubled as furniture and weapons.

Appreciating this dramatic production requires understanding why and how it was written. The themes for the play come from feedback from many of the OMT's touring audiences. It is a regular practice for the company to conduct audience discussions after performances both in Omaha and on tour. According to Terry, “It was those discussions that made it clear that domestic violence and teen drinking were symptoms of a deeper problem: that families can't communicate.”10 The recurrent theme of the family and communication skills came from consulting counselors, psychologists and communication experts.

According to Terry, television is America's fantasy life, catapulting us into an unreal world, such as shows that glorify the rich and powerful as do Dallas and Dynasty. These shows give us what we lack in our real life, while Family Talk tries to restore what we have lost through our infatuation with television—a delight in others' efforts to achieve and grow.

What Terry has done in Family Talk is not simply focus on a shattered family but rather emphasize the elements of reconciliation and communication that heal and make the family whole. As a result, Terry has focused her new play on a positive theme: improving communication within the family. During Act II the family resolves to conduct weekly meetings and Bible readings. These proposals are almost cliché in our society; however, for a family that wants to care for and support one another, they can be powerful tools for personal family transformation.

III

This past year I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of this innovative production and interview Ms. Terry about her play and also her work in recent years. The following are excerpts from that interview.

[Babnich]: Could you elaborate more on ways the audiences helped you write Family Talk?

[Terry]: I have taped all the discussions over the years, and the prevailing concern of most people is how are we going to get close to one another and get a feeling of forward momentum as a family group? People would get up and say, “My husband won't talk to me.” Other people would say, “I have a teenage son that I might as well not have, because he never speaks. I put food on the table and he takes it to his room.” The young people say to us: “If I don't speak in a certain way my mom won't speak to me, because I have to speak perfectly. Perfect means her way.” Throughout all the discussions we kept hearing the same sort of things. Parents kept asking, “Where does it all start? What can we do before our kids start digging through our bags to take money to go out and buy a six-pack of beer?” And the idea that kept coming up over again was talk. Simple as that, we need to start talking together which is certainly more easily said than done. So I decided instead of writing a play and just saying, “Well here's the problem, folks; we're going to dump another problem in your lap,” I said, “Do you suppose I could write a play on how to do something right and would anyone come if I did? Is there any way to put positive role modeling on the stage?”

And you decided yes.

I decided I'm going to fight it out. We called all the successful family counselors in town. Omaha has been in the forefront of a lot of work with families with kids in trouble. So, we took these people to lunch and picked their brains and asked, “What works?” Each one of them had a different way of dealing with the family group, and many of them were having success.

What did you learn from these counselors?

The family has been in deep trouble. All of the counselors we talked to are making a fortune because this is true. But I think Americans are recognizing the problem and many people are working to find ways to strengthen the family, to redefine it, to accept all the different kinds of families we have. The old-fashioned nuclear family of the ‘50s is a kind of myth. There's a huge increase of single person households of people living together, of single parent households, mixed households, and divorced persons. We have to say we're a big country with big arms and we have to embrace all these things and validate whatever way it is people are getting together. We need to let go of the old myths that are hurtful and rigid and yet find what was good in the old-fashioned family and try to revive it and support it, as it can be applied to our newly defined family. Some people have accused me of totally going soft but it seems to me that if there are things that are valid in the old fashioned family and things that work, like developing good manners and listening to one another and taking turns, then we should use them. We have so much chaos in life today. How do you train yourself to be more available to yourself? The big struggle that I've always had is between my animal self and my civilized self and trying to get these in harmony so we can both go forward as one. It seems to me that the family is one place where an individual can get a good grounding in how to deal with his or her self.

You mentioned earlier, that you are not in the habit of giving solutions in your plays. Could you tell me more about that?

I always feel it is cheating to give direction. I'm such a democrat. I always say that if I lay out the facts people will be intelligent enough to make up their own minds and know what to do. But I see some people are so bewildered they need more clues.

What type of solution did you propose in Family Talk?

To agree that everyone get together at least once a week and have some time together to really exchange feelings, thoughts, plans and ways of going forward. Otherwise we were finding that people just stayed isolated all through the whole development of the family. They all went off or got married and they still didn't know each other. And then the family reunions or holidays were excruciating times, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. A lot of people suffer severe anxiety having to go back and be with their families again if these things haven't been worked through at an early age. Sometimes I think we're a nation of disaster freaks judging by the news and what other people are writing. The big risk now is not death, destruction or disaster but compassion. It is a revolutionary tact to show tenderness, warmth and the fact that love and coming together is possible. It is possible to be close, to sing in harmony, to cry and laugh together. We need these positive images. It seems as if the whole planet is on the verge of chaos.

Do you think Family Talk will help the plight of the family?

Well, some of the counselors and families (especially those who have experienced the play together as a family) have said it will. But, I have no idea. A good percentage of the audience say that it makes them feel good and that maybe there's hope and new ways to do things. I remember a young family who, after the show was over, took a long time before getting up from their chairs. I walked over to them and the father said, “Thank you for the show, we have a lot to digest.” He found a lot of things that they were going to go home and try to use and help each other move forward better as a group.

Moving on to the subject of playwriting and the production itself, how did you begin to write Family Talk? The last time we talked was in 1980. Has your approach to writing changed since then? Do you work from an outline?

No. Once I have an idea I rush out to a typewriter. I have typewriters stashed here and there. For Family Talk I had lots and lots of scenes. We used only a third or close to half of what I'd written.

How long did it take you to write that first group of scenes?

It's hard to know, somewhere between four to five months.

In some of your earlier plays, Viet Rock and Babes in the Bighouse, scenes were written in workshop with the help of the actors. Did you use this method for Family Talk?

After compiling all the research I then went home and wrote a script. Once I had a working script I brought it to workshop where Jo Ann and a group of 35 people read it through a couple of times and then we put it away for two months.

Did you do that on purpose?

Yes, and we didn't touch it again.

Did you do something else?

No, the workshops continued. We met four times a week without the script. This is how we always work, really. I write independently of Jo Ann while she independently evolves the play structure. During workshop I listened to people's family stories too, but it was more like getting “essences of warmth” rather than using anything direct, anything specific. During the workshops we were also touring Mud and Kegger.

What happened after the two months of workshop?

We went back to the script and then it was a matter of ordering scenes and fitting in discoveries we made in workshop.

By this time did you have a completed script to give the actors?

No. The actors trust Jo Ann so well that I don't think they suffered any anxiety. We've worked together for so long that Jo Ann had no problem taking a scene and staging it, regardless of where it was going to be placed in the body of the play. The cast would kid me a lot about how the play was going to end. We started working on the play in October of 1985 and I didn't have a final scene until New Year's Eve. In fact, I wrote two different endings before I settled on the family meeting.

Was the order of scenes set by January?

No, we were still changing things around. Jo Ann looked at all the scenes and we had a lot of discussions about how the play should start. At first she didn't like the scene I wrote but after she worked on it and created her own way of introducing the scene then she liked it.

When I was watching the play I felt that the dissonant underlying music complemented the chaotic movement on stage. As in the past, were you also involved in writing the music?

I wrote the lyrics for four songs: “Exceptional”, “How to Exasperate A Mother”, “I write a Thousand Letters” and “The Dream Song.” Jo Ann, John Sheehan, and Joe Budenholzer wrote the other tunes.

I noticed that the musical score combined different musical styles from country western rock and roll, to abstract polytonal melodies. How would you describe the music?

Jo Ann and I, in working with different types of composers, mix the styles. Rather than having one musical voice, which is typical of a traditional musical, we have several. John's music is what I suppose critics call no music. It's very dramatic, sort of like avant-garde opera, and it effectively shows dream states on the stage. His music worked very well in depicting the underside of the family, the chaotic stages, the fragmentation, the disparate qualities. Joe's music was used during the times of family harmony. His final song, “Quality Time,” was a mixture of folk and country; it was very warm, simple and easy.

What have you been doing since 1980?

Working hard! We've been working here constantly 18 hours a day.

Do you still feel good about working and living in Omaha?

Yes!

Any regrets that you're not in New York?

No. The last time I was in New York I was amazed at how I couldn't wait to get back to Omaha.

What bothered you about New York and the theatre scene?

It's just so hard to move around there and the commercial theatre work isn't good.

What do you think is the future for commercial theatre?

They've priced themselves out of existence and into absurdity. They're going to have to retrench. As you know, our top ticket price is $5, so people can afford to see live theatre. If commercial theatre doesn't do something to get young people back into the theatre, the commercial theatre will die because they are not creating audiences for the future.

What do you think the future of alternative theatre is?

It will probably always be led by people who are not satisfied with what they see elsewhere, by people who have a better vision, a vision of what they want to see on the stage so they put it there themselves. There will always be people like that and they'll be coming out of who knows where and not necessarily New York. Where did Grotowski develop? Not in New York. Eugenio Barba or Dario Fo didn't work in New York City either. Name all the great theatre artists who don't work in New York City and you see that you don't have to be in New York City to do good work. That's one thing I say when I speak to young people; you don't have to go into exile to be an artist anymore because of the work done by the National Endowment for the Arts and the State Arts Councils and now Corporate Giving for the Arts. You can be an artist wherever you want to pitch your tent. If you love the landscape in which you were raised and that feeds you as an artist, then you should stay there and make your art there. When I was growing up you had to go to Hollywood or New York, but that's not true anymore. Besides, New York has also priced itself out of existence because of the rents. In the 1960s I paid $25 a month for this coldwater flat that is now going for $1050, and three families are living in it. The young people can't afford to live in New York anymore. So they're going to Minneapolis, Omaha, Seattle, or Denver because they can afford to live there and make work happen.

As a final question, Megan, what does the future hold for you?

I'm always writing and rewriting. I never quit rewriting until it's published and then if I get a chance at another edition I write and rewrite some more. I've just finished rewriting one of my past plays, Sleazing Toward Athens, which is about the clash of materialism with the humanities on today's commuter campuses.

So you're going to keep on writing and rewriting?

I'll never live long enough to develop all the ideas I have. I have an idea a minute. I guess I'll just have to leave a lot of them on computer discs for other people to explore if they wish to do so.

Notes

  1. Personal interview with Megan Terry, 3 May 1986.

  2. Megan Terry, American King's English for Queens (Omaha, Nebraska: Omaha Magic Theatre Press, 1978), p. 1.

  3. “Goona Goona,” The Jewish Press. 23 November 1979, p. 13.

  4. Megan Terry, Viet Rock and Other Plays. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967, p. 1.

  5. Terry, p. 1.

  6. Personal interview with Jo Ann Schmidman, 21 February 1980.

  7. Portions of the plot synopsis are taken from my review of Family Talk published in the May issue of Theatre Journal, 1987.

  8. Megan Terry, Family Talk, (Omaha, Nebraska: Omaha Magic Theatre Press, 1986), pp. 3-4.

  9. Terry, pp. 40-41.

  10. Terry Interview.

Jan Breslauer and Helene Keyssar (essay date 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5230

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, it has remained remote from the mainstream Boston-New Haven-New York-Washington, D.C. theatre circuit.

It is not, therefore, surprising, that when, in the 1980s, the press discovered the “new women playwrights,” Megan Terry was ignored or overlooked. At the same time, there is good reason to claim, as one of us did in Feminist Theatre,1 that Terry is the “mother of American feminist theatre.” Evidence for this claim abounds in Terry's more than fifty plays. As a body of work, these dramas have explored a wide range of feminist issues: production and reproduction, the language of patriarchy, gender roles inside and outside the family, the victimization and heroism of women, and the pain and power of women in a repressive society are all essential elements of Terry's dramatic discourse. Her plays persistently criticize and subvert specific institutions and events in American society—from the war in Vietnam to the hypocritical behavior of parents toward adolescents—but these critiques are not merely casual gestures at topical issues or facile assaults on patriarchy and sexism. Rather, they are specifications of a vision that emphasizes a transformation of morality as the basis of social and political change.

Although critical of the particular instances of violence and oppression against women, Terry's plays have never insisted, as has the work of some feminists working in other media, that revolution is necessary in order to improve the stature of women in society. Her objections to inequality are not usually couched in terms of an economic system that creates such situations, but rather emerge as protests against individual circumstances, institutional corruption, or verbal and conceptual distortions, notably common in occurrence as these may be. Even, for example, in a play like Babes in the Bighouse (1979), which harshly condemns both the treatment of women prisoners and, metaphorically, the pervasive imprisonment of women in the codes and practices of modern society, the challenge is to the audience's sense of responsibility and dignity, not to the economic and political systems that support such prisons. Terry's outlook in this regard has been archetypically American and may be a strategic choice given that her audience, too, is, for the most part, assertively American. Enacting her own feminist version of American romanticism, Terry has chosen in most of her plays to highlight the positive, though incremental, change that is available: women, in her dramas, are “alive and well” and on the way to doing even better.

This belief that things can be better took form in Terry's work as magic even before she joined forces with the theater of that name. Calm Down Mother (1965), one of Terry's first plays to be explicitly concerned with women as women, depicts the tensions as well as the attachments between mothers and daughters, but ends with a ritual-like chant that invokes woman's reproductive capabilities as a source of difference and almost mystical strength. Viet Rock (1966) concluded in “deathly silence,” but the intense ambiance of community in the acting ensemble deliberately encouraged spectators to believe that they—we—could overcome the various oppressions represented and enacted in that war. The most memorable moment in Approaching Simone (1970) occurs when each member of the acting company takes on a piece of Simone's clothing, symbolically taking on her pain and her struggle for women's freedom. Simone Weil, like theater itself in Terry's hands, is a model, but, as dramatized, her heroism can join her to others rather than separate her from them.

It is possible, then, to comprehend Terry's move to Omaha, Nebraska, as a geographical expression of her conviction that possibilities exist outside the norm. It is also important to note that this move came at the beginning of a decade that was to see both the rise and the retrenchment of feminism, including, in the eighties, a new generation of women content to identify themselves as “post-feminists.” From the retrospective view of 1988, however, those changes are dated, and even for some who embraced “post-feminism,” that label is showing itself not only as inaccurate but invidious.

As if sensing such a trend in the offing, Terry's 1983 collaboration with JoAnne Metcalf, Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones, represented a new and increasingly politicized direction for her drama. Retaining the basic optimism of her previous work, while venturing into one of the most contested arenas of contemporary American society, Terry dares in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus to show the possibility of authentic communication and mutual support between two types of successful women who, in today's world, would appear to be unyielding foes. The central figures and the orchestrators of events in this drama are Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones, both born in the nineteenth century, the former out of Terry's imagination, the latter out of history. In Terry's staged world, Mother Jones, a political activist, socialist, and organizer for the rights of women and children, is not the evil enemy but the star performer and ally of Mollie Bailey, a woman who is a traditional housewife and, ironically, the ringmistress of a traveling “family” circus.

In this world, dramaturgically and politically, transformation and possibility are key motifs, as they have been throughout Terry's work,2 but their explicit presence has been augmented by an increased attention to the social-political cosmos. The onstage transformations that were oppositional conventions in Terry's dramas of the sixties (and that became accepted theatrical practice in American experimental theatre before vanishing, in the seventies, from the work of most male playwrights) are revitalized in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus as circus feats. More eloquently than in Terry's previous work, these transformations are also now the feats of American women recovering and reconstructing their history. Even the production history of this drama diverged from the pattern Terry had established in the previous decade: first produced in the Plays in Process series of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus was then produced at California Institute of the Arts and in Santa Barbara, California, before appearing onstage “at home” at the Omaha Magic Theater.

The prologue to Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus signals the ironic tone and mythic frame for this play. Suspended on a wide trapeze or platform held aloft by “invisible” stagehands, two Celtic queens, who are, simultaneously, Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones, are crossing the Irish Sea on a raft in the midst of a fierce storm. Lashed to their raft are other, unconscious members of their tribe. Mother Jones's opening line—“Did you lash down the males?”—instantly establishes the inversion of conventional power relations between men and women; the men are not only physically subjugated to the women but are treated as sexual types, as “males.” (A few lines later, Mother Jones confirms this conception when she reassures Mollie that they will reach land with at least one male “in good condition.”) The prologue also establishes a mother-daughter relationship between Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey: literally fulfilling the role suggested by her ironic, historical name, “Mother” Jones commands, instructs and nurtures Mollie, who, in turn, proclaims her love for “Mother” and her confidence that she will be empowered by her mother's attachment and support:

Mollie. Mother, I love you so. Let me stand against the storm and spell you. If you hold my hand I'll be able to feel the way to steer. (P. 2)

Theatrically and culturally, this prologue is at once familiar and disconcerting. The sea-storm setting and the playful echo of “Take in the topsail” in “lash down the males” blatantly recall Shakespeare's The Tempest, which, like Terry's play, is situated in both the historical context of the discovery of the new world and the mythical context of a separate space of spectacle where time and place are magically construed. The raft of the two Celtic queens is a far cry, however, from the sailing ship of The Tempest, and the two women steering the raft's course would have had no place, even as passengers, on Shakespeare's all-male ship. Perhaps even more unsettling, where Gonzalo ended the prologue of The Tempest longing for any piece of dry land, Mother Jones bypasses an island, seeking greener fields. Contrary to gender stereotypes, the men of The Tempest quickly lose patience, blame others, and surrender to fear and chaos, whereas Mother Jones concludes the prologue of the contemporary drama warmly reassuring Mollie that “If we're not in trouble, we're not going in the right direction.”

The right direction in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus is rarely straight forward, or straight backward. In keeping with many contemporary feminist plays, this prologue and the two acts that follow exploit theater's liberty with time and place to conjoin previously disconnected elements of culture and history. Such temporal and spatial reconfigurations orient the spectator toward alternative ways of viewing the present and the past. Terry has subverted conventional representations of chronology and history repeatedly in her work, beginning with Calm Down Mother, but the particular juxtaposition in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus of a historical figure with a fictional character has even more striking affinities with several of Caryl Churchill's dramas than with Terry's own previous work.

Churchill's Top Girls, like Terry's Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus, begins with an imagined ritual of passage that requires a new understanding of gender roles. The similar emphases in Terry's and Churchill's dramaturgies on unprecedented historical representations and on explicit intertextual gestures suggest that the most potent emergent element of feminist theater may not be the recovery of women's history but what Mother Jones calls “getting into trouble,” and what I have elsewhere described as doing dangerous history.3 Where many feminist endeavors, in the theater and in other media, have aimed to recuperate women's history as an inspirational resource for women and men, dangerous historical explorations seek not only to recover the forgotten achievements of women but also to examine the conditions under which gender conflicts have repeatedly arisen and repeatedly been resolved such that women have remained subordinate to men. Dangerous historians, and dramatists doing dangerous history, confront the illusions of the past, including those that conceal women's complicity in the recurrent subjugation of women to men. Dangerous history also refuses to ignore women's violence at key moments in that history. The processes and effects of doing dangerous history in drama are increasingly evident not only in plays by Churchill and Terry, but in other feminist dramas such as Wendy Kesselman's My Sister in This House (1982), Louise Page's Salonika (1982), Ntozake Shange's Three Pieces (1981) and Sharon Pollock's Blood Relations (1981).

If, then, Terry's prologue to Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus is a warning that we are about to enter the realm of dangerous history, it is therefore appropriate that the setting into which Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey are lowered for acts 1 and 2 is a circus, a place whose attraction is inseparable from its embrace of danger. That Terry sets this play in a circus is at once a logical extension of her long-term association of magic, theater, and spectacle and an assertion that what has once been implicit in her own dramaturgy and in American culture will now become explicit, theatrically and substantively. At least in modern societies, the circus is the ultimate world of possibilities, paradoxes, and perversions; it is a reminder of the lost world of carnival, a world that Soviet cultural critic M. M. Bakhtin has recalled to our attention as the locus of folk humor and unofficial culture in Western societies from the Greeks through the Renaissance.4 Because the circus separates the audience from the performer/participants, it is not a true carnival, but in its irreverent conjoining of laughter and fear, its deployment of popular imagery, its love of exaggeration, its pleasure in the grotesque, and the promiscuity of its attachments, the circus, like the Rabelaisian novels that attracted Bakhtin's attention, signifies a symbolic opposition to the dominant values and practices of patriarchal societies.

Mollie Bailey's circus partakes of these essential attributes, but it also evokes a uniquely American understanding of circus: an exotic incarnation of the American rags to riches dream in which anyone can be anything and all is attainable. The American circus is the archetypical carnival that we run away to join, hoping to belong to a world in which our fantasies become real and we're freed from normative constraints. So Terry, in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus, dreams for us, envisioning a society with new rules that embrace diversity. Once we enter this world, it will metamorphosize us in such a way that we neither want nor are able to return to our previous lives.

Traditionally, and in Terry's play, the circus is the realm of a liberated Saturnalia in which identity is redefined. As in most forms of carnival, the masters may become servants and vice versa, but there are possibilities even beyond this. Anyone can become anyone, then, in turn, become someone else. Identity is no longer fixed, especially when performers adopt new personages for their various “acts” or roles within the performance as a whole. Combining a familiar circus routine and a transformation technique often used in the sixties and seventies by improvisational theatre companies like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Paul Sills's Story Theater, Terry is able to stress this fluidity of identity in Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus with far less stylistic self-consciousness than in her previous works: within the circus setting, one man can stand on another's shoulders to play the Father; the Mother can be similarly performed; the actress and the actor playing Mollie and her husband, Gus, can grow older and younger within a minute's time; other actors in the company can transform from trapeze artists to canaries. The circus setting naturalizes these transformations because within the bounds of circus the notion of who one is within the group is in Heraclitian flux: age, gender, and authority are constantly redefined.

The circus not only has performers who transcend the circumscription of labels, it also has clowns, indefatigable warriors who conquer the impossible, recovering from falls that in everyday life would bring men and women down. Mollie Bailey herself displays some of the attributes of the clown in the first scenes of act 1, when, as she introduces her children, “endless streams of people seem to keep coming out from under her skirt.” And, although the circus life is controlled by metaphors of the family, often with the ringmaster as patriarch, in this play, Mollie Bailey is ringmistress and a matriarch who is able to share her power without diminishing it.

Mollie's ability to share her power is explicitly attributed in the play to her gender identity, but the drama suggests that, even for a woman as strong as Mollie, this might not be possible in the ordinary world. The circus, however, is, also, importantly, a cooperative, a collective in which interdependence is all, and, frequently, a matter of life and death.5 The benefits of cooperative effort are announced in the prologue of Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus, but it is in the arena of the circus itself that the particular possibilities and originality of the cooperation between Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones are revealed.

Following two scenes that introduce the audience for the circus (and the drama) to Mollie Bailey's personal history of escape from an authoritarian father to love, marriage, and centerstage in “Women's Eternal Circus,” Mollie, as ringmistress, introduces “for the first time anywhere” an act that “has never been staged in America or on the continent.” The “act” is a scene from nineteenth-century American history, starring Mother Jones, and, as Terry blatantly reminds us, this is not a scene commonly played on the stages of American history or theater. In stark contrast to the frivolity and resurrection symbology of the initial circus scenes, Mother Jones first appears as a herald of death, carting the dead bodies of four children on top of coffins in a procession of carts drawn by old women. The image recalls the travels of other famous and weary souls, particularly the journeys of Brecht's Mother Courage with her wagons and children who die in the face of overwhelming adversities. In a speech to the audience, Mother Jones narrates the story, which is, indeed, a true story, of the epidemic that took the lives of her husband and four children. She tells of her grief, then sings to us of her determination to “find a way to fight for the living.” As Mollie made a new life for herself with Gus and the circus after leaving her parents, Mother Jones reincarnates life from death. What Mollie does for a nuclear family, Mother Jones creates for the communal family of the poor and oppressed.

By embracing theater's ability to realize the impossible, to blur borders between the “real” and the imagined, Terry creates a dream juxtaposition of the lives of two outstanding women from history “who didn't know each other, [but who allow us to] know more about ourselves by knowing them.”6 This juxtaposition sharpens the sad irony of Mother Jones's name: it was not until after she had lost her four children and husband to a yellow fever epidemic and had become an extraordinarily successful labor organizer that Mary Harris Jones became known as “Mother” Jones. The lives and works of Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey are thus inverses each of the other, but are also analogues; both demonstrate the force of nurturing activities and the empowerment possible through what anthropologist Nancy Chodorow has called “the reproduction of mothering.” (I am thinking here of mothering, not as the institution that presently determines women's experience, but as it might be imagined in a non-gender-biased society.)

By showcasing Mother Jones, Mollie Bailey reveals her to be an object of her admiration, though there is never any suggestion that Mollie is dissatisfied with her own life. Notably absent is any indication of competition between the two women. Instead, mutual respect and collaboration between Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey implies a personalized version of the triumph of a feminism based on responsibility and attachment to others over a patriarchal social system grounded in ideas of rights and competition. This is not a feminism that excludes men, that requires an alternative lifestyle or is biologically constrained. The dialogue between Mollie and her husband, Gus, emphasizes that the pleasure they take in the life and family they have created for themselves is informed rather than threatened by Gus's recognition of Mollie's strength. And Mollie can be strong and still value “clean family fun” and a “down-home good time show.”

Equally important, Mollie Bailey can be strong in her ways while fully acknowledging the different strengths of Mother Jones, whom we see in the first act as an “agitator, aggravator, hellraiser,” crusading against starvation wages for child and women laborers. Mollie attempts to delight little children and provide them with the gift of laughter and life while Mother Jones struggles for downtrodden children and fights the police. But while Mollie's voice is sweet and often expressed in song and Mother Jones's voice is harsh and inclined to cursing, each woman is able to hear the other, and neither sees herself or the other as victim.

The episodic, non-narrative structure of the play supports the audience's understanding of the differences as well as the interdependencies between Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones. After Mollie's initial introduction in act 1 of the “Mother Jones act,” scenes from the life of Mother Jones are intercut with scenes from Mollie's life. The connections between these scenes are often not explicitly articulated by an on-stage character, but are implicit in the similarities or contrasts between the events in Mother Jones's life and those in Mollie Bailey's. Two scenes in act 1, for example, juxtapose Mother Jones's instruction of a young soldier with Mollie's instruction of her daughter. Functioning much like an Eisensteinian montage in film, the audience learns from the collision between the two scenes more than from the separate content of either situation.

On a larger scale, act 1 and act 2 of Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus have only a minimal narrative relation to each other but interanimate each other by contrasts and continuities of roles and themes. Where Mollie was the initiating voice of act 1, it is Mother Jones who begins act 2, and, notably, it is now Mother Jones who uses song to present her message. Her song repeats a refrain: “I was born in Revolution …” that reminds us of the changes in her life and in the historical context of her life, but that also reassures us of some continuity: “… And I'll never leave you. … Til we've seen these troubles through.” Like Brecht's women, when she is not changing herself, Mother Jones is the emissary of change; and like Brecht's Widow Begbick (Man Is Man) and Jenny (Threepenny Opera), as well as Mother Courage, Mother Jones's survival and success are predicated on her adaptability. Unlike Brecht's women characters, however, Terry's bringers of change are not only changed themselves by circumstances but are also able to transform themselves.

This openness to change is as true of Mollie as it is of Mother Jones. Mollie transforms herself most obviously by leaving home and then creating her circus/family. The actress's onstage transformations from middle-aged woman to young girl and then again to older woman heighten and defamiliarize these commonplace changes, giving them dramatic equivalence with the radical alterations of Mother Jones's life. This is not to say that Terry conflates the tragedies of Mother Jones's life with the traumas of growing up and separation from parents, but that the models of change we are offered range, importantly, from the heroic to the ordinary. Mollie's attitude toward change, rather than her circumstances, provide a way to understand our own capacity to transform ourselves. She has a propensity for change, she tells us: “I was born when I was already ten thousand years old.”

Mollie also celebrates complexity and eventually dismisses the archetypal purity ascribed to women; by so doing, she suggests we do the same. When her son, Eugene, presents his intended bride for her consideration, Mollie destroys his expectations of what is to be thought valuable:

Eugene. She'll expand me! She has a beautiful soul, so clean, so pure, so white.

Mollie. (To audience and all) Right away I'm alarmed!

Eugene. But those are all perfect qualities. … She has a clean soul.

Mollie. Then don't marry her.

Eugene. I don't understand you.

Mollie. You can marry her if her soul is as patched as our tent. (P. 31)

Mollie again invokes the circus as a source of imagery and meaning when she goes on to explain to Eugene her position on freedom from the tyranny of perfection:

You think to sell us your bride by showing only her pure points. That's not what circus is all about. Where are the falls? Falling and almost falling and recovering from falling. That's our job. (Pp. 32-33)

From a lifetime of “acts” inside the bigtop of Mollie Bailey-Mother Jones's Family of Women's Eternal Circus, Mollie has learned the lesson with which she concludes her sermon to her son: “If the soul is a soul that is whole, it must be made up of all aspects, dark and light, of the human/animal possibilities.” Stage directions indicate that Eugene is frightened by his mother's exhortation. No wonder, since what Mollie proposes is no less than a dismantling of the secure matrix of role-playing on which society has come to depend. Perhaps most threatening, Mollie's admonitions are pointedly addressed to her son at the moment he wishes to marry, and they are called forth, specifically, by Eugene's unquestioning assumption of the value of a pure soul.

Eugene's vision of a perfect marriage modifies the patriarchal stereotype by insisting on his own purity as well as that of his bride-to-be, but Mollie's revisionist gender values call not only for equality but for transformations of values for both men and women. Authentic transformations necessarily bring a genuinely brave new world. Eugene senses the terror of the unknown in this projected cultural revolution, and his explosion: “Mother. … You ask for everything!” is not unlike the shriek of the isolated daughter in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, whose final cry is “afraid.”

Mollie's only fear, the fear that grounds her advice to her son, is of a life lived without risk. As she explains in her final “introduction” of Mother Jones, Mollie admires and wants her audience to “experience” Mother Jones because, “Mother Mary Harris Jones is one first-class risk-taker. … ” She and Mother Jones each have “a different way of living in this world” and “a different philosophy of life,” Mollie continues, but with or without the labels and diverse “philosophies” of capitalism and socialism, of homemaker and agitator, as mothers, they share an understanding that “sometimes to minimize the danger, you have to take risks” (42).

Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones each acknowledge for themselves and for the audience that “history” as we know it is as much a human creation as any other enterprise. The task, therefore, is to rewrite a history that will enable rather than circumscribe those that come to be influenced by it. In the past, men have written the histories, but in the world of Terry's play, Mollie is the author of herself and of her story, a story that is unlike that of many authors because it is not, finally, a monologue but a dialogue. Aware that others will be suspicious of this mode of telling, and will demean her and her story as “woman's work,” when you come to watch her circus, you will hear her say:

Some people have put forward the notion that women don't know how to organize, don't know how to make decisions, don't understand logic, nor can they even tell a story with a beginning and a middle and an end. I confess, to the last accusation, because the way I see it the story has no beginning and it not only hasn't ended for me, it's always starting all over again. (P. 41)

Speaking here for the first time in the play “for women,” Mollie's “confession” affirms the episodic, circular structure of her circus and of the play itself, while simultaneously reclaiming Terry's basic belief in the regenerative powers of women and the epiphanic stories they tell. Life does go on in Mollie's stories: in the final scene of the play, Mollie's husband, Gus, dies in the arms of the couple's very pregnant daughter, Minnie. Terry then deploys the most theatricalized transformation of the drama to play this motif out fully: all of the actors drape garments on Mollie that before our eyes, change her into a seventy-five-year-old woman. The individual women, Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones, are as vulnerable to time's tolls as we are, but in parting from the audience, speaking in one voice for the first time, they encourage us: “Go on—go on and open / Open that door you've never opened before!”

Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones ends on this chord, but the legacies of Mollie and Mother Jones do not. They are part of a re-engendered society and of a new history in which lives and acts transform rather than simply end. In this play, as in her previous work, Terry pushes boundaries, but here she not only imagines anew a universe in which people may effect their own transfigurations, she also takes the risk of reconfiguring the terrian of women's relations to each other. The ordinary moments of our contemporary lives are made extraordinary both by replacing women in history and by imagining difference among women as well as between men and women as a source of strength rather than weakness. In Terry's hands, familiar dramatic tools and cultural practices are made strange and magical by combining signs and conventions from differing forms of discourse and diverse value systems. The songs, transformational acting techniques, dialogic discourse, and wondrous feats of Mollie Bailey's Traveling Family Circus together make everyday existence alien, but rather than making us remote from our own society, they urge us to reenter our own worlds through new doors.

Like a magician who is freed to show the audience how she pulls the rabbit out of the hat, Terry, like Mollie Bailey and Mother Jones, shows women and men how to work to make a difference. Mother Jones and Mollie Bailey will, indeed, “be back again,” to haunt us and inspire us, as will all the previously hidden struggles, defeats, and triumphs of women when today's women own their pasts as their inheritance, an inheritance that is rightfully ours but for which we also must accept the dangers of responsibility.

Notes

  1. Helene Keyssar, Feminist Theatre (London: Macmillan, 1984, 1986), 53-76.

  2. For a different introduction to the idea of transformation in Terry's dramas, see June Schlueter, “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, 59-69.

  3. Helene Keyssar, “Hauntings: Gender and Drama in Contemporary English Theatre,” Amerikanische Studien, December 3-4, 1986, 461-68.

  4. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984), especially 432-74.

  5. Op cit. 153, 255-56. Bakhtin comments frequently on what he calls the “wholeness” or collectivity of carnival. For example, “The individual feels that he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity, a member of the people's mass body. In this whole, the individual body ceases to a certain extent to be itself; it is possible, so to say, to exchange bodies, to be renewed (through change of costume and mask)” (255). We might note that this description of the spirit of carnival is similar to Nietzsche's notion of the Dionysian in The Birth of Tragedy.

  6. Megan Terry, author's note to script of Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones (New York: Broadway Play Publishing, 1983).

Additional coverage of Terry’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors Vols. 77–80; Contemporary Authors Biographical Series Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series Vol. 43; Contemporary Literature Criticism Vol. 19; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 7.

Megan Terry (essay date 1977)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1308

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 “living” quality. I started to try to write down some of the improvisations with the thought that if the structure could be secured and dialog written the actors could have a tighter scenario and be relieved of the “playwriting” part of their work. They would be freer to fly in their art. And the improvisation could stay fresh. This wasn't so easy to do, and I think it took me ten years of trying before I got good at it.

In college and on my own, I studied fine arts, theatrical design and costume. I was swept away for a time by the Collagists. I believe the experience of working in collage for five years influenced the way I put plays together later on. I think of “building” or “making” a play.

I bought a lot of wire “in” and “out” boxes at the Salvation Army, and each is loaded with notes. Sometimes these notes turn into plays, and sometimes I have to empty them into larger boxes marked “notes.” I have many cards with possible titles stashed in drawers around the house.

Sometimes a title comes first, sometimes last, sometimes that's all that comes. I buy pens by the gross. Notepads are in every room, pocket, purse. There is always paper in the typewriter.

I write a lot from life. I listen to characters and write down what they say. They usually surprise me. The way people speak is music to me. I collect language. I've trained my ear over the years, both out of pleasure and a desire to save what I'm hearing. I imagine I can hear the inner person via the rhythms of a person's sentence structure. I try to be as faithful as I can to individual rhythms when I'm writing.

I love to write. The act of writing gives me almost as much pleasure as lovemaking. I can write as long as my energy holds out—sometimes two days and nights at a time, sometimes eight to ten hours, sometimes only two pages, then I take a nap, wake up, drink a giant cup of Irish breakfast tea with a cinnamon stick and write twenty-four more hours.

I have a one-inch-by-two-inch section of masking tape on the left-hand side of my typewriter. I have written on the tape “Two Pages.” That means to me that my only requirement to earn bread and board and to be relieved of guilt for each day of my life, all I have to hand in to myself, is two pages of new material. It may be on anything, but notebook writing doesn't count. It must be writing that can actually be worked into a now or future play. When I have a deadline to meet, either one of my own or one commissioned, I up the number of pages from five to ten to twenty. Two pages a day, two times 365, adds up to enough pages for anyone.

Typing is an unnatural act. I got “D” in typing in high school. When I realized later on that I was more into writing than design, acting or directing, I had to relearn typing. Not an easy job. I'm athletically coordinated, but I couldn't type. Why? I still don't know. It was necessary for me to conquer this mechanical defect, or I could never have moved ahead as a writer. I have memories of banging my head on the typewriter and crying from frustration and anger at my ineptness. This was the basis of early writing blocks. But I found the writing was always there, ready to show itself on the page if I could only get the mechanical problems out of the way. The only thing to solve it was to force myself to take junk jobs in insurance companies and engineering firms as a temporary typist to build my speed. This worked, but took longer than I thought.

That pain is all behind me now. I have since beaten to death one Royal and two Olympias. Now I have a strong IBM Selectric at home and another in the lighting booth at the theatre. I go to work with the actors and do the warm-up exercises with them, then go up to the lighting booth to write scenes for whatever play we're into—usually at the rate of a scene a day or every two days, depending on how much research is involved. This is in addition to the personal assignments I have given myself or outside commissions from other groups. The act of writing is no longer a pain, but now a physical joy akin to hang gliding.

Cappuccino first thing in the morning. I jump into sweat clothes and take the dogs to the park. Back inside, a long hot shower; then I choose clothing according to what I plan to write. For aggressive scenes, blue jeans; for tender scenes, love scenes, I dress in silk.

After the first burst of writing, it's time to start dinner for the company. I usually cook a giant soup or stew for the members of our household every three of four days. I think of my main career as that of a cook. Writing occurs in between stirring and chopping, serving, and watching my friends eat. After the soup or stew is started, I move back and forth from the typewriter to the stove, stirring, tasting, adding spices, more vegetables, experimenting with lower and lower heat.

I never stop working on a show we have in performance or in our permanent repertoire because I am always learning new things about the piece from the audience. I cut, add, or rewrite after consultation with our director Jo Ann Schmidman and the company. I stop working on the written text once a play is published, but if new editions come out, I incorporate any changes we've developed that will, in my opinion, make the play play better.

Now we are doing developmental work for a play, a rock samba musical I'm writing, set in Brazil. The first impulse to write this show came from an interview Janis Joplin gave to the press. She had gone to Brazil for Mardi Gras, hitchhiked up the coast of Brazil, and somehow kicked junk. No one knows anything else about that period in her life. I put on her records again today and try to write drafts of scenes that have her beat as their basis.

Megan Terry with Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig (interview date 1987)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10386

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 certificates in directing, acting and design from the Banff School of Fine Arts, and won a Fellowship to Yale.

[Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig]: You've written a cornucopia of plays, had hundreds of productions world-wide and share administrative and artistic responsibilities at the Omaha Magic Theatre. When do you find time to write?

[Terry]: Whenever I have to. Helping to run a theater is like running a small business, so the writing has to get squeezed in whenever it can. I used to write two pages a day when things were calmer, but sometimes I have to write ten. I buy pens by the gross.

You still write by hand, then?

I always have paper in three typewriters. Two down at The Magic Theatre and one at home. And I must have pens. I always seem to be on the move.

Describe your creative process. How does a play begin in your mind?

In many different ways. I was trained in fine arts and went into theater first as a designer and performer. Sometimes it's an image, or the entire set. Sometimes I draw the set first and then write scenes to go in it. Other times, characters start speaking and acting in my mind, and then I become like a secretary to the characters and type as fast as I can to get it all down.

When you work on a topic that requires research, do you begin the research or the writing first?

No set way. Approaching Simone [1970] took me fifteen years to get together because I had to do a lot of research. Many of her [Simone Weil's] books were out of print, and I had to comb rare-book libraries. The greatest thing that happened as a result of doing the play was that the publishers brought Simone Weil's work out again in paperback.

Your play Brazil Fado[1977] is peppered with news reports. Are those taken from real incidents?

Yes, from The Omaha World Herald, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times.

Rosalyn Drexler uses news clippings, current events, weird items in her work, too. Why do you?

In Brazil Fado I wanted to say a few things about the continuing tragedies in Central and South America.

It's a fascinating play.

Can you tell me why nobody's doing it?

You're making a connection in Brazil Fado between an American couple playing torture games and torture in the world at large. Do you think, in this conservative era, anybody wants to buy a play on that subject?

Not even other women producers, unfortunately. But we have no problem producing such plays for our Omaha audience.

In Magic Dust, the newspaper your theater publishes and distributes in the community, you reported on your attendance at the Open Theater Conference at Kent State University in December 1983. You say most students have never heard of Joe Chaikin and the Open Theater.

Even the head of the Drama Department there managed to stay away! [Laughter] That was always the case, too, when we were on tour with the Open Theater. Very rarely did the drama people—the people who were teaching in theater departments—ever show up at our performances! Isn't that amazing? It's unbelievable to me that the Open Theater has stayed alive in people's minds as long as it has! … One of the problems is that many critics are looking through a rearview mirror. I think they only read The New York Times and each other. They don't know what's happening in the world. And they're so negative. Even the supportive critics think nothing's happened since the sixties. But almost everyone who was in the Open Theater is now running a company of their own today. People such as Jo Ann Schmidman, Paul Zimet, Ellen Madden, Shami Chaikin, Ray Berry, Ralph Lee, Tina Shepard, Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Gwen Fabricant, James Barbosa and Barbara Van are all growing and developing incredible new work. But several critics who attended that conference think that the only new thing is performance art. They don't do their homework.

What was the most important thing about the conference for you?

I think we realized that we were all meant to be together when we were. We realized we loved one another and we respected one another. That the work was important, and it was still ongoing in our heads and in the work we're doing now. It was a fabulous affirmation. Some of us had not seen each other for ten years! So you can imagine there was advance trepidation. People wondered if some of the old friction would arise, but none did. We've matured. It is possible to grow up! [Laughter] We were so young then! And we were working in the dark! We were uncovering things that were extremely dynamic and scary. Some of the early problems we had were just part of the process. We cried for joy when we saw one another. It was very heady to realize we'd made a great contribution to the growth of our field and to the artistic development of one another.

What do you think that generation of theater people learned from the fifties, from the early work of The Living Theatre? And then what do you think the seventies learned from the sixties?

I've written a play which I haven't released that deals with the late fifties. Obviously, nobody's ready to even consider it yet. Theater is a conservative art necessarily because it deals with living human beings having to get along with one another to bring something about.

Theater lags behind the other arts?

Yes—it has to—because discoveries have to be made in the other art forms before they can be assimilated into theater. Since painting or poetry is a one-to-one thing, it can develop faster. It's my opinion that American painting, poetry and jazz reached their zenith in the fifties. And that had to happen before the theater could take off. The theater conserves and accumulates, and the sixties couldn't have happened the way it did if such exciting work hadn't arrived in the fifties in the other art forms. Witness the amazing success of the exhibit of late fifties and early sixties painting entitled BLAM! at the Whitney [Museum of American Art]. Young people are going to that exhibit and coming out reeling with energy and ideas from that time. For too long people have believed the conservative propaganda that nothing happened in the fifties but Eisenhower's golf swing. Also, the sixties would have been different had Kennedy not been shot. The assassination was a catalyst that brought together and then exploded an astounding energy in theatrical art.

Are there particular people of that fifties generation that influenced you?

The American musical theater … the Beat Generation poets, [Gary] Snyder, [Jack] Kerouac, [Allen] Ginsberg … the painters [Robert] Rauschenberg, Red Grooms, [Claes] Oldenburg, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler.

And of the musicians?

Anita O' Day … Sara Vaughan … Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Kenny Berrel Trio … I was very into jazz and Elvis Presley rock 'n roll!

What happened to theater in the sixties? What was breaking down, changing?

Up until the sixties, the American theater for the most part was an imitation—except for musicals—of the European theater. The Oedipus complex vis-à-vis Mother England was very strong. People went to the theater to learn how to behave, so they could continue an upwardly mobile climb. How to dress, how to smoke cigarettes with élan, how to mix drinks while looking seductive, et cetera—how to look WASP. We in the Open Theater and other groups were not interested in “getting ahead” in the old way. We wanted to get somewhere with ourselves, our art and with each other. We wanted a richer, a “realer” life. I feel we democratized the theater. We began to put every kind of American on the stage. I wanted to write plays where it didn't matter what you looked like as long as you had the talent to play it. Also, we were a generation of people educated by those who had survived World War II and come back to teach. World War II gave us as a people a global view. Up to then, in spite of World War I, we'd been insular. We now belonged to the whole world.

And now do we think the world belongs to us?

I think the Russians have made a very clear statement, lately, about that. The world is split in two. What happened to the [1984] Olympics in Los Angeles is continuing evidence. [The Soviet Union refused to send competitors to the games.]

How did the democratization of the theater during the sixties affect the seventies?

In the late fifties, early sixties, people came from all over America to New York. And they weren't welcome in the existing Broadway theater. So people like Lanford Wilson, Joe Chaikin, Irene Fornes, Julie Bovasso and all the rest of us who had been told we weren't tall enough, short enough, or thin enough got fed up, and in American entrepreneurial fashion started our own theaters. All these young people were idealists! With fine training. The models in our head were those of the Moscow Art Theatre, the Group Theatre. The Group Theatre ideal evolved into the Actors Studio, and, because of their directors going into film, put Americans in film on a global scale. But there was, to our minds, no real American theater. Previously playwrights had appeared to the popular mind only one at a time. In the beginning was O'Neill. Then Tennessee Williams. Then Miller. Edward Albee was the last of the “lone” playwrights. The sixties was an incredible explosion of thirty-five talented writers showing up in New York. And nobody knew how to deal with them! Critics have a Messiah complex! Their brains are too tiny to hold more than one talent in their minds at a time. Michael Feingold [The Village Voice], Jack Kroll [Newsweek] and Sylvie Drake [The Los Angeles Times] are different. They love theater. They're in it with us. Unfortunately, many other critics seem bent on using the stuff of theater as raw material for their own careers in a way that demonstrates they're not part of the field.

Why do you think they're always bemoaning the lack of political plays?

Yet when one appears, they don't recognize it. They're always asking for “language.” But when Stephen Berkoff arrived with Greeks, or Maria Irene Fornes with Fefu and Her Friends, they couldn't hear it! … I don't know why most of them think there can only be one writer at a time to sum up an age! America is vast. There are many Americas. If you tour this country, you find that out very quickly. Yet critics tend to put the playwright up on the cross. They allow one or two successes, and then they fire napalm. The pressure is horrendous. I'm fearful for Sam Shepard now. You know you have to worry when your face appears on the cover of a national magazine. [Laughter]

Do you make a distinction between theater critics that review for the media and academic theater criticism?

I just heard three marvelous papers at Stanford University. Dr. Margaret Wilkerson on Lorraine Hansberry, Dr. Beverly Beyers-Pevitts and Dr. Rosemary Curb on an array of writers. Their criticism is useful, even inspiring, to a writer.

What elements of criticism are useful to you?

To have the thoughts of minds of their caliber paying attention to writing and writers, their creative comparisons, turns lights on in my head; I see things I hadn't thought of before. New possibilities for plays form in my mind. It drives me forward. Whereas, the other kind of criticism makes me think, “What am I doing? I'm going to go back to crab fishing!” [Laughter]

What about the regional critics versus the New York critics?

I'm thinking of Richard Christianson of The Chicago Tribune, Chris Koyamo of Chicago Magazine and Joan Bunke of The Des Moines Register. They bring a terrific education, a love of theater, concern and a disciplined but considered point of view to their writing. Sylvie Drake, Dan Sullivan and John Mahoney of The Los Angeles Times, Bernard Weiner of The San Francisco Chronicle, Mike Steel of The Minneapolis Tribune and Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins, academic critics, are people who are joining in a partnership with the writer. There is an attitude in New York that critics and playwrights shouldn't talk to one another! Weird.

But you once traveled three thousand miles across country with a critic, didn't you?

Elliot Norton of The Boston Herald-American. He had panned my play, Approaching Simone. Among other things, he called the play “pagan.” It was a trip sponsored by the American Theatre Association. We ended up falling in love with one another … as human beings. He has a right to his opinion. We became friends because we saw one another in action, helping to teach young writers.

You discovered your mutual concerns.

Right. The future.

Walter Kerr, in a [November 23,] 1966 article in The New York Times, lashed out at your antiwar play, Viet Rock, while heaping praise upon Jean-Claude van Itallie's America, Hurrah in the same article. The headline said, “One Succeeds, the Other Fails. Why?”

He attacked me two Sundays in a row. That's when Jean-Claude and I were both playwrights in the Open Theater. But he couldn't kill the play. He closed it in New York, but it was translated into every major language and was proclaimed in every major, and many minor, cities all over the world, and it repaid its backers every cent.

Do you think that the critical vitriol increased because you directed Viet Rock yourself?

Well, I was picketed by a group of directors besides everything else! Because I wouldn't join the Directors' Guild.

In addition, you kept the critics away on opening night?

No, that was a bad move on the part of the producer. For the sake of keeping the play running. This producer told me if he had it all to do over again, he never would have let the critics come at all. [Laughter] He could have kept it running for a year. We had standing room only. The place was packed every night until Kerr's second Sunday drubbing appeared in The Times. Then the phones went dead. Before that, they'd been ringing off the walls; people were throwing themselves in my arms and the actors' arms crying every night after the show, but Kerr managed to kill it.

If all producers united, kept the critics away for a month, would theater criticism as we know it—the “hit or bomb” syndrome—change? One critic of Viet Rock, Whitney Bolton [in the November 15, 1966 issue] of The Morning Telegraph, said, “… I cannot deny [the producers] their right to close the first performance here to us. For that matter, I would think that there is no existing law demanding that newspaper and magazine critics be admitted gratis to any production. Producers in their exercises of rights certainly can deny us admission on the customary cuff and can demand that we buy our seats when and if available. For all producers to follow this pattern would be to send us (the critics) to the showers and that might not be a bad thing.”

Well, maybe it could be done. But reviewers—I'm not talking about critics—feel that they have to protect the public. Especially as the costs of tickets rise. So they're on the side of the public, not the side of the writers. You've got to remember that. Broadway is just a showcase for television now. Broadway is no longer the place I was taught about when I went to college, i.e., the place where The Theater was kept alive, the Theater of Ideas. A place where one could be in touch with human feelings, where you could see yourself, where society could see itself. Broadway is now a place for the tourists to go and be beguiled by stagecraft. They're giving standing ovations to strobe lights!

Will you talk a little bit about Florence James, who she is and how she influenced your career?

She's past ninety now and in a nursing home, though her mind is still extremely sharp. Until five years ago, even though she was blind, she still went to the theater where she worked and gave notes. She'd won a scholarship as a young woman to the Moscow Art Theatre, where she met and studied with Stanislavsky and was influenced greatly by Vaktangov and Meyerhold. She shared all her education with us in the theater she and her husband, Burton W. James, founded in Seattle. I joined as a teenager and was especially swept away by the staging ideas and constructivist sets of Meyerhold. Mrs. James was our director and acting teacher, and her husband was a great actor. She was a powerful director and a powerful intellect.

Do you think that having a great woman as an early role model was helpful to you?

Definitely. But it wasn't only Florence's influence. It was my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, my great-aunts, my mother's cousins. Fantastic women. I love to be with them. I go home several times a year just so I can hang out with them! They're all beautiful and bright, witty, full of the devil. Terrific singers.

We read that your great-grandmother crossed the country with her seven children.

Yes, by covered wagon, without her husband. He was on the job elsewhere as an Indian scout. I only found out about it recently. You see, I come from a pioneer culture, so I'm kind of different from people raised in the East. Women worked side by side with the men. I was taught to build houses. I worked alongside my father and grandfather. We built several houses together. My grandfather was a great engineer who built bridges and railroads. I grew up using tools. I think that's important. Not enough women get to use tools, not even kitchen tools! There's too much isolation among women nowadays. The culture I grew up in, the women were always in the kitchen together. Incredible cooperation, preparing family reunions with lots of joking and singing at huge parties. There was a conference in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago where Dr. Marlene Springer was speaking about a prairie diary she's editing with her husband. It described how the women in Kansas would hurry up and get all their housework done in the morning so in the afternoon they could go porch visiting! They'd sit and rock and pass the time. Then along came the telephone and the porch visiting stopped! And women missed the physical presence of one another. They were seeing men but only hearing each other on the telephone. When there was a special event in the community and all the women would see one another, there'd be an incredible reunion, they'd just rush to hug, and then exchange passionate letters afterwards. Some people have misinterpreted or inferred sexual significance to this, but actually they were just starved for the plain sight of one another! There also had been many instances on the prairies of women committing suicide because of isolation and loneliness. We tend to forget the important reinforcement that physical presence can bring. I find that's an extra dividend of writers' conferences for women. We can give strength and reinforcement to one another. We're going to work with the Springers on creating a new play out of their diary findings for next season, and of course we're calling it Porch Visiting.

What do you say to those people who say that by holding women's conferences we're excluding half of the population?

Men were free to come. Several men were featured speakers. There were only three men in the audience, but it certainly was open to them. I wonder why the other half of the population isn't where our action is.

You teach playwriting. Are you spreading the word about women dramatists?

Constantly. Recently, I taught Emily Mann's Still Life at a university in Minnesota. My students were outraged that they'd never heard of this play, nor the work of Maria Irene Fornes, nor Roz Drexler, Rochelle Owens, Adrienne Kennedy, Sybil Pearson, Caryl Churchill, Pam Gems, Ntozake Shange, Julie Bovasso, Jo Ann Schmidman, Tina Howe. They knew none of these people, and they were getting their master's degrees! They were really angry by the time I finished with them. [Laughter]

You mentioned earlier that the theater world had been used to plodding along with one significant playwright at a time. Then, suddenly, in the sixties, thirty-five new ones flooded the scene. Was that the group Fornes told us about? The New York Theatre Strategy?

Yes, there were thirty-five of us—men and women.

It started out as an all-female group originally, though, didn't it?

We couldn't raise any money! Foundations said we had no track record. And we said: We women have five hundred seventy-five thousand years of track record! They didn't give any money until we got the men in there, though.

You said that you had always wanted to write for women, yet you began writing long before the Women's Movement.

[Laughing] I'd been an actor! I gave directors a hard time because I would change my lines. I'd been trained via the Stanislavsky method; I always wrote interior dialogues for my characters and elaborate descriptions of what my character was doing before my entrance. Often I'd substitute my lines for what was in the text—but only for writers who, in my opinion, hadn't written well enough. However, I was more than happy to learn my lines when I was playing Shaw, O'Casey or Synge. But I didn't get to play them often enough. Finally I decided, “The hell with this! I'm going to start writing!”

And that's where your playwriting began?

Partly. I'd watch actors do great improvisations in workshops and acting classes at the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. Many times their work seemed better than the lines they were trying to learn. But I really started to write when I saw most actors couldn't repeat a great improvisation unless they were also writers. Some actors are great storytellers, and this gift could be transferred into writing.

How did you manage to harness the spontaneous vitality of the improvisation and translate that into a text?

I was trained in improvisation as an actor and so I internalized that way of working as a writer. Also, I've been a painter, sculptor and theater designer; laying down ideas, then ripping them up or moving them around was part of my method of work, so I didn't get lost in the linear.

So how many drafts do you normally go through before you publish a text?

Some come out perfect the first time … Comings and Goings [1966]. Others, like Hothouse [1971], take ten years of drafts.

When you said earlier that you always wanted to write for women, did you mean parts for actresses? Or did you mean write for the women in the audiences?

Both. So many of the interesting roles are for the men. These roles may show many facets of a character—thus the men playing these roles may stretch themselves and show their power as the character and themselves—while the women characters may have only one aspect to project. This may be all the play requires, but the actress does not get a workout and the audience sees only a one-sided woman.

Do you think Aristotelian rules are at all relevant to women dramatists?

Yes, know them and then you can play with them. You don't have to be controlled by them. They're there to use, like building blocks, and you can move them around in any way you want to.

So you don't think women's experience demands new forms of writing?

No. But I personally love new forms and I've created some new forms. I'm essentially a fan of the new, but the oldest form can be just fine—if you fill it with the truth as you see it. Put your experience into any form that's comfortable, or create one that's perfect for you.

Do you see your work as influencing the writing of male playwrights?

Tom Eyen told me after he saw Calm Down, Mother [1965], he ran home and wrote The White Whore and the Bit Player. Many other writers have told me that my work gives them courage.

What did you mean when you said, “Theater is like medicine: It was started by women and usurped by men”?

Storytelling. Mothers telling stories to babies. The first teaching was, is through storytelling. Kitchen sink drama didn't become “art” until men started doing it. Women were writing domestic dramas for thirty, forty years before John Osborne.

Even Joe Papp has said he doesn't want any more “kitchen sink” drama in his theater [New York Shakespeare Festival]. Just as we are becoming more prolific, our most common settings—the kitchen, the bedroom—have become passé;.

And men have been out in the “real” world. Look what trouble this so-called real world has brought us.

No woman playwright has ever been considered a literary “great.” Why?

The day that happens playwriting will no longer be called an art. The same thing happens in business. The minute women infiltrate a job, men turn their backs on it. It no longer has currency.

Will you describe what The Omaha Magic Theatre is doing in terms of self-publishing of plays?

We published our plays for ten years, and we've been recently rewarded for this industry by attracting Broadway Play Publishing, Inc., of New York City. They bring out our work now. It was a mind-bending experience learning the mechanics of self-publishing. But we did it!

You've been trying to encourage women playwrights to send you their bibliographies so that you can drop them off at theaters around the country?

Yes, also so that we can keep in touch. In addition, I do many seminars at universities where I can share this information. There is no such thing as substantial book royalties for a playwright. Photocopying has done away with that. All you can hope for is production royalties. That's why I've asked other writers for their bibliographies—that news is essential to send out into the world—to the young and to potential producers.

Perhaps this book can carry the message to women playwrights to get those bibliographies to you.

Someone should publish a bibliography of all the women writers and give them free to libraries. Then the young people, and we who care, can find out what each other's doing.

What will it take to stop this state-by-state isolation in America? Do you think that New York will always be the heart of theater?

The theatrical energy is no longer in New York, except when it's residing in writers like Irene Fornes and Ping Chong, or writer/performers like Meredith Monk. The energy now is Chicago, San Francisco, Omaha, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Seattle.

And Louisville?

Once a year. But the theater is decentralizing. The next century belongs to the Pacific Rim and the Hispanics. Asia is rising. The Spanish are rising again. We're split into two worlds now, clearly. Maybe that's what happened with men and women, too? But we must work to bring about a balance.

There are some people who feel that there is a renewed but more covert war going on between men and women now … a deeper malaise setting in, separating us.

I think that men are negative because women are positive and on the rise! It's driving the men crazy! Martha Boesing, [playwright and founder of At The Foot of the Mountain Theater] was telling me that in the thousand plays she receives each year, most have hopeful endings! [Laughs] Women are feeling positive and forward-looking. Plays men are writing often end with everybody dead, dying or neurotic to the point of no return.

What can we do to heal this polarization?

Live your life as if the revolution had been a success!

You certainly do. Tell us about the touring aspect of the Magic Theatre.

We tour the Midwest six months of the year, and we take our other plays with us to sell as we go. We've sold the work developed at our theater by mail order, too, all over the United States and, in fact, the world.

Has the Magic Theatre been addressing the issues of nuclear war?

Jo Ann Schmidman, our artistic director, wrote a marvelous piece called Velveeta Meltdown. We staged it in Central Park here and more than five hundred people came. The people of Omaha turned out for Mondale yesterday. When he said he was for a nuclear freeze, a cheer went up through the park that I'm surprised you didn't hear all the way back in New York. We have the SAC Air Force Base here. Omaha is the A-number-one target. Nebraska and Wyoming were told to accept the MX missiles.

Are they torn between having jobs and getting rid of these weapons?

No. Farm people don't want their land wrecked, nor do they want to be targets.

You've opened up dialogues between your theater and the community. Your play Kegger[1982] discussed teenage alcoholism and toured Nebraska. What were the results of this particular effort?

We're catalysts in the community. Communities keep in touch with us via our touring network. Everyone is working now to find ways to have chemical-free fun. They've formed positive peer-pressure groups within the schools to let kids know it's okay not to drink. One of the things that the Magic Theatre Company learned—doing research with neurosurgeons, neuropsychologists and biologists—is that people under the age of twenty-five lack an enzyme to deal with alcohol. That's why kids deteriorate so fast when they get heavily into booze and drugs. What might take eighteen years to ruin an adult will take eighteen months for a kid. But it takes a while to get this information through to kids. We were asked to take Kegger into a Lutheran college, a very conservative school, because they found their students were having keggers every night! The kids were coming to class drunk. After another performance of Kegger at a large state university, some of the professors came to us afterward and said, “You know you've really opened our eyes. We didn't know why the kids were sleeping in class, or why their grades were falling off.” It never crossed their minds that they were drunk or hung over! It's a long education process. One of the big causes of this drinking is that kids don't think they're going to see [age] twenty-five. Many of the young people I interviewed really believe that we're all going to blow up, and that they might as well have their good times while they can!

Are your playwriting students politically aware?

You might get one out of fifty who sees the bigger picture. When they're under twenty-one they're still having a lot of problems with interpersonal relationships, with their families. … They have to work their family play out of their systems first. And some of the students I met are working three jobs.

Is this despair in the young—drinking, and so on—stopping the kids from writing?

At no time in history have so many people been writing plays. I had ten in a recent university group, and all ten of them could write. They had me working overtime to prepare for them. They were all bright; some were in a kind of negative despair, but not all. There is no lack of talent. We've just got to give kids a better world to live in.

Do you feel that there's a necessity for regional theaters and playwrights to start forming the sort of alliances that the Omaha Magic Theatre has created with Nebraska communities?

More theaters are willing to do that than a lot of writers may realize. I belong to the American Theatre Association, and I find a lot of community theaters are looking to affiliate with writers. Many universities are eager to produce new works of playwrights who are willing to work with their students. I think too many writers are sitting around waiting for Godot. The National Endowment for the Arts has done everything it can to encourage new works in the last ten years. And these efforts have paid off. Every proposal I've read from theaters all around the country has a new play production or development program. It's up to the writer now to go get affiliated or start her own theater. If you don't like the way a theater does things, then start your own, Babe! This is the land of entrepreneurs. If you read the tax laws, they're all written for the small business people. If the writer can see himself or herself as a small businessperson, the sky's the limit.

In the Magic Theatre's Statement of Purpose, we see that you're not separating art from business. You are encouraging everyone to learn the business side.

If you don't, you go under! Besides, if you don't know where money comes from, you get arrogant and begin to think the world owes you a living.

Where would playwrights go to gather these entrepreneurial skills?

You can start by starting. You can go and offer yourself to a small theater company. Every small theater company in this country needs talent. Learn it by doing it.

And that would include learning to write a grant?

That is the biggest pain in the neck. Everyone with writing skills should be learning to write grants and helping out that way. At The Magic Theatre we share the chore around so that everyone gets to learn what that “pain in the neck” is and sees where their salary comes from.

When were you first able to earn a living from your plays?

Strangely enough, with Viet Rock in 1966.

Did you see any of the foreign productions of that play?

No, but they sent me photos of it, from Tokyo, Germany …

Calm Down, Mother's being translated into Cantonese.

Yes, it's being produced in Hong Kong. I can't tell you what a high that's given me. I have been intrigued by China since I was a child.

Do you have any plans to go to China?

Yesterday, we got a call from Korea. They want us to come to their next International Theater Festival. If we get to Korea, then perhaps we can tour China.

Would you talk about the theme of dominance and submission that crops up so often in your work? Why is this subject so compelling to you?

Well, I think you have to submit to art. [Laughter] One must submit the ego to the work, or the work never gets done. That's the positive side of submission. The only utopias that ever lasted very long were those where people submitted to an idea greater than the individual.

Isn't that surrender rather than submission? Is there a difference?

Yes. Surrender used that way implies bliss as well as loss of self. Submission, on the other hand, means against your will you do thus and so because you are forced by either superior strength or psychological power. Sorting this out is important for mental health, and I believe my plays have healing powers.

Your work constantly addresses the power struggles of human beings. Where does this obsession come from?

It started in grade school, being very bright in class. There were two boys as bright as I, and we were friends. I had one of those rare experiences of going to school with the same friends from first to the eighth grade. But by the eighth grade the teachers stopped calling on me, even though they knew I knew the answers. When I got into high school, that was it. It didn't matter how bright the girls were, only the boys were called on; you could see them being groomed for leadership.

Did you feel angry about that?

Oh, yes! But I was still very naïve when I was a freshman in high school. The other members of the freshman class urged me to stand up in an assembly and criticize the student council! Which I did. And there was an incredible silence. Later I found out—when I was a senior—that all the boys in the Student Council were offended and they collectively agreed never to take me out! [Laughter] They'd made a pact. I found out at an early age that when a woman opens her mouth there are consequences!

Was that the theme you were dealing with in your play Attempted Rescue on Avenue B [1977]?

If you show your power you'll get killed.

How have you protected yourself?

I think being Irish provides a certain protection, and strong women to look to in my family. My family has always been behind me one hundred thousand percent. My mother always told me I was beautiful and brilliant. She still does.

What were the factors that led up to you leaving New York and divorcing yourself from the commercial theater?

I saw that there were two worlds and I didn't have to live in the negative one. And I also realized I didn't have to be “the woman” behind “the man.”

Yes. That subject is also dealt with in Attempted Rescue. What kinds of sacrifices are necessary for women artists, do you think?

I don't think one has to make any. It's all in the way you look at the world. It's just a matter of organizing your time.

Are you organized?

I must be, because I get enough done; but I feel that I only accomplish one-tenth of what I'm capable of.

So a women doesn't have to sacrifice her personal relationships to be a committed artist?

Not at all!

Chinese playwright Bai Fengxi might disagree, I think. She bases much of her work around this very question. Can a woman have a full-time career as well as a happy marriage and family life?

Perhaps her traditions place intolerable burdens on her. But we're a young country, and women raised here should be able to shrug off a lot of society's pressures.

How different an experience was it for you to go off and work with someone like Jo Ann Schmidman in Omaha after the New York scene?

It was very different. Because she liked everything I wrote! That was really different! I mean, reinforcing! It took me a long time to believe her, because she was so accepting with her generous policies and attitude. Plus she's a great director! I'm a pretty good director, but after I saw her directing I had sense enough to back off from directing and write more. She's also an amazing performer. She's the only actor Joe Chaikin ever put directly into the Open Theater without a probation period. She's the first director I've worked with who has been raised totally on television. She's visually literate. She physicalizes my work in ways that I would never have dreamed of! I have a terrific ear, but she has wonderful visual sense.

So you have a true collaboration, then, between writer and director?

Yes. We also write together. This piece we're working on now, X-rayed-iate [1984], is really her child. I wrote most of the text, but the concept, the structure, the movement of it is hers.

Here in New York we sense a growing barrier between playwrights and directors.

The director is a recent phenomenon, you know, in the last hundred years.

You've described yourself as a benevolent dictator. Are you autocratic as a director in the rehearsal setting?

In the sense that we have to open on a certain date, on time, you know. I expect people to be punctual at rehearsals and pay attention. I was involved in too many situations in the past where there was excessive talking and not enough action. Sometimes you can talk something to death and never get any work done. In that sense, you need to know when to be a dictator, to make sure that the work gets done. A director constantly has to strengthen the self-image of the actors. There's been something rotten going on in American theater for a long time. Artists don't believe in their own talents! One is constantly having to reassure them. I mean, it was true in the Open Theatre, and it's still true with these kids coming out of school, today. They don't know how to work, they don't know where to work. Not only do they not know how to work on a role, they don't know how to pick up a hammer! The culture that I was raised in, the work ethic of the pioneer culture, has disintegrated. You spend two thirds of your time teaching people how to work. If actors came knowing how to work, if they had a sense of themselves, that they had a right to work, it would be peaches and cream.

Staying on the subject of director autocracy, what about playwrights like Susan Yankowitz, who was barred from rehearsals of her play Knife in the Heart at Williamstown. Isn't that taking dictatorship too far?

I said benevolent dictatorship. I didn't know that was still going on. If it is, then direct your own work. Shaw did it. Irene Fornes is the best director of her own work. I know that in the old days a director used to take the writer across the street to the bar to get him drunk! [Laughter]

Do you believe that there's a female aesthetic in playwriting?

A female aesthetic could only happen if the next generation of women were raised all together on a desert island. We've been taught by men!

So you don't think the innovations of women are in any way organic?

I really don't. How would you measure it?

We don't know. That's why we're asking women playwrights this question. What we do know, after reading tons of women's plays and hundreds of their reviews, is that there are certain elements common to all: Many of their plays are woman-centered, with a much higher percentage of female roles than plays by men.

This will probably continue until the balance is redressed. But after there's a balance, and we have female characters living up there on the stage that we haven't had for a long time, that may all change.

Tell us why you decided on cross-gender casting in Babes in the Bighouse [1974]?

We thought that was a very clear way for men to learn how to empathize with women. After the performances, men said, “Now I understand what you women are talking about!” By putting a man in a dress, in the same constraints as the women characters in the play, it became clear to the men in the audience what women were up against. Earlier we'd learned, while playing a boys' high school, that the boys in the audience only paid attention to what male characters said. Men are socialized to respond to a male body and a male voice; from an early age they seem to be trained to discount what women say. There were terrific laugh lines that women had in the play, but the audience would only laugh if a male character said something funny. That's how we found out boys wouldn't pay attention to what women said. By having men play women in Babes, we got men to pay attention to what the play was saying. But we didn't have to change the writing. And this was in 1974!

Will you tell us a bit about your experience bringing theater to inmates in prison?

Any time we need an ego boost, we can play a prison and become reenergized. There are no masks. If they like the show, they're with you all the way—talking to the stage, calling out terrific, appropriate, additional lines and giving our performers standing ovations at the end. Then we have amazing discussions. They have a lot of time to think in jail, and they sincerely want to help solve society's problems.

Do you have any problems getting your Nebraska audience to accept the sexuality in your plays?

We don't have any trouble with people out here! They are farmers or they've been close to the farm. They deal with animals, procreation, the elements and nature. I think that people are too rarified in New York. They've been too long away from animals and plants and trees.

Megan, do you think the voices of the black women playwrights have fallen silent in the last few years?

There's nothing silent about [Ntozake] Shange. Some new writers are writing realistic plays—choosing Lorraine Hansberry as their model rather than Adrienne Kennedy or Shange, who are poets as well as playwrights.

Shange's experimenting in performance art. She feels that's a viable way to keep her poetry alive. But she's had some difficulty getting some things produced.

It seems to me Spell #7 is an even stronger piece than colored girls, but Shange said the same men who produced colored girls didn't get behind her second play. Women are going to have to put one another forward. There's got to be more support among women for women's work. I think black women have a hard time getting hold of each other's work and need to find a way to share their work faster.

Will you explain what happened when Actors Equity Association forbade its members to appear in showcases of your work?

That was a result of a series of misunderstandings. There was a showcase of my play Hothouse [1974], in which ten actors took part. The Showcase Code states that if a play is moved from Off Off Broadway after its twenty-one performances the original actors must be retained in the cast or paid two weeks' salary. Then it was done again, produced by several of the original actors but with five or six replacements, at The Truck and Warehouse Theatre [in New York's East Village]. The actors begged me to sign a paper that they said was only a formality. They said they loved the show and wanted to do it again because they thought it would bring them to the attention of agents and producers. By this time about sixteen different people had been in and out of the play. The play was picked up by the Chelsea Theatre; they intended to give it a first-class production. The problems arose because the Chelsea management wanted to cast their own people in the play. I was happy with the first group who had played it at the Circle Rep Workshop. Barbara Rosoff had directed and Arden Fingerhut had created a stunning lighting design. But now there was a new director, a new producer, and they had their own vision. I argued and persuaded, but the Chelsea group would allow the retention of only one of the original actors. That person they fired after four days. Naturally, that person and those other actors were distressed, and so was I. Some of those actors complained to their union, and their union sent me a bill for over five thousand dollars and told me I was in effect blacklisted in New York City until that bill was paid.

I have not paid the bill. And I would advise playwrights not to sign a showcase form. It prevents subsequent performances of a play, because the play will become encumbered with this type of lien. Recently Equity has further complicated the code to make one pay not only theatrical salaries, but TV and film salaries, too, before they will allow the play to be performed. It seemed to me that if their union was a true union the new actors hired by Chelsea could have refused the jobs in favor of the creators of the roles. But this argument went nowhere with Equity. I offered to pay Equity twenty-five dollars a week for the rest of my life to help bring down this bill, but they wouldn't accept that. Where they thought I would dig up five thousand dollars just so I could have my plays done in New York City, I don't know. But I haven't had any problems getting productions in other cities.

You once said that playwrights subsidize the theater.

All artists have subsidized this culture since the beginning!

Don't most people feel that it is the artists who are subsidized, and not vice versa?

The average middle-class salary is thirty-five thousand a year, and the tiny percentage of artists who get five thousand are considered to be subsidized? There's been subsidy for artists only in the last fourteen years, anyway. The people at the National Endowment for the Arts, and some of the private foundations, work very hard to share money around, pitiful few dollars that there are. When I'm on one of those “deciding-who-gets-what” committees, I feel like I'm shredding pennies. Isn't it strange that this American culture has valued everything but the people who create something out of thin air? What is left when a civilization dies? Only its art and a few tool fragments.

What's the playwright's responsibility to society?

To critique that society, the perceived world and beyond. Beckett, for instance, critiques “being.” You must always guard against being coopted.

What was your first conception of a writer?

I don't know, because I had such a miserable education. It was through other writers and painters that I learned to write. And through struggle. When you read what Lorca did and said before they shot him, when you think of the artists who made the effort to communicate with us. … Look what things they went through so we could open our minds. All the people who went to their deaths. … We owe them a lot.

What do you wish to convey to the world through your plays?

That life is possible. I'm always fighting against inertia. Art is about taking action. The essential core of theater is action. I believe in taking creative action. What else is there to do?

What advice do you have for young women in high school and college who are thinking about becoming a playwright?

Do it. See all kinds of performance, from polka dances to basketball games. Do you know what I miss in the world? Singing. There's a lot of noise, but there isn't enough singing lately. Don't you miss the women singers of the sixties? You have to turn on country music to hear a woman sing now. We don't have enough new singers. I'm still writing musicals, and I wish there were more singers.

What contributions do you feel that you've made in changing the form of the American musical?

I proved rock music worked on the stage. No one would believe it, or even allow it. Certainly I speeded up exposition. You don't have to sit for two acts anymore to get to the heart of a play or musical.

You once said that the form of the play is the least important thing, that those who are obsessed with structure have received too much schooling. Telling the truth, you said, is far more important than form. Do you believe that content dictates form?

I used to believe that, but I've been proved wrong. [Laughter] Because people have revitalized old forms! By putting another kind of content in it. If you're telling the truth, it grabs people. I think form is fashion. I just happen to love fashion.

Is that why you've mastered so many different forms of playwriting?

I love creating, and seeing if something will work. I like to keep building myself out on farther and farther ledges. I like to defy gravity.

Would you say that your major concern as a writer is the continuity of the family?

My biggest resentment about war, besides the obvious destruction, is how it wrecks families. Our family was destroyed by World War II, our extended family.

Your play Hothousedealt with this subject.

I don't know if it dealt with it enough. Did it make the point?

[KB]: It speaks to me personally, having been raised in Coventry, England, in wartime and having my own family torn apart by war.

Maybe we can make other kinds of structures to take the place of the extended family. People these days seem to desire community more than romantic love.

[RK]: Ideas of community were brought to a renaissance in the sixties and seventies. Now, as we move through the eighties, everyone has become more individual, more career-oriented. We hear many young women describe themselves as “post-feminists.” Their goal is to make thirty thousand dollars a year when they get out of school.

Young women are writing to me using the words make it. What does that mean? I don't know. I guess they are concerned about making enough money. For whom? In whose eyes? Wait till they make it and find out nobody cares. We're living in a kind of glitter time. You know what it reminds me of? Restoration comedy.

Some of the women playwrights don't want to be aligned politically with women anymore. They say, “I'm not a feminist, I'm a humanist.” Or, “I don't want to be called a woman playwright.”

They don't want to be ghetto-ized.

How do you feel about being “ghetto-ized?”

It's a danger. I told the feminists I wouldn't write their party line, either. I made a big speech to a large Midwest feminist group; I told them it was my duty to criticize everything, including them, and a whole bunch of people in hobnailed boots walked out.

And yet no one looks at a book exclusively devoted to male playwrights' interviews—and there are many of them—and says, “Look at those poor guys—they're ghettoized. …”

You're right. This came up last week at [a] Stanford University [conference on women in theater]. There were eight women's plays being presented. And there were no male characters in their plays. And one woman in the audience got up and said, “I don't like all this lesbian writing, where's love between the sexes?” Out of eight plays—only one had a lesbian character, and that play was an uproarious comedy. But this woman labeled all the work, work dealing with all sorts of female characters trying to solve many sorts of problems, in a pejorative way. On the positive side, I'm impressed that feminists can write so well. I witnessed some great writing there. But where were the male characters? This question took over the audience. It was like a mob psychology of the early seventies! After having this wonderful experience—fresh, funny, very moving writing—suddenly the whole audience took up what this woman was saying. Martha Boesing, [playwright] and I had to put a stop to it. Finally, I had to say, “Look. David Mamet just won the Pulitzer Prize, but you wouldn't think of asking him why there were no women in Glengarry Glen Ross.” The minute a woman writes about what women are talking about when the men aren't around, people jump on them. Including other women. But I don't want to be perceived as writing only for women. I'm writing for the whole human race! I feel responsible for the past, present and the future!

We see feminism as embodying humanism, not separate from it.

I've noticed, at these conferences where some men have been speaking out, that a lot of American males perceive feminists as separatists. They want to dismiss all women's work if they think they're not going to be allowed to be an equal part of the audience.

Isn't that male anger precisely why some women are reluctant to call themselves feminists?

They're afraid of male retaliation. After all, who holds the purse strings?

Are you talking about censorship?

And grant giving.

You've said you don't object to being called a feminist.

Why should I object?

So what does feminism mean to you personally?

I want to redress the balance! If a Martian came here to visit our culture, it would think it was visiting a homosexual society. Men run everything.

Your play American King's English for Queens [1978], explores sexism in the language of criticism. Do you think women's plays are critiqued with a different vocabulary than men's plays?

I don't think the critics feel that they're doing this. They think they're being fair, that they're just applying a literary standard.

If a man and a woman playwright, of equal craft, put a readily recognizable character on stage, why is the woman's character called a “stereotype” and the man's an “archetype”?

How they take care of their own. Isn't it wonderful?

Why is an angry play by a woman conceived of as “bitter”? Yet an angry play by a man is …

A “blockbuster”!

Are the women getting accused of bad craft when, in fact, it's the content that's upsetting to the critics?

If you analyzed these plays, scene by scene, would the craft of the women's plays hold up?

We think so. Especially in the case of a Caryl Churchill, an Emily Mann, Fornes, Drexler, Owens, Farabough, et cetera. A common critical term used to describe innovative women's work is “nonplay.”

They want a fried egg. A beginning, a middle and an end, with a rising climax. A male orgasm.

Well, then, let's go back to your play American King's English for Queensand your attack on sexism in the language.

Just go listen in the supermarket to how people talk to their children. It'll make your hair stand on end.

The cruelty?

Yes. Roles and attitudes toward the self are shaped within the family by how one is spoken to.

What were the audience discussions like after American King's English for Queens?

Exciting and intense, and that's where we got the idea for Goona Goona [1979], from the discussions after American King's English for Queens. We began to explore all the ways we talk to one another.

But Goona Goonawas about family violence. What's the connection?

The violence in the language led to the discovery of actual physical violence going on at home. I mean this one door opened, and other doors just kept opening beyond that. Discussions after Kegger have led to our next piece, which will be about family communication. People found out that they're not only having a hard time talking to one another, they can't even talk to themselves in their own heads anymore. We've found a whole group of scholars who work with us, share their expertise and research to build plays for our audiences. The audience tells us what they want to deal with. We do one piece a year, which we think of as lending our skills to give voice to community concerns. The other seven plays we produce are for our own and our audience's artistic growth.

The Magic Theatre, from what we've read, seems to be financially successful, too. You've combined art, community outreach and business rather well.

And we've never had a deficit.

If local corporations subsidize you or give grants—say, for instance, a place like Campbell's soup, which is based in your area—does that inhibit doing a play about the problems at a Campbell's soup plant?

I understand that Campbell's soup is one of the best places for women to work. There may be difficulties in other places with other companies, but we haven't had any problems with corporations, because the things we've been writing about are the things that employees who work for them want to talk about!

We heard you use these wonderful soft sculptures in your plays. Diane Degan designs them?

And Sora Kim. We all design them. We have a large group of Midwest painters and sculptors who work with us on all our shows. We also have three composers in residence. When I designed Goona Goona, I designed the whole house as a gigantic quilt. I designed the costumes as a combination of puppets and football uniforms with padding so the actors wouldn't get hurt. They had to hit each other with baseball bats while depicting family violence.

Do you get many requests from other states for your scripts that deal with family and community problems?

Yes. The biggest difficulty right now is getting it down on paper fast enough to meet the demand. Right now I'm trying to get Objective Love, Goona Goona, Kegger, and Fifteen Million Fifteen-Year-Olds completed, so that we can share them around. We're constantly bombarded with requests for these scripts. We expect to have most of them ready by the end of the summer. In Xerox form. Our earlier plays have been brought out by Broadway Play Publishing, Inc.

Megan, what message would you most like to send round the world?

It's worth it to make a life in art. I want to tell everybody it's possible and it's worth it. I've lived long enough now to see what happens to people who don't follow their hearts.

Megan Terry (lecture date 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3299

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 reflecting, meditating on, or collecting the look of the landscape in their work, and preserve and transmit it in such a way that they become stewards and guardians. The people working for a clean environment have an easier case to make because of evidence collected and recorded by artists who show in their art how perfect the land and environment once was. Don't let anyone tell you that an artist works only for art or for oneself. You are at the center of civilization. Indeed you demonstrate through your work what a civilized being is. When I look back at my own education, I see that I educated myself, mainly by studying the great plays that have been handed down to us since the Greeks.

It's probably possible to educate yourself well through intense attention to any of the arts. To have qualified and inspired teachers is, of course, an added luxury … and I trust those here today are enjoying this luxury.

An educated woman is a relatively new development on our cultural landscape. Another thing we have now is longevity. Death from childbirth is no longer the great killer of American women it once was. We have a chance to live longer and think longer and create longer than our great-grandmothers. Our great-grandmothers possibly couldn't let themselves think in this way. Two of my great-grandmothers are buried out here on the plains. They died in childbirth. Each of them made a great deathbed speech to their little children who gathered around for the last good-bye, a speech of love and instruction that carried these children through a lifetime of hardship, to triumphs of various scale.

My mother's mother was a poet, a secret poet, whose poems were discovered after her death. She felt writing was time stolen from her family, so she hid her work. But she willed her poems to me. This gift had a profound effect on a 13-year-old. My grandmother gave me a charge and a vocation. She saved me from confusion and she saved me time. I knew what I would do with my life. As I watched my friends flounder and change their minds a hundred times, I knew in my deepest heart that I would be a writer. Never underestimate the power you have with the generations coming after you. If we are to make things better for other artists, we must take an interest in them at an early age and support them and their work.

I can truthfully say that geography in a sense drove me straight into writing. Geography in the sense of dirt.

I worked in the fields as a child. In grade school I picked strawberries for 25 cents a flat. We all looked forward to attaining high school age because then we'd be allowed to work in the bulb fields. These were commercial flower bulbs: tulip, daffodil, and narcissus. High school girls could make a dollar an hour in the bulb fields. Boys weren't welcome there—it was said they didn't have the patience to be thorough enough. Eight dollars for eight hours. The idea of making eight dollars a day was heady. You could buy good school clothes and save up for a second-hand car on that money. But after two and a half months on my hands and knees digging in the wet soil, my fingernails felt like they were being exquisitely tortured with instruments five times worse than bamboo splinters. Every night it took two hours of soaking to get the mud out from under my nails. Each night on the ride home in the closed, dusty van with the other exhausted girls, I found myself praying for a way out of my immediate geography. The last straw came the next week when my money was cut to 75 cents an hour because I led the group in singing to make the time pass. The boss didn't think working and singing could be done without the work suffering. I was defiant and wanted to prove the work went better. So I kept singing and though my production increased, I was cut to 50 cents an hour. That night, while soaking out the mud, I reread my grandmother's poems. The next morning I quit my job and I've been writing ever since.

In reflecting on what I might tell you so that we could have a dialogue, I realized that lately I'm very happy in my work with the Omaha Magic Theatre. It wasn't always the case. When I first started to try to write, many times the frustration of not getting onto the paper what I could see in my head and feel in my heart caused me to cry a lot. Once the frustration was so overwhelming I banged my head on my typewriter. I survived, but the typewriter had to be traded in.

It makes me smile today when I look back on that distraught person who wanted more than anything in the world to have a life in art. Now I'm living it, and I'm thrilled because at that time, I didn't think I'd ever be happy on this plane. I realize also that in these strange times it's not too cool to be happy, but it's a fact.

What's the source of this happiness?

For me, it's meaningful work, within a community of artists who work for love of their art and who work to make this art accessible to the community in which they live. And I feel I'm doing it with them in the geography where I chose to live. The attainment of personal happiness, however, doesn't make me feel I can turn my back on the world. The energy that happiness brings permits me to fight better than ever, with a clearer eye and a less strangulating tension than in the past. When I lived in New York, I used to have a terrible recurring dream—I dreamed I was in a concentration camp. Everytime I tried to speak, a soldier would approach with a length of barbed wire; if I persisted in speaking, the soldier would wrap the barbed wire around my throat and twist it until I couldn't breathe. I haven't had that nightmare since I moved to Omaha.

This new freedom came about because I took action to remake my life. I got the energy for that action from the women's movement. I've lived there now for 15 years. My friends on both coasts ask me, “Megan, what on earth are you doing in Nebraska?” I answer, “I'm living a real life.” I chose to move there—or did I? The influence of my grandparents and their experiences with this landscape had a profound effect on me during my growing up years on the West Coast. Even though they thought they were now living in “God's country” in the Northwest, it was the prairie they talked about more and more as they aged. Their prairie homes became “Paradise Lost” to me. They were great story tellers. Their experiences growing up there shaped their characters. They were strong and independent beings, each of them. They had walked or had ridden in covered wagons from Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska across the Oregon Trail to the state of Washington, where they built homes, established farms and businesses, and raised their families.

My poet grandmother, the eldest of 13, went with her mother and the younger children west. Her father, an Indian scout for the Army, showed up once a year wherever they were, to make another baby and then ride on. Often when I'm on tour with the Omaha Magic Theatre, I imagine I'm retracing my grandmother's path—Wyoming, western Nebraska, the Platte River, the Missouri. I block out the telephone poles and look at her world. She went west because she wanted to get as close to the sea as she could get.

What drew me back? Sunlight. Endless sky. It's necessary for me to have light. Since living in Nebraska, I've written five times as much as any place I've lived. To me there's something energizing about the quality of the light there. In the spring when we're on tour in Iowa, the sight of the lambs, the piglets, the calves with their mothers in the fields, the rolling green: I identify with this, and though it doesn't appear literally in my work, the energy, comfort, and connection with it is what keeps me working.

The opportunity to know more people, really know them, is also an important fuel to my writing. I found when I reached puberty that I'd fallen in love with the whole human race. I wanted to know each one. I wanted to know and be close to as many people as I possibly could. I remember standing at the bus stop, looking intently at each person, wondering who that person was, what did they feel, what did they think about what they felt, what were their lives like? I was in despair; I felt I could never know them because I was too shy. There I was, hopelessly in love with human beings and unable to speak to them with ease.

Theatre gave me a structure to deal with this love. Theatre helped me find a way to be with people on a day-to-day basis. Playing other characters helped me get closer to people I could only observe but not really know. Moving into writing helped me to get inside characters and love people by making portraits of them within my plays. In the Midwest, touring to all the little towns we play, I get to meet more and more people. Thus, I've been able to keep my love affair going.

Some of the first plays I wrote when I finally settled there had to do with my grandparents. When I had them with me, I didn't know I was a writer, or I would have tape-recorded their stories. Once there, their stories came back to me. If I felt this way about my people, I wondered if the other members of the Omaha Magic Theatre wanted to get some of their families' stories into a play—and sure enough, the whole company did. We went out and interviewed grandparents and great-grandparents and put the results together into a total musical piece called 100,001 Horror Stories Of The Plains. Within this framework, I was able to re-create my great-grandmother's death-bed charge to her seven sons, and to write about the Sunday afternoon my grandfather and grandmother met and fell in love at first sight on an outing to dig for arrowheads along the Snake River. In this way I could keep my people alive for myself and for others.

One of my dear writer friends lost her mother at a young age. When she met my mother she was so taken with her, she offered to buy her from me. I wasn't ready to sell my mother, but it did cause me to take a closer look. My friend was right—my mother is remarkable. I wrote her into the play Hothouse and sent a copy to my friend. My friend could take strength from my mother's essence, and it gave my mother a kick, too. I was afraid to show her the play, but after she read it, she called me immediately, laughing and sounding like a girl. She said, “I love it, it's me, I feel rejuvenated.” Now whenever she gets feeling too much the great-granny, she rereads the play and feels young again.

We talk to our audiences wherever we go. We write one show a year to give voice to community concerns, or as in the case of Horror Stories, to celebrate the community. American King's English For Queens grew out of an examination of how we use the English language in speaking to one another, children, and young people, to socialize them and prepare them for their roles in society. We wanted to do this because we felt that it's the accumulation of everyday attitudes in our communication with one another that shapes how we think about ourselves; the audible landscape of our language tends to shape gender roles.

We asked scholars in the Missouri Valley area to give us seminars on linguistics, English, anthropology, the history of language, etc., to get ourselves ready to produce this play. I had to write the text, but everyone in our company was involved with the seminars over a period of seven months. There are very bright people working out there, affiliated with universities, colleges, or doing independent research, and they are generous in sharing their discoveries with us. After each performance we have long talks with our audience, led by humanities scholars and members of the company. During these discussions we get the subjects for our next big community piece. We do from eight to ten productions a year, one of which we think of as lending our writing, art, and theatre skills to community concerns.

It was in western Nebraska in the seventies that we first heard vivid and terrifying accounts of spouse and child abuse.

A neighbor of a farm family in trouble rose to recount how her friend had been nailed to a cross by her husband in the basement of the farm home and kept there alive for three months. She survived because her children brought her food and water. Later when that husband died, there was no mourning at his funeral, but relief on the part of the immediate family and the concerned neighbors. Isolation, and inability to deal with anger in healthy ways, had brought on such conditions. After this story came out, others poured forth. They dealt with child abuse, incest, teenage suicide. …

We slowly made our way back to Omaha, reeling from this information. We'd heard the accounts with our own ears, but it was still hard to grasp. We called in a new group of scholars to check with them. They informed us this was not going on only on isolated farms, but in upwardly mobile families, who are isolated because of affluence and mobility. There are many kinds of geography. It also turned out that the scholars in Omaha and in other Missouri Valley areas were doing some of the most advanced primary research into spouse and child abuse. They were eager to share their knowledge with us, and so a new play that we called Goona Goona began to be formed from first-hand accounts and quantified data.

In discussions after performances of Goona Goona, audiences in every state and from every economic strata asked us now to tackle the problems that young people face in dealing with alcohol—our so-called “legal” drug. Strangely enough, Kegger, the play that holds the results of our findings, has something to do with geography, too. Kids have to drive somewhere to hold their keggers, and once there they have to consume all the evidence. As you know, this creates a problem in finding a safe way home.

Another motivation to tackle this subject came from discussions with prisoners. Whenever we play a college or community for money, we play the local prison free. Ninety percent of the women and men claimed they committed their crimes while under the influence. Additionally, they said they are emotionally no more than 10 or 12. They started with booze at such an early age that the quest for self was totally interrupted and arrested. That was the fact that rocked me. They had no idea who they were or why they were.

We set to work to make a play to help ourselves, our community, and our young people. I was able to get to know hundreds of young citizens from the Midwest. We interviewed kids from every kind of background. I wrote the play from their point of view and in their language. The play has received reactions from praise to blame, but we played it for three years, and now other theatres around the country are touring it. These plays are in existence because of our response to the geography of our touring, our questioning, and our listening in our contact with concerned and caring people all over the Midwest. That's another thing about the people who live in this landscape. They aren't afraid to try to solve problems. They're used to rolling up their sleeves to deal with nature, animals, with themselves. If they can't solve the problems alone, they're willing to work with others. This is inspiring to me. We have seen people come together as a result of discussions after our performances to create a shelter for battered women, to raise money for support teams to aid battered children, to work as a community to find creative alternatives to the senseless killing of teens on the highways.

We stay close to our audience. We get to know them, we build relationships over the years. We teach people in small communities how to produce arts events. When they have a success bringing us to town, then they feel able to bring in other artists, poets, painters, dancers, musicians. … Touring supports the actors and artists within our company and enables us to do eight other plays a year that we want to do for our own growth and to lead our audiences.

Our learning then proceeds geometrically. This is how the structure of our kind of theatre can serve an art form. It can also be seen as a rewarding social yet formal structure for aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual interaction among diverse people who might not have met in any other context. The added bonus I receive is to exercise and pursue my lifelong intense interest in individuals and families. I'm no longer that waif waiting at the bus stop looking longingly for contact and communion with strangers, but am now an integrated, productive member of an ever-growing community. I proved to myself that alienation does not have to be a permanent state. You can reach out, share, confide, and exercise your innate powers. Whether you embrace and/or transcend your gender and geography, do take action to give of your talent and skills to others. This is how you can make a difference in the quality of life for yourself, your colleagues, your community, your region, your country, and possibly the history of your art.

Judith Babnich (interview date 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5055

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, the Magic Theatre wants to effect social change and have an impact making the world a better place to live. While commercial theatre tends to view its audiences in dollar signs, the Magic Theatre truly cares about the people who attend their performances and not about how much money they are going to make.

Megan Terry, playwright in residence since 1974, has written the majority of Magic Theatre plays. Author of over fifty plays, including one of the first Vietnam plays, Viet Rock, Terry has received all the major playwrighting awards. She is the recipient of the ABC Yale University and Guggenheim fellowships and has also been awarded the silver medal for “Distinguished Contribution to and Service in American Theatre” by the American Theatre Association. Before working with the Magic Theatre, Terry worked with the Open Theatre and the New York Strategy.

She first became acquainted with the Magic Theatre when she met Schmidman in 1970 at Boston University. Having worked in New York as a playwright for the Open Theatre, she came to Boston at the request of the University.

I was commissioned to go to Boston University to write the centennial production, and they brought me out all their star actors. And I said, “No, no. I have to see the whole school if I'm going to write this play I have in mind.” And I devised a series of group improvisations, and Jo Ann turned out to be the strongest, most exciting performer in the whole school. And I said, that's the one I'll write the play around. And they all fainted, because she had not played a role in a mainstage production, and she was a senior. I thought it was terrible. What they thought were their best actors were boring people to me. They were competent soap type actors, but they were not able to do anything that I could write, they couldn't have sustained it. And the exercise, of course, wasn't about theatre, it was about real energy … so the friendship started and that's what brought me to Omaha.

The play Terry wrote for the University was the award-winning Approaching Simone, wherein she chronicled the story of Simone Weil, the French philosopher-activist-mystic. Her production proved to be highly successful, winning her an Obie Award for Best Off-Broadway Play of 1970.

Throughout her career Terry has continued to receive recognition for her playwrighting. Just recently she was awarded a $20,000 National Endowment of the Humanities playwrighting fellowship. “It was a great joy to receive the award. Now the Theatre won't have to pay me a salary. We can hire more people to help out and more people can realize their potential. It frees up money.” The fellowship assistance also frees up Terry's time to complete several writing projects she has not had the time to finish. One of her projects that she was able to complete is her current play Headlights which was first produced by the Arkansas Summer Theatre Academy in July of 1988 and, then in April of 1989 at the Omaha Magic Theatre under the direction of Schmidman. For the past few years the company has toured the play throughout the Midwest. Still believing that theatre can educate and uplift, Terry has continued to write plays that have a strong social message. In Headlights she struggled with the all pervasive problem of illiteracy in this county. A 1982 Census Bureau survey revealed that 13٪ of adults in this country cannot read. One out of eight American have difficulty reading a street sign or the label on a medicine bottle. Adding to the problem is the nearly 49٪ high school drop out rate which, in many cases, is directly related to problems of literacy.

Alarmed by these frightening statistics, Terry chose to illuminate the problem in a challenging, optimistic way. In addition to investigating the problems of the illiterate, the play also helped “the audience relive the experience of learning how to read.”

Through song, dance and narration, Terry's play tells the story of a group of characters, ranging in age from teenagers to grandparents, who are all unwilling to come to grips with their reading problems. All encounter embarrassing situations over their inability to read. Fifteen-year-old Matt is unable to quit high school to work in a motorcycle plant because he can't read the job application form. Songwriter Hilary, hoping to find fame in Denver, ends up in Omaha because she can't read a map. Salesman Eddie is powerless to help his little daughter pass second grade reading because he can't read himself. By the end of the play, all three characters became involved in literacy programs where they learn to turn their “headlights on” through the warmth and dedication of a volunteer teacher who works “one on one” with each of them.

This past January the company performed Headlights at Wichita State University. During their stay on campus, I interviewed Megan Terry. The following are portions of my January 26, 1990 interview with Terry.

[Judith Babnich]: The first production of Headlights was staged by The Arkansas Children's Theatre under the direction of Bradley Anderson. How did that production come about?

[Megan Terry]: He called me up.

Did he know who you were? Your work?

No. He found an ad that we placed in Theatre For Youth Today, a periodical that serves the youth theatre movement in America. It's tied up with the International Theatre Association for Young People. I've been invited to speak at their conventions and I'm on their board of directors. But anyway, our theatre took an ad in that magazine about some of our youth plays Dinner's in the Blender and Sleazing Toward Athens. Bradley saw that ad and he asked me if any of my playwrighting friends would want to write a play on literacy because Southwestern Bell was putting up $4,000 to commission a play on the subject. I immediately said I was interested. I said yes before I knew how much money was involved. I had been thinking about the subject anyway.

Prior to the call?

Yes. It was certainly in the air. Some students coming to our theatre as young interns have grave difficulty in reading and writing. They can't read maps, that's why Hilary in the play ends up in Omaha when she thinks she's going to Denver because she can't read maps and she can't read road signs.

I can't read maps.

So, you know. I found out I had to navigate on tour because I was getting so frustrated and angry because whoever was driving was getting us lost and you know how much time that adds to a trip. So I just had to start teaching map reading and do it myself until we got enough people who could. So the problem of illiteracy has been on my mind for many, many years. The play is also a celebration of my grandmother's spirit. She was a volunteer teacher. It was through her that I became fascinated by the volunteers, the people who give of their time to teach one on one. They're all a great variety of people and they do it for many reasons but they get a great deal back, especially spiritual. Their spiritual bank gets filled when they work this way. Great and deep friendships develop through being a volunteer tutor in a literacy program.

What was your grandmother like?

Mary Jane Henry was a fantastic teacher and she was also the town midwife and doctor. Everyone went to her. They went to Mrs. Henry when they needed advice, when they needed to give birth, when they were ill. She also taught in the school. She had all ages in one room.

Was she a trained doctor?

No. She learned all of this on her own. She had no more education than anyone else. Her schooling ended at age eighteen, but she was just brilliant. She was working in this coal mining town where it was full of people from Eastern Europe: Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Greeks, Yugoslavians, and Polish. None of these people could speak English. The coal companies encouraged families to send their children into the mines at the age of eight and nine. They would take the boys and this just tore my grandmother apart. So she decided the best way to help the children continue their education was to teach the parents English. So she would work with the mothers teaching them English while she was also teaching their children in school as a way to keep the kids in school and progressing. One of her students, that she was very proud of, became an Attorney General of the United States. If it wasn't for my grandmother, he would have gone into the mines and never been heard of again. So I grew up hearing all these stories.

So the problem of illiteracy is a subject that your grandmother first acquainted you with?

Right, and also I had my degree in education. I've always been interested in the struggle.

Your degree is in education and not theatre?

That's right. I graduated from the University of Washington, Seattle. I went there and then I went up to Canada for a couple of years and went to the University of Alberta in the School of Fine Arts. But I came back and finished at the University of Washington. To get a degree in education you had to go five years.

Why didn't you major in theatre?

I didn't respect the theatre department at the time that I was at that school. I had practically been raised at the Seattle Repertory Playhouse so I had been in professional theatre from an early age. When I was seven I saw an incredible production of a play for children that I totally fell in love with theatre and never looked back. When I was a teenager, I scratched on the door until they let me in. And I learned so much from these people that by the time I got to college, they looked like kindergartners to me. Every minute that I wasn't at the University I was over at the Playhouse. The theatre was headed by a woman director, Florence Dean James, and her husband who was the leading actor in the company, Burton James. They were two of the most generous, talented, far-seeing, educated, civilized human beings I've ever met in my life. And from them I got a tutorial education in the Greeks, in Shakespeare, the Scandinavians, and the Russian playwrights and designers. They turned me on to directors such as Meyerhold and to the great constructivest designers. So here I am fifteen years old studying constructivism that's only now coming into people consciousness.

But you still got your degree in education.

To quiet my families fears.

Elementary ed?

Yes. Third grade. I did my student teaching with third graders. It was a riot.

I bet you were a lively teacher.

I was so in love with my students and they fell in love with me. I couldn't bear teaching third grade because I didn't want to send them on to the next year.

So you flunked them all.

Oh, I couldn't stand the idea of losing my children every year. The practice of teaching, which I got A+ for and a superior rating and all kinds of awards, showed me that I emotionally couldn't bear it. That's why I've always loved being in a theatre company and being with people year after year. It satisfies my emotional needs and my intellectual needs. I come from a huge family and theatre gives you the chance to re-create the family in your own image. Keep the idea of the extended family going. My mother was the youngest of thirteen. And her mother was the eldest of thirteen. On my father's side, my grandfather was one of sixteen. So you can imagine our family reunions were out of this world. We had to rent a giant community hall to be all together. And they are all musical and great storytellers from the Irish tradition. So I grew up being totally entertained all the time and I want to keep it going.

Getting back to Headlights and how the play evolved, what happened after you agreed to write the play?

I started doing formal research by first contacting the Literary Council.

How were you able to do that?

The wife of one of our Omaha cast members, Marge Farmer, is a great teacher of reading. She's in demand all over this continent and South America. She's always flying somewhere to teach other teachers how to teach reading, especially in the Hispanic world. She helped me deal with the Literacy Council. I also called my friend Phyllis Jane Rose, the former artistic director of Foot of the Mountain in Minneapolis and she did field research for me in Minneapolis. The whole theatre company plus Bradley Anderson went out with tape recorders in Arkansas and interviewed people who had been through the literacy program, the students and the teachers. So I have all these wonderful tapes to base the play on. The one scene in the play where the father tries to romance the teacher to get her to pass his daughter really is my father's story.

Your dad did that?

My second grade teacher was gonna fail me because of poor reading skills. I was the top reader in the first grade. In the second grade, for some reason, I had a personality conflict with the teacher. I was in the top reading group called the Stars or the Bluebirds or something like that. It was the beginning of the school year … I'll never forget this. I can see the page of the book, everything. There's a picture of a mother walking with her two children and the title of the story began with a “W”. I knew the work “Mother”, but I didn't know the first word. I went up to the desk and pointed to this first work asking the second grade teacher what it was and she said, “Go back to your seat. You sound that word out yourself.” The only word that I knew that began with a “W” that was that long was “window”. I thought, “If she calls on me, what am I going to say?” And of course she knew I didn't know the word. So when it came time for reading session she called on me. I'll never forget. I was red in the face. My body was in a total sweat. I put my hand in a fist and filled my pencil tray with sweat from my hands. I had a total panic attack.

So young to have your first panic attack.

Seven years old. Terrible. Gee whiz. So of course the only thing I could croak out was “Window Mother” and everybody laughed. She just points, “Go immediately to the Busy Bees. Your seat is changed.” I went from the first seat in the room to the last seat in the room. Total humiliation. Total.

So your dad came in?

She threatened to fail me and my father, who is just an incredible guy, women would just faint at the sight of him, tried to romance the teacher to get me through.

And you go through?

I passed, thanks to my dad.

So after you've gathered all this information, then did you go to Arkansas?

No. They mailed me up the tapes and I interviewed people here. And of course I interviewed myself and all my family. I have so many teachers in my family. I just had huge resources, plus we had very intelligent creative people here in Omaha. I had several Humanities Scholars to consult with. I'm still working with the Humanities Scholars. They will now give more feed back from the finished script and the production and there will probably be revisions. It's a continually evolving process to create the script. Adding and subtracting new materials, as you learn more.

Did you go to Arkansas at all?

No. But I was in constant communication and they mailed me boxes of tapes.

Did you go down for the production?

No, because we were doing our own production here, so I didn't get to see their production. I do know that they used all the children in their academy ranging in age from seven to older teens and they also used their faculty and their permanent company as the adults. I wanted to write a piece that could use up forty-five children that they were working with through the summer in their acting program. They have an institute, an acting institute for young people at the Arkansas Childrens Theatre, which is under the umbrella of the Arkansas Arts Center. And they have composers there. Their set design was very fascinating. They built a gigantic skating ramp. The kids could roller skate and ride their bikes on it and skateboard. I designed the play to use elements of performing art and to also make it possible for a whole community to put on the play. The play is quite versatile. I wanted to write it to appeal to all age groups.

So it's not a children's play.

No. Well what is a children's play? I don't know what a children's play is. It's a play about literacy and all ages can be in it if they want to. Or adults can play the kids. You can do it in many different styles. You could do it totally without props. You could do it in total naturalism. You could do it in the Omaha Magic Theatre style which is “on-beyond-zebra,” the way Jo Ann did.

On-beyond-zebra. Can you define what that is?

Well just on-beyond-zebra. It's the way Jo Ann directs. She is able to inspire the designers, the composers and the actors to push beyond what their normal mode of expression would be. So when all of this comes together, it's a hybrid. It's a new kind of thing.

Where does the word zebra come from?

The word “z”. You know in those A B C books, and then the last word is usually zebra. So when you get to the end of the possibilities there is still a step beyond.

Moving to the area of theme, what ideas or messages did you want to get across to the audience?

The basic idea, basic motivation that gave me the energy to write the play is the worry and compassion for people who can't read. The quest for finding answers to life's questions of “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?” is much harder for someone who can't read. People who can read have access to the great minds of the past, through their account or their diaries, their books, their novels or anything collected and saved for us through the generations. To have access to this information aids the quest for the self. To be able to commune with yourself, to deal with yourself in this world as you find it. To have that interrupted, or blighted or stopped, it seems to me a pity, a great loss, a tragedy. A tragedy because you arrived here with a bundle of possibilities and if you don't have the tools to unlock the possibilities of your own mind what do you do? You may end up going around and around in a maze. And I believe that human beings have a basic drive to be good and to contribute to other human beings. We seem to be quite social animals who, for the most part, derive great pleasure from inner action with other human beings and contributing to the welfare of the community. Certainly we have some negative fringe elements that pop up here and there. For fifteen years, we've played prisons and I've met these so called “fringe elements” and I find 99 percent of them have a drive toward goodness and wanting to get better and contribute to culture. So if you are illiterate, even though you have an incredibly high I.Q., you are closed off from all the possibilities of civilization as being human. Your growth is stunted, and that's a tragedy to me. But that's what gave me the driving energy to complete the project. I have seventeen projects I'm working on right now. I completed this one because the idea of being able to help people out of that kind of darkness, through writing a play that may stimulate them to seek help through illiteracy councils or on their own, however that may be, seemed to me a worthwhile thing to do. Plus it was a chance to examine what is this thing that we take for granted, this ability to read and write.

And we do.

When I was teaching in the little grades, I saw the struggle. One of the greatest struggles a human being goes through, at the age of five, six and seven, is learning to read and write. It takes great effort, application. It's a fascinating struggle. During the final scene of the play I address this issue by equating books with boulders.

Can you explain that?

The struggle to learn to read and write is like trying to push a boulder that outweighs you a hundred fold, up a hill. But when you break through the code and begin to understand then the boulder carries you. Once you can read, you're not confined. Your mind can travel anywhere. You can go anywhere. Even if you're in prison, you can go anywhere. A woman who came to one of our shows works in a rest home. She said of the eighty-seven people there, only two read still. One is ninety-four and the other one is in her eighties or something. She said, “Those people aren't in a rest home. They take their books and they travel out of there every single day. And they go anywhere they want, backward and forward in time. Into the future, into a romance. They have adventures because the other people who either never could read or have stopped reading or have forgotten how to read are like vegetables and are depressed. They have lost their freedom.” One of my basic interests ever since I was a child is an interest in freedom, and that's why I love this country, and our constitution. And I like to reiterate the idea of what our rights are, and our blessings and then what we owe one another. The idea of losing your freedom and not even ever knowing it is a tragedy. Another theme I wanted to pursue in the play was to celebrate the volunteer, the one who gives of her or his time to help another person out of this cage that they're in. I think these are unsung heroes and they deserve praise and thanks from the community at large. Forty-nine percent of our young people are dropping out of school between kindergarten and twelfth grade. No wonder we're having economic difficulties in the world. As anyone who pays casual attention to television and newspapers realizes, the Germans and the Japanese are beating us to death economically around the world. If we're gonna compete and even hold our own, we must be an educated populous. We must have people who can read and write and communicate with another. Not just English. We have to know the nuances of other cultures and we have got to know their languages. Otherwise we're gonna sink right down and become the fourth world.

The fourth world? What do you mean?

This idea of America becoming the fourth rate power does not set well with me. Coming from a pioneer culture, I have a very competitive spirit. My people had to be competitive to have made it from the old country to America in difficult times, to establish themselves, to push forward. They even went from the east coast to the west coast in wagon trains. But coming out of that culture, I have also lived through the times when America was born at the height of the depression. People were living on the beaches in shacks and huts and cardboard boxes. I remember it vividly. Then the war came and the mobilization. All the men in our family and all the men in our neighborhood were going to war. I've seen America become the first rate power of the world and now have lived long enough to see it beginning to fail and fall and falter. I don't like that at all. I love competition. I love sport. I love all my playwrighting friends who keep writing so well it stimulates me to keep writing … trying to write at the top of my personal best. I feel that I should make a contribution to this country. It is like a patriotic act to do this play and work on it and show it as many places as we can. I hope hundreds of plays will be written on this subject from many different angles, points of view, styles. Our small theatre company cannot make that much of a dent. We need many theatre companies doing this work and we need to give support to the literacy councils and to other people struggling. We need to support the people who want to learn to read, and want to join the rest of us and be interactive and productive citizens. But also for the joy of knowing people from the past. The great thing about libraries is you may not get along in your immediate vicinity but you can find someone who lived in another century that you might click with. One of the cast members during our early workshops commented that some of their best friends are dead. They are authors of books they love. But they are speaking to us now. We're all contemporaries as long as we can access each others minds. So it's not lost. You know the old thought of “those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it”, goes for personal things too. The ability to read doesn't mean that everybody has to become an Einstein or a Gertrude Stein, but that you can just get along with yourself and your family. Reading enhances and enriches your life in general in so many areas.

But there are a lot of people who can read, and just don't. That's a problem also.

As Mark Twain put it, “The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read.”

Many teachers have this problem with their students. They prefer to watch videos and t.v. rather than read.

The path of life is also an anathema to me. I think that's why I love theatre because it's about action. About taking action, solving problems. We need to educate our people to the joys of some problem solving. It is fun to solve a problem, and theatre is constant problem solving. I think that a lot of people don't realize that that's one of the great benefits of self education that you get from being in theatre. It teaches you to make decisions, to solve problems, to make choices.

To be on time. The show must go on.

Right. Good work habits. Inner action. Working at group bonding. It is a marvelous thing for women to get those skills. Men have it easily in sport. Women have been held back because they haven't had that early training in group bonding and group work, inner action and inner dependence. And the support, and the warmth and affection that you get from working in that group and the struggles too. But it's a wonderful part of life. It's an extra. Theatre is usually thought of in aesthetic terms or art terms or entertainment terms but they don't consider the social inner active part of the theatre.

I think that's a reason why a lot of people are involved in theatre.

It's a wonderful structure for people who are shy to enter into a group. It's a great way to be a contributing member of a culture as well as developing ones art and aesthetic skills. And that's that basic part of theatre that really feeds me and keeps me in it. I think that creativity could be channeled into any art form or scientific form, or political form. But what I love about theatre is the social aspect. I also love the spiritual part of it. I see rehearsal as a spiritual practice because of the repetitiveness of devotion that it requires. The honesty, the constantly bearing your soul and sharing your inner most feelings and thoughts and who you are with the audience is a spiritual practice, both in the acting concept and the writing part of it. It really deeply satisfies me. First of all, I think the church just deals with one aspect of a human being. Theatre deals with all aspects of the possibilities of being human.

Felicia Hardison Londré (essay date 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5064

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” actually pioneered certain techniques that we associate with theatre of the 1960s, some of which have been absorbed into standard theatre practice: the involvement of actors in shaping a work for performance; the expansion of American musical comedy form to include rock music; borrowing clichés of the mass media; having actors leave the performance space to interact with audience members; and using “transformations.” Terry's work is emblematic of the 1960s, a decade in which many idealistic young talents turned their backs on the commercial theatre and devoted themselves instead to exploring alternative venues and forms. In the explosion of activity—happenings, street theatre, guerilla theatre, the work of Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theatre, the Bread and Puppet Theatre, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Living Theatre, the Performance Group, and many others—perhaps the only common characteristic was the breakdown of traditional Aristotelian dramatic structure. Terry's transformations may be considered one of the more successful alternative forms that appeared in that heady era.

Terry developed her transformational technique and honed the script for Viet Rock through her work with members of the Open Theatre in a series of all-day Saturday workshops devoted to exploring the subject of violence, particularly as manifested in the war that was dominating the media. During that six-month process in 1965-66 she used improvisation as a tool to explore the group's confusion, anger, fears, and hope (for the optimistic Terry, there is always hope). Viet Rock actualizes her experimentation with constructing a dramatic action composed of brief sequences that are suddenly transformed into different sets of characters and circumstances. Exploring the social ramifications of the war from multiple points of view, the rock musical opens with the actors playing children's games, which segue into the inevitable cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians; these build to the sounds and actions of real war. An explosion cues their transformation into mothers cuddling their male babies. The “babies” are stripped to their shorts, and this transforms them into draftees lined up for an army physical, for which the women play the doctors. In the course of the play the same actors become senators, war protesters, Vietnamese, and various other characters. The use of transformation, as opposed to a motivationally connected narrative, allows for greater compression, rapid pacing, freedom to digress and to comment through counterpoint, and unlimited perspectives on the topic.

Viet Rock opened at Cafe La Mama on 21 May 1966, was taken to New Haven that fall to open the professional theatre season at Yale University, and had a sixty-two performance Off-Broadway run. Terry recalls that “one of the best things Viet Rock did was bring a lot of very bright people into the theatre” (David Savran, In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights [New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988], 249).

Viet Rock illustrates another of Terry's abiding concerns: the role of language in human power struggles. According to Phyllis Jane Rose, the play was “meant to be a catalogue of clichés, conscientiously chosen to demonstrate the disparity between the reality of war and contemporary American attitudes toward it, attitudes expressed in habitual media-propagated language” (“Megan Terry,” Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Part 2: K-Z, ed. John MacNicholas Dictionary of Literary Biography [Detroit: Gale Research, 1981], 7:284). The sergeant drilling his GIs repeatedly calls them “girlies,” as if to reinforce his authority by verbally reducing his recruits to the lowest status he can conceive. Indeed, sexism in language became the subject of an entire play, American King's English for Queens (1978). “English can be like bullets,” Terry told David Savran (250). That work then led to Goona Goona (1979), a play about family violence arising from violence in language. As Terry observed, “Roles and attitudes toward the self are shaped within the family by how one is spoken to” (Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights [New York: Beech Tree, 1987], 387).

A feminist perspective came to the fore in Terry's dramatic biography of Simone Weil, Approaching Simone (1970), which won an Obie award for the best play of 1969-70. Terry's move to Omaha in 1974 to join Jo Ann Schmidman's Magic Theatre signaled the growing importance of theatre outside New York. “In the seventies, maybe our style scared people, but now we find people are beginning to crave it,” Terry has said. “I think that the more our culture gets fragmented, the more people want a feeling of community and contact.” Thus her current work, as she explains in the following interview (conducted on 21 March 1989 and amplified in January 1994), grows out of the needs she perceives in her adopted community and the surrounding region.

[Londré]: To start with something biographical, could you tell me a little about your work at La Mama and how you arrived at your transformational technique?

[Terry]: Ellen Stewart let me do a play a month at La Mama, and that led to Viet Rock. We did Magic Realists, Comings and Goings, and opened Viet Rock on Armed Forces Day in May 1960. Magic Realists was the only play that didn't grow out of workshops with Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theatre. Regarding the transformation, a lot of things came together. I was trained in creative dramatics at the University of Washington and worked a lot with children. I ran a playschool in Canada for two years, and I learned a lot about transformations from them. Another influence on transformations comes from American stand-up comedy—the impressionists, people who can switch from one character to another—plus the cartoons—Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. Then there was Gertrude Stein and the cubists, the collagists. Put them all together! The first transformations were done in New York in Calm Down Mother. Then we, the Open Theatre, did a double bill of Calm Down Mother and Keep Tightly Closed. There were influences from Joseph Chaikin, who had worked with Nola Chilton, who had been influenced perhaps by Viola Spolin.

Are you still using the technique?

If the material demands it. At Omaha Magic Theatre we develop one or two pieces a year that have no set characters. In plays like Sea of Forms and Walking through Walls, which I wrote with our artistic director Jo Ann Schmidman, the actors constantly transform, because those plays develop themes rather than characters—themes like the unity of all forms or how to break down internal or external barriers.

Is it important to you as a playwright to work closely with actors?

I like it because I was brought up in the theatre. I love actors and the social interaction. I have my typewriter down here, and I like to work here. I find that actors stimulate me very much. I adore actors, and I adore the art and craft of acting. I love to be up close.

Does your method of working combine the typewriter and the cassette recorder?

No. No, I really don't record what they say. But I see how things work. What's interesting about actors is their souls. When they find their gestures, you can see how much they can do, and then see how many lines or speeches I can cut. I learned to edit from watching actors. What they can do is a substitute for words. I find, when I'm judging a lot of playscripts in a contest, that many writers haven't the foggiest notion about editing their work. The plays are overwritten.

What do you look for in a new playwright?

A voice. A clear, fresh voice or point of view that really wakes you up, something that only that one writer knows and can convey and that makes you understand things in new ways. I look for theatrical power, hypnotic energy, and the psychic news. We have a bias toward avant-garde work.

I understand you have something called a community-problem play. What is that like?

Well, we listen to community concerns. This is what's supporting our art. It supports all the rest of the work we do. It's the opposite of what they taught me in playwriting class in college, for example, that “art and politics don't mix.” But actually what has supported us for the last fifteen years are plays like Babes in the Bighouse, which deals with women in prison, and American King's English for Queens, which shows how children are socialized by the way adults speak to them, how gender roles are developed through the way children are talked to and how they internalize pronouns. We talk a lot, at great length actually, about the play in every community where we play, on the road or here in Omaha. We have a discussion afterward to get the audiences thinking. Out of that kind of work came Goona Goona, which deals with spouse and child abuse. Out of the discussions after Goona Goona performances came Kegger, which deals with young people drinking and driving. In those discussions the audience said, “The reason we drink is because we can't talk to one another,” and out of that discussion came Dinner's in the Blender, which deals with impossible and possible ways for families to communicate. It's just moved on like that. The production of Kegger supported our company for three years. We even had to organize a second company to deal with the demand. And now that it's been published, it's being done all over the country. It's been done in Maryville, Missouri, in Los Angeles, and by Dallas Children's Theatre and will be done by San Francisco New Conservatory Children's Theatre and the Virginia Children's Theatre.

Is there any difference in audience response between Omaha and the small towns you visit on tour?

The difference is that on tour the whole town comes, unless there's a basketball game.

Is the script adapted for different communities, or is it pretty much set after the Omaha performances?

We toured our version around the Midwest, so it was the same in Iowa, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas. What they did in Dallas was change the slang to keep up with the local language, and they changed certain place names. Also I encouraged them to go out and listen to the music that their young people listen to. Then I encouraged them to rearrange the music to carry the local beat. Our Midwest rock translated perfectly into rap music for Dallas. They put it to a Spanish beat for L. A. We prepare study guides and send them out. We get a lot of help in developing the plays and study guides from humanities scholars, some from Nebraska and some from Iowa. We take scholars with us on the road, and they help with the discussions after the show. It is an interdisciplinary project during the development of the play. Then we take scholars from different disciplines with us on tours. For instance, one scholar is a historian and talks with the community about the history of alcohol, which is fascinating! We hear how alcohol developed because grain was rotting and they needed to do something with the grain to create another cash crop, so they invented alcohol. Then they had to invent corks so alcohol could be transported from one place to another without evaporating. It's just so amazing, the things we learn. At other places we've had a neurosurgeon, a neuropsychiatrist, who explains what happens to you physiologically. We've also learned about alcohol in prisons, because every time we played a college or community center we played a local prison too. And that's where we got firsthand testimony. Prisoners would say, “You know, I started drinking when I was eleven or twelve, and so emotionally I'm still eleven or twelve.” I think this kind of arrested emotional and intellectual development is so tragic. The quest for the self arrested by drugs and alcohol is a sad and tragic state for a person to be in. It's another kind of stunted prisoner.

You say you perform inside the prisons?

Yes. We started doing that with the Open Theatre. And we perform on Indian reservations, in community centers, colleges, halfway houses, high schools—we play a lot of gymnasiums.

Would you describe your work as “political theatre,” or is there another term for it?

I'd call it “social action theatre,” because it's a catalyst for a community to talk together about how to solve a problem. For instance, one town decided that, instead of having a senior prom where all the kids drank, as they usually did, they would buy up tons of red paint and let the kids paint the town red.

What did they paint!?

They painted the whole town. All the exteriors. It was a very small town.

And this was your doing?

We were just the catalyst for it. They figured it out for themselves.

Do your local reviewers see your work as art or politics?

They don't care—it's just a play. It doesn't matter whether it's art or politics. It's a catalyst for the community. Some communities were able to get together and create halfway houses and safe houses for battered women and abused children after we played Goona Goona, for instance. Now we're doing a piece called Head Light, which deals with literacy. I've done a lot of research for it, worked with the literacy council. And again scholars will help with leading audience discussions after the performance and help us to develop and finalize a good study guide for schools and communities and literacy councils to use in conjunction with our visit.

How do you begin your work on a play like that? Does the research come first?

First there's the stimulus from audience discussions, accounts by honest eyewitnesses, or people who are involved in helping people in trouble, or the victims themselves. When I find that the same themes keep coming up, that's when I get going and start my research.

At what point do you know you are ready to sit down at the typewriter?

When the shape of the play takes place in my mind. When I can see that shape or when the characters start talking to me, when they take on a life of their own—then I can write the play. I revise it during rehearsals and also on the road. Some plays start out twice as long as they end up. So I subtract. Then I add materials stimulated by the audience. It's a process of adding and subtracting. Mostly subtracting.

Why is music such an important element in all your plays?

I love to have music around me. I come from a very musical family. Every time we had a family party, everyone sang and played and even sang in five-part harmony. We have many wonderful young composers here. You know, Kansas City and Omaha are the homes of jazz. So I can have any combination of soft jazz or hard rock and roll. There are a lot of very creative composers here. We have composers ranging from a Charles Ives disciple to a synthesizer/industrial rock musician to a reggae musician. According to the feeling of the piece, we can call on anywhere from one to six composers. We have five on Head Light. It's plain fun to have music in a play.

I've noticed this upbeat, positive attitude of yours that comes through in other interviews, like the one with David Savran in In Their Own Words. Does your optimism ever hamper you from really grappling with problems in your plays?

Gee, I don't know. I want other people to be as happy as I am, I guess. I get upset when they don't get the chance. There are quite a lot of young people depressed these days. People in their twenties. I can't understand being depressed in your twenties. But I see a lot of it in my travels

How do you keep your optimism while dealing with the serious problems you confront in your work?

I don't know, maybe it's because of my pioneer background. I feel very close to a pioneer culture. My people went from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, to the West Coast. And before that they came across the seas from Ireland. So I know that you can keep moving forward to get where you want to go. I still feel very close to that. I was lucky enough to know my great-grandparents. They lived into their nineties. So growing up hearing all the stories they could tell—going against the elements, going through the Civil War, coming West, and surviving, and then establishing themselves there—it's just all part of my environment. Knowing that is very important. I mean, many people have no idea who their grandparents are. You know, our so-called affluence has created this modern mobility, but people don't know who they are. The extended family has been decimated by the automobile and upward mobility. It really disturbs me to see young people floundering, because I knew what I wanted to do at an early age. I was lucky enough to live three blocks from a great theatre. A theatre that took me in as a young teenager and taught me theatre arts and crafts and a respect for our field.

Do you separate your personal life from your professional life, or are they totally integrated?

They're totally integrated. I think of our theatre as extended family. I like to have people of all ages around me. We have people from high school age to a sixty-seven-year-old sculptor working on our shows. When people come to the Magic Theatre, they always marvel at the cross section of ages—onstage and in the audience.

Do you ever crave to work with the classics?

Oh, I love the classics. The Greeks, the French, the Irish, the Scandinavians, the Russians.

But your theatre doesn't produce them?

Everyone else does though. We might get around to it one day, but there's so much good new work to do. We've been presenting plays from the 1960s along with fresh, new work.

Describe what you believe were the most significant changes between the American theatre of the 1950s and the theatre of the 1960s.

The 1960s marked an explosion of playwriting styles. One reason for this was because at least thirty-five strong playwrights arrived and began to show their work in New York within the same time period. It was the kind of creative combustion that hadn't been seen since Greek and Elizabethan times. Sheer numbers of challenging writers with many different points of view were in the same geographical location. I believe this could take place because of some excellent teaching that had gone on in the universities by the people who had fought in World War II. They came back to their students with a global view and a new sense of American power and energy in the world. Before this playwrights seemed to arrive in the national consciousness one at a time. But this new group of playwrights realized they were a group. Some realized this because they literally received energy from one another, and others, because their audiences were telling them it was so. And yet others hated to hear it from people who were then starting to write about the theatre, the way they had previously written about politics. It was like sport to show our work to one another and almost play “can you top this” with each new play.

Another physical fact that made this possible was that our theatres were literally within walking distance of one another. When I say that playwrights arrived one at a time, it seems sometimes that it was true and at other times that the people who were writing about the American theatre of the 1950s and before could only see or hear that one person at a time. They didn't seem to be able to hold more than one writer in their consciousness, that is, one O'Neill, then one Tennessee Williams, then one Arthur Miller, etc. There were other people writing at this time, but then a writer had to make a big, big Broadway impression to take up enough psychic space to be able to be hailed as the American playwright. In the 1960s we realized we weren't welcome on Broadway, but we had confidence. We started our own theatres and found directors and actors of like minds, colleagues, who would work in collaboration, in groups where the actor was treated as a cocreator, not as an employee or interpreter. This attitude or practice made for a completely different dynamism in performance. The 1960s audiences responded to this, and we were off and flying. Our work and ideas took over the decade, and soon American theatre production ideas and playwriting seemed to be leading the world. These ideas cross-pollinated with many other cultures.

What influences do you see the 1960s having on theatre of the 1990s?

I feel now in the 1990s much of this early interaction is now coming to a new fruition. Evidence is already on our stages, on world stages with more on the horizon. I believe the American theatre of the 1950s was the culmination of European influence on American playwriting. For instance, I believe the American theatre of the absurd is the end of that cycle, not a beginning. Many important playwrights are represented in an excellent collection, edited by Poland and Mailman, The Off-Off Broadway Book. Here you will find the work of many strong writers who are still at work today: John Guare, Rochelle Owens, Maria Irene Fornes, Ronald Tavel, Rosalind Drexler, Kenneth Bernard, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and myself among many others. Recently we produced double bills of plays by many of these writers. One written in the 1960s and one written in the last two years. We didn't tell our audiences which were which, and we found they couldn't tell the difference. Each of the plays seemed fresh to them; all seemed to them to have been written that morning. This tells me that it's time for a reevaluation of all of the work of these writers and that a concerted effort should be made to bring their work to wider audiences. We try hard to get the news of the writers we admire out to others who may be interested in producing this exciting work. We have published a book to help with this, Right Brain Vacation Photos: Twenty Years of Omaha Magic Theatre Productions. It is our hope that the production possibilities shown in the photos and samples of text will stimulate more productions for these productive 1960s writers, as well as the new writers we have been producing. Included in the book are instructions and addresses for contacting the writers. At our theatre many Ph.D. candidates come from all over the world to visit, to observe our work, and to pore over our archives. In time they will get the word out, and there will be more productions of the works of this fecund period, as well as productions of the many subsequent works of these writers. Nearly all are still writing, and many are writing now at the top of their form.

In what ways were the playwrights of the 1960s distinctly American?

The 1960s writers and the 1960s productions have a distinctive American voice. I should say “voices,” because there are many Americans, and the 1960s began to demonstrate this fact. The cultural diversity of our country and our heritage began to become known then. These ideas have been taken up by all the other media and most of our social and political institutions.

How would you characterize 1960s contributions to directing and acting?

There were great advances made in direction, acting, and production design in the 1960s. A synthesis and cross-pollination from discoveries in other media and art were coming into the theatre. You can see fruition of these seminal ideas in much of the performance art of the last ten years and now on Broadway in productions such as Tommy, as well as in opera and the new wave festivals at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, that is, [in the work of] Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson, and Karen Finley and in the current work of the Omaha Magic Theatre. Ideas from the last hundred years in art and design have come into the theatre. Some of these ideas are amplified, modified, and expanded by the use of electronic media and by the application of image projection possibilities on a large scale. Now you can see that the designer, too, has been brought to join the creative, producing team as a cocreator who makes as strong a statement about the theme or ideas of the play as the playwright, director, and performer. Sometimes one person may wear all these hats, sometimes a creative team, but all work together to bring new power into our field and thus more enjoyment to the audience that makes the effort to go out to the theatre and join in with the creative interaction possible in this evolving art form.

How would you evaluate theatre of the 1960s in light of your work and interests of the 1980s and 1990s?

The theatre of the 1960s—the energy of it and the ideas of it—the plays themselves, the productions, many of which I saw, are still in my mind. I know that I was privileged to be alive then and to be a part of it and to have it embroidered into the fiber of who I am. Not a day goes by that some young person doesn't come to our theatre to ask me what the 1960s were really like—to sit with me, to hear the stories of those who were the shakers and movers then but are putting it down now. I believe there will be an entire reevaluation of that period and that the positive discoveries will be given their proper honor in our formal histories. The 1960s will always be with us. That decade, which I believe is one of the longest decades in history, wasn't really over until 1975, when the Vietnam War was stopped. That war marked the fact that we live in a global village, and it brought about the rediscovery of the facts that we truly are, not only our sister and brother's keeper, but that we had only a short time to relearn to be the stewards of our planet.

Over the last several years what have been your major goals for the Omaha Magic Theatre? How have your roles as director-playwright-producer helped you fulfill those goals?

These past several years have been crucial ones of trying to survive. Our funding has shrunk, not only from public and private entities, but colleges and universities also have barely enough funds for their own arts programs. To secure touring dates takes ten times the effort that it did in the mid-1980s. We have to keep our company going, and we have to make new work for our audiences. And we feel a strong desire to keep growing as artists. We feel an obligation to serve our field through outreach and education, to share with the young and with other artists some of what we have learned. We are seeing theatres folding across the nation. It takes everything we've learned and more hours than we can count anymore to do the work to keep OMT alive. But we've managed to live into our twenty-fifth year as a theatre that produces only new work. It doesn't get easier. What sustains us is that we know that in the 1960s we created a new theatre, and that through this theatre we made worldwide friends for our theatre and for our country and ourselves. We still have these friends, and we are adding new ones all the time. We must be doing something right, because there is a steady stream of young artists and seasoned scholars coming to our door. We have managed to build a touring and residency season for our new collaborative works. We keep going by building new works that will challenge and refresh our company and our audience. We use every skill we have and borrow, through advice, those we don't possess. In some ways theatre is an ideal situation because one must constantly learn to keep doing it at all. The brain and body get maxed out every day. Theatre is not only an art form, it is a form where to stay alive you have to constantly solve new problems, and that is the fun of it and the head-banging part of it. I am privileged to work with very great and generous artists and colleagues, like our artistic director, Jo Ann Schmidman, and our designer, Sora Kimberlain, and an expanding team of young and mature artists. Theatre is still fun, and it is still the hardest thing that there is to do. We create something out of nothing, we artists. We don't use up resources; we recycle and rearrange and thus create new resources, self-renewing, to fire ourselves and warm the souls of those who are dedicated to serve and/or take sustenance from this art form.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Megan Terry Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Terry, Megan (Contemporary Literary Criticism)