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Durang wrote for stage from early age; to talk at UAlbany Monday

Saturday, March 8, 2014
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Christopher Durang (Associated Press photo)
Christopher Durang (Associated Press photo)

As a young boy, Christopher Durang had no interest in short stories or novels. His passion was to write for the stage.

“When I was 8 I announced to my mother that I was going to write a play,” said Durang, whose latest work, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play.

“Well, I kept on writing them and they kept on getting made. I always wrote plays, and I don’t quite know why. I think it might have been because my mother loved the theater and was always talking about it.”

Durang will be the featured speaker for the 18th annual Burian Lecture at the University at Albany at 8 p.m. Monday. Free and open to the public, his talk will be held at the Recital Hall in the college’s Performing Arts Center.

“I do kind of like talking to audiences,” said Durang, who also earned a Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical for “A History of the American Film,” back in 1978.

18th annual Burian Lecture

WHAT: A lecture by playwright Christopher Durang

WHERE: Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, University at Albany

WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 442-5620, writers@albany.edu

“I’m not the most analytical person in the world, so if someone asks me, ‘is theater all about such and such or this and that,’ I’m not that good at it. I like talking, but I like specifics. I like details. That’s why I enjoy reading from my plays.”

Early success

A year after graduating from Yale School of Drama, he had his first off-Broadway hit in 1975, “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe.” He has been a successful playwright ever since, but 35 years after his Broadway debut he astonished everyone, including himself, by creating “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” and winning the Tony for Best Play.

Durang recruited his old friend Sigourney Weaver to play the role of Masha both off-Broadway and Broadway, and David Hyde Pierce played Vanya, earning one of the play’s six Tony nominations.

“It was very much a surprise, and certainly a very nice surprise,” he said. “It was a nice feeling to get it produced, and then to have it move to Broadway. When it got nominated I thought, ‘Well, that’s great,’ and then it won. I told a couple of friends, ‘You know, I’m glad there were no great plays about death this year.’ Comedies just don’t seem to win Tonys.”

The story centers on middle-aged siblings Vanya and Sonia, who still live in the house they were raised in thanks to their movie star sister, Masha. Vanya, who is gay, and Sonia spend their time bemoaning their rather Chekovian lot in life, their boredom interrupted only by their cleaning woman, Cassandra, and a visit from their sister and her much younger lover, Spike.

“I really enjoyed writing the play, and I write intuitively, so I didn’t know what the outcome would be,” said Durang. “I thought maybe Vanya and Sonia might be equally bitter, but as I was writing the story, Vanya was not happy, but not as bitter as Sonia. It was fun to see its success. I like writing comedies, but this one does have some poignant things in it. It doesn’t end with a ‘ha ha’. It ends with an ‘oh.’ ”

Youthful efforts

Durang was born on Jan. 2, 1949 in Montclair, N.J. While he knew at an early age he wanted to be a playwright, he says he wasn’t possessed with an abundance of self-confidence.

“I never would have shown that play to my teacher,” he said, remembering his first foray into the theater world. “I was in second grade and on the shy side. But my mother brought it to my teacher’s attention and my teacher really liked it. It was a rather conventional parochial school but they decided to stop classes long enough to do the play. I thought it was great.”

That first play was only two pages long. When he was 13, Durang produced another play, this one about 10 pages, and in another year he and a friend, Kevin Farrell, came up with a “full-scale” musical.

“Once again I was too shy to show it to anyone, but once again my mother showed it to the head of the English department, who showed it to the head of the drama department, and lo and behold, they were putting that one on, too,” said Durang.

“I was at an all-boys school, but we got the girls from a nearby Catholic school to come for auditions, and I was right there with the director, one of the English teachers, sitting in on the auditions, just like a real playwright. I thought, ‘wow, this is really fun.’ ”

Durang’s success at getting his plays produced continued on to his undergraduate days at Harvard and while he was earning his master’s at the Yale School of Drama. He was doing exactly what he wanted to do, and was making some great friends, including Sigourney Weaver and Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Still, something was wrong.

Family struggles

“I grew up in an alcoholic family, an extended one, where people didn’t solve their problems,” he said. “I’m not really sure why I was feeling so depressed, and then I started to doubt myself. ‘Maybe I wasn’t meant to be in the theater, maybe I wasn’t that good,’ blah, blah, blah, and all that. I had a bumpy college experience.”

Durang, who lives with long-time partner John Augustine in Bucks County, Pa., said his sexuality — he is now openly gay — may have played a part in his struggles.

“I didn’t realize I was gay until my freshman year in college,” he said. “I found that to be challenging, and I also lost my Catholic faith when I went to college, and I must say I missed it. It always gave me a sense of security. I felt lost, and in my family when things didn’t work out, it was very easy to get depressed.”

With the help of counseling at school, he rebounded.

“When I went to the Yale School of Drama, I discovered it was much easier to be gay when you were in the theater department,” he said. “I didn’t exactly come out. I just assumed that most people assumed. But I never came out to my parents, and I can’t tell you if they knew or not. I lost them relatively early in life, and those things weren’t discussed in our family.”

He followed up his initial Broadway success with the off-Broadway OBIE Award-winning “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You” in 1980, “Beyond Therapy” in 1981 and “The Marriage of Betty and Boo” in 1985. Around this same time he was also acting in television and movies, including “The Secret of My Success” with Michael J. Fox (1987), “The Butcher’s Wife” with Demi Moore and Jeff Daniels (1991), and “HouseSitter” with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn (1992).

“They were small parts, but they were fun, and in the world of movies, I could work for five days and make more money than I would putting on a play at some non-profit theater,” he said.

“I viewed it as a way to keep earning money so I could keep writing plays. My acting career has dried up a bit, and I’m not obsessed by it, but I look more like Heidi’s grandfather these days. There must be some roles out there like that I could do. I would enjoy that.”

Durang won his third OBIE Award in 1999 for “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” and in 2012 received the PEN/Laura Pels Award for a “master dramatist in mid-career.”

informal seminar

Along with his lecture Monday night, Durang will be at UAlbany for an informal seminar at 4:15 p.m., also at the Recital Hall. The Burian Lecture Series is funded by the Jarka and Grayce Susan Burian Endowment and is sponsored by the UAlbany Theatre Department.

Durang doesn’t like to be classified as a “gay playwright.” He is a playwright who happens to be gay, and he also takes issue with people who say he makes fun of religion.

“I wrote one musical just to amuse myself, and it was the Gospel story told through musical comedy,” he said. “I wrote a song about how the Holy Ghost made Mary pregnant, and in another song I had a nun singing, ‘everything’s coming up Moses.’ Some people say it’s not nice to make fun of Christianity, but I don’t feel like I’m doing that. It’s more about just looking at things through the eyes of a literal-minded child.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or bbuell@dailygazette.com.

 
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