Accomplished playwright discusses work with students

Playwright Christopher Durang, 64, who is best known for his highly comedic plays often featuring offbeat, gay characters, spoke at an open forum in the Conference Room of the Student Union Building (SUB) on Monday, April 29. About 40 people were in attendance.

While his early plays were performed by his high school, Durang’s first professional production was his breakthrough play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, which ran for two-and-a-half years Off-Broadway and featured many themes and character archetypes that would make a comeback in his later work, such as characters that are homosexual, without making this the central issue, and criticism of the Catholic Church.

“I don’t really think about themes when I sit down to write,” Durang said. “But I write a lot about forceful people, which I think comes from my background since I was raised Catholic.”

Durang spoke openly to the students about his sexuality, and explained that he didn’t even know that he was gay until he was in college.

“The first time I decided to write a play, I was eight,” Durang said with a smile. “But I was in college when I had my first homosexual experience. And after that I began to focus on those kinds of issues.”

Durang recalled his early success with a number of humorous stories. Many of his stories focused on the fact that Sister Mary Ignatius was picketed in the early days.

“Back then, cab drivers in New York City were very chatty, and they used to always ask me what I did,” Durang explained. “And whenever I said I was a playwright, they ask me what I’d written. And this one time I was in a cab and he asked me and I said Sister Mary Ignatius, and the cabbie turned to look at me and said, ‘You’re Chris Durang? You’re sick!”

Durang also discussed his portrayal of homosexuals within his plays.

“I brought up homosexuality very subtly in my early plays,” Durang said. “In Beyond Therapy [referring to his second play], the character Bob is bisexual and I wrote it to not be flamboyant. I wrote in the notes that he should be a regular guy.”

When asked about his choosing to write plays instead of other modes of writing, Durang responded that he had two answers, with one theory being “real” and one being his “crackpot” theory.

“My real answer is that my mother loved the theater,” Durang said, admitting that his mother was more drawn to musicals. “I also grew up during a time where everyone watched I Love Lucy, and I always loved that most of that show took place on a single set.”

While explaining his “crackpot” theory, Durang said that he was a distant relative of John Durang, who was a well-known actor in the 1700s from Philadelphia. “So my crackpot theory is I’m his reincarnation,” Durang said with a smile.

Christopher Durang has received numerous Obie Awards for his Off-Broadway plays Sister Mary Ignatius, The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Betty’s Summer Vacation, a Tony Award nomination for his play A History of the American Film. His latest work is Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, starring Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen.

By Mark Rotondo

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