A Conversation With Christopher Durang

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{Header photo of Christopher Durang is by John Schisler and used courtesy Christopher Durang’s website.}

Note: this article was previously published in the February 2009 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).

“To be or not to be, that is the question …. Line. Line! Ohhhh. Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I. Whether tis nobler in the mind’s eye to kill oneself, or not killing oneself, to sleep a great deal. We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our lives are rounded with a little sleep.” — George, “The Actor’s Nightmare”

Christopher Durang is, without a doubt, my favorite playwright. The first play I ever directed was “An Actor’s Nightmare”, and I remember when I first saw it how it spoke to me. His style of writing is distinct, yet difficult for me to define. It’s not satire, it’s not dark comedy, and it’s not snarky — although his plays tend to have one or more of those elements. Yet I am not a blind fan: there are a few of his plays I just don’t care for.

So, when I heard the Inge Festival was honoring him in 2008, I knew I had to get there and attend “A Conversation with Christopher Durang”.

Durang wrote his first play when he was 8: a two-page take on I Love Lucy. His mother, who was obviously a huge influence on him, read plays and had friends over to read Hay Fever, his first introduction to Noel Coward. When he was around 9, his mother started taking him to plays. However, “I was very shy: my mother prided herself on being my press agent,” he said.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying influenced me: it was quick and fairly satirical,” Durang said.

When he was young, Durang started out writing musicals, since he had a friend who wrote music. In high school, his work was playful and not especially dark. However, in his senior year, he wrote “Suicide and Other Diversions”. “It was the beginning of my going down,” he said. “It was very absurdist. The theatre of the absurd: it conjured up something for me.”

 

He stopped writing the senior year of attending Harvard. He snapped out of it with the help from a therapist, and wrote “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe”. “The darker me style started with that,” Durang said.

“I enjoy comedy, but I’m troubled by things,” Durang said, when talking about whether his style was black comedy. “It’s hard to explain about laughing at the dark. Some people don’t get it; some find it difficult. It’s just so extreme, you laugh at the extremity.”

“Sister Mary Explains it All for You” is probably his most controversial play, and in Christopher Durang: 27 Short Plays, written in 1995, he gives a brief chronology of the various protests of the play. “I wanted to write a play after I stopped believing in my faith,” Durang said in the conversation. “I wrote it looking back.” The inspiration for the play came looking back at when he was 6 and looking at what he had been taught about God. One of the things that had always perplexed him, he said, was the idea of limbo. “I wondered, ‘Is God a bureaucrat?'” he said. Another issue he had sprang from the church’s view on sexuality — more specifically masturbation, and how it was considered a sin. “For teen boys, masturbation is a big issue,” he said. “So … Hitler is in hell, and you’re in hell,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t feel angry writing it,” he continued. “It’s mostly about dogma.”

Durang was very human in this conversation. Frequently self-depreciating, he often made jokes to break the mood. After talking about his high school, for example, he said, “I’m starting to feel like I’m doing a monologue. And then my classical monologue will follow.” He also mentioned going into depression, and having a mantra of ‘nothing ever works out.’ “I still have it, but I accept it.” His three fears in college, he stated, were that he was going to kill himself, he was going to have a nervous breakdown, and that he was going to have to move back home with his mother and live there the rest of his life.

During the autograph session afterwards, he gave his time and attention to every person waiting in line, which made me even more of a fan. While he still is a bit larger than life to me, I walked away from the Inge Festival with a feeling of connection, of feeling like I knew him a little bit better now.

For more information on Christopher Durang, you can visit his website at www.christopherdurang.com. For more information on the William Inge Theater Festival, visit www.ingefestival.org.