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Christopher Durang: Writing 'Words On Fire'

August 05, 1990|Susan King

Christopher Durang happened to stir up a little controversy on his way to becoming one of America's wittiest playwrights.

His award-winning plays are "A History of American Film," "Beyond Therapy," "Baby with the Bathwater" and "The Marriage of Bette and Boo."

And his best-known work is "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You," a scathingly funny and widely debated comedy about a deranged nun and her pupils that won the Obie Award in 1980. Deemed anti-religious, "Sister Mary" was picketed by Catholic organizations during its Los Angeles run in 1981.

Durang wrote and stars in a segment of PBS' avant-garde series "Alive From Off Center" entitled "Words on Fire." He plays a modern-day Jack Benny who describes "man's ability to be inactive over something that he feels passionate about," whether it be global warming or staying in love. "Words on Fire" airs Friday at 11 p.m. on KCET.

The playwright talked to Susan King while he was in Los Angeles recently appearing at the Tiffany Theatre in his play "Laughing Wild."

Is this your first involvement with "Alive From Off Center"?

Yes. I knew the producer of this particular episode, Wendall Harrington. She got involved in "Alive from Off Center" and called and asked if I would be interested in doing something. I like these small things you know that will actually get done. I have written a lot of movie scripts and they get put in a pile.

Did you have any guidelines to follow?

It had to have some connection to words and to fire, but it could be loose. The quote the girl (actress Kristine Nielsen) talks about in my piece was actually a quote the producer had shown to me to inspire me. I actually had trouble following the quote so I wrote it in.

You also appear in this piece. Do you like to act in your own works?

I mostly do. I am writing a play now, and assuming that it happens I wouldn't be in that one. I am probably going to do less of my own work.


No reason. I was in the last two plays of mine in New York, and I think it's just time I am not in the next one. I don't know why, and then I don't know why I chose to be in this one. This piece, "Words on Fire," and also "Laughing Wild" are a little bit like essays and editorials. It just seems easy to do it myself.

You also appeared in the 1988 film "Mr. North."

I play the YMCA desk clerk. I had a lovely time. It was really fun. I have had small parts in three movies. Everybody says I was in "Baby Boom," but Sam Shepard was in that, and I know I don't look anything like him.

I was surprised to read that you only have had two plays produced on Broadway. Yes. "The History of American Film" was in 1978 and "Beyond Therapy" was in 1982.

"American Film" was very nurtured by regional theaters. I went to the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Contest with that play. The play went really well, and I got an offer from the Mark Taper Forum here, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and the Hartford Stage in Connecticut.

I actually had two Broadway offers. One was from a more mainstream Broadway producer who wanted me to get stars and change composers, and then I had another offer from lesser-known producers who loved the Arena production and more or less wanted to bring that in. I opted for the latter, and then unfortunately it didn't go well on Broadway. It was really a shame.

What has been your most performed play?

"Beyond Therapy."

But that failed on Broadway.

I thought the production was very good. I write comedy, and I can tell if the audiences are laughing and it was doing really well, but I got strange reviews on the play. Newsweek, Time and The New Yorker were terrific. But then The New York Times, which is the bane of my existence, didn't find it funny.

Often, if something succeeds on Broadway, it just dies and is never seen again. I remember the next year, a couple of theaters did it and it went well. It went well out there. "Sister Mary" is less frequently performed because of the controversy about it.

Were you surprised audiences found the play to be anti-religious?

I was. I think I was a little naive to be surprised. I just thought "Sister Mary" was presenting my viewpoints. The times it had been done initially, audiences on the whole found it funny. I didn't expect people to be so upset, and I didn't expect anybody would get involved and say you shouldn't put it on. I honestly felt if you don't agree with someone you say, "I don't agree with that," but it's rare someone would try to stop it.

I think that almost in a funny way, the controversy with "Sister Mary" was in the forefront of what we are seeing now with the National Endowment of the Arts. It feels to me like the liberals were very, very vocal in the '60s. I was in college in the '60s and protested the Vietnam War among other things.

The conservatives found that vocalness annoying, but learned from it. The conservatives are very, very vocal now. The conservatives have drummed up hysteria over the Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. I haven't seen them, but the bulk of what the NEA does is very middle of the road and acceptable to people. Almost every regional theater gets funding from the NEA. The last 11 Pulitzer Prize winners have come from regional theater. There is a lack of tolerance now for differences of opinion. The whole thing is very upsetting.

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