July 22, 1932
Megan Terry (born July 22, 1932) is an American playwright, screenwriter, and theatre artist having produced more than 50 discrete works for theatre, radio, and television. She is perhaps best known for her avant-garde theatrical work from the 1960s where, as a founding member of New York City's The Open Theater, she developed an actor-training and character-creation technique known as "transformation" that she used to create her 1966 work, Viet Rock, the first rock musical and the first play to address the War in Vietnam.
Life and work
Terry was born Marguerite Duffy, a child of Harold Joseph, a businessman, and his wife Marguerite (née Henry). She first showed an interest in the theatre after attending a play at the age of seven, "I went and I looked at the stage and I fell madly in love," she wrote. "I knew I wanted to do that, whatever it was." As a child, she would write, direct, and design sets for theatrical productions staged in the backyard of her family's home, earning her the nicknames "Tallulah Blackhead" and "Sarah Heartburn" from her father, who was less than thrilled about her enthusiasm for a theatrical career. After many years of participating in school theatricals, Terry became a member of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse during her senior year in high school. The liberal politics and activist attitudes of the company's directors, Florence and Burton James, had a pronounced effect on Terry's view of theatre in society, and she has credited their influence as well as the 1951 closure of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse under pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee, for her later use of biting political commentary on stage.
Terry went on to earn a scholarship to the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada, where she received certificates in theatre directing, design, and acting. While there, she took psychology and sociology courses at the University of Alberta and served as technical director for the Edmonton Children's Theater, where she became interested in theatre as a tool for youth education. Mid way through her degree program, however, Terry was forced to return to Seattle when her grandfather became seriously ill. She finished her degree at the University of Washington, where she was awarded a Bachelors of Education in 1952. After graduation, she decided to focus on creative dramatics for children and found work teaching at Seattle's oldest performance conservatory, the Cornish School of Allied Arts, in addition to organizing her first acting troupe, the Cornish Players. Terry was also occupied in writing a series of controversial short plays for youth that dealt frankly with issues such as sex and politics. It was at this time that she first adopted a professional pseudonym to shield her professional career as a playwright from the denunciation of her more conservative academic colleagues. She chose the name Megan because it was the Celtic root for Marguerite, and "Terry" in homage to the nineteenth-century actress Ellen Terry.
New York and The Open Theater
Facing backlash for the racy themes and edgy approach of her earliest plays such as Beach Grass and Go out (1955) and Move the Car (1955), Terry became increasingly frustrated with the need for creative and political restraint in the Seattle theatre community. She moved to New York City in 1956 where she continued to write plays dealing with social and political issues including The Magic Realist (1960), which uses vaudeville techniques to burlesque the inequity of a capitalistic economic power structure on individuals, families, and criminal justice, and Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills, the story of an ex-beauty queen who has turned to prostitution to support a drug habit, which opened in 1963 at Edward Albee's Playwrights Unit Workshop. Despite these successes, however, Terry was forced to support herself by working as an actress in television serials. In her free time, she began to form connections in the theatre community, among them fellow playwright Maria Irene Fornes and director Joseph Chaikin, then working with The Living Theatre. Together with Peter Feldman and Barbara Vann they founded The Open Theater in 1963, a theater co-operative that progressed from a closed experimental laboratory to a performance ensemble. The Open Theatre used the methods of the worldwide collective theater movement, and were particularly inspired by the theories of the acting teacher Nola Chilton and Chicago artist and innovator of "theater games," Viola Spolin.
Along with her colleagues at The Open Theater, Terry began working on improvisations and games to produce a new kind of collaborative performance based on a "radical program of communal engagement in the nonhierarchical and collaborative ensemble," that viewed the concept of a "play" as a continuing process rather than an end product. Her resultant productions exhibited sudden changes in mood, time, or character that were meant to disrupt the audience's sense of immersion and instead focus on creating a changing emotional state. These techniques resulted in a theatre experience that feminist scholar Rebecca Bell-Metereau described as filled with "... earthy language, sexual and political content, musical segments, humor, and vaudeville touches [that] all blend to create lively, dynamic experiences for audiences."
Terry's most significant contribution to The Open Theatre's growing repertoire of exercises was "transformation," in which the actors would improvise overheard dialogue in an effort to "transform" into characters coping with various situations. These exercises fueled her work as she and the company produced such plays as Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place (1965) at the Sheridan Square Playhouse and Gloaming, Oh My Darling (1965) at the Martinique Theater. Their self-guided theatre experiments were abruptly cut short, however, by the troupe's outrage at American decision to go to war with Vietnam. In protest, she and her fellow artists immediately began work on what would become the 1966 rock musical, Viet Rock:
Just as we were on the brink of major breakthroughs in acting, playwriting, and directing, we had to throw all our energies into stopping the war in Viet Nam. Much work got postponed, other work accelerated out of the necessity of dealing with the problem of war. That's how Viet Rock came into being, out of necessity. Women playing men--the actresses as Vietnamese happened because we didn't have enough men in the company, and those we had were constantly leaving for paying jobs.
As the first rock musical to be written and performed in the United States as well as the first play to address America's involvement in Vietnam, Viet Rock was a landmark production for both The Open Theater and Terry as a playwright. The collectively-created piece grew out of workshop improvisations in The Open Theater laboratory with musical compositions by Marianne de Pury. It premiered Off-Off Broadway at Cafe La Mama, the original home of Ellen Stewart's La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and had an additional preview run at the Yale Repertory Theatre before opening Off-Broadway on November 10, 1966 at the Martinique Theatre.
Terry described the production as a "folk war movie" that was about the "futilities and irrelevancies" of war as a concept and the "nightmares, fantasies, regrets, terrors, confusions" of the Vietnam War specifically. Viet Rock conveys "the bombardment of impressions we get from the mass media" as well as firsthand testimonials about the war. Following the lives of seven soldiers from their U.S. homes to the front lines, the work's predominantly female cast juxtaposed startlingly intimate scenes such as a boy crawling on his belly lifting his head and saying, "I can't wait till I get there and make a killing on the black market!" with actors performing up-tempo rock numbers like "Let's go gay with L.B.J.!" Similar to the "transformation" exercises done earlier in workshops, Viet Rock collected the personal stories of those coming back from war and morphed them into satirical antiwar testimonials with a rock and roll soundtrack. Some praised the vigor of the play's social protest, though others such as New York Times critic Walter Kerr panned it, with Kerr calling the musical "truly distressing" and "an essentially thoughtless from-the-gut-only noise." Nevertheless, Viet Rock became Terry's best-known work, particularly after one of the leading cast members Gerome Ragni went on to borrow Terry's anti-war theme, improvisational techniques, and rock-and-roll aesthetic to create the blockbuster musical Hair along with fellow actor James Rado.
Following the mixed reviews of Viet Rock, Terry left New York and The Open Theater, heading to Minnesota to become the writer-in-residence for Minneapolis's Firehouse Theatre, where she had previously worked as a Rockefeller Fellow during the development of Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place. For several years, she split her time between theatre projects in Minnesota and commissions for television and public radio such as Home: Or Future Soap (1968). She also returned to New York City from time to time to develop new plays such as Changes (1968) with La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and Approaching Simone (1970), a play about the twentieth-century French feminist philosopher Simone Weil which won the 1969-70 Obie Award for Best Off-Broadway Play.
Having taken a stronger interest in women's issues following Approaching Simone, Terry set out to increase the visibility of women in the theatre. Along with Fornes, Rosalyn Drexler, Julie Bovasso, Adrienne Kennedy, and Rochelle Owens, Terry founded New York's influential Women's Theater Council in 1972. Although the project was short-lived, it served as a consciousness-raising institution and brought about the authorship of a number of important feminist plays. While in New York, Terry also reconnected with Chaikin and The Open Theater to work with fellow playwrights Sam Shepard and Jean-Claude van Itallie on the company's final production, Nightwalk (1973). Following its performance, Terry once again left New York and settled at the Magic Theatre (Omaha) in Nebraska, where she remained as playwright-in-residence and literary manager for the remainder of her career.
In recognition for her many achievements and innovations in the theatre, Terry was elected to lifetime membership in the College of Fellows of the American Theatre in 1994. Other awards include the 1983 Dramatists Guild Award (1983), ATA Silver Medal for "distinguished contributions to, and service in, the American theatre," a Yale and a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Robert Chesley Award, two Rockefeller Foundation grants and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship.
- 1955: Beach Grass. Seattle, Washington.
- 1955: Go Out and Move the Car. Seattle, Washington.
- 1955: Seascape. Seattle, Washington.
- 1961: New York Comedy. Saratoga, New York.
- 1963: Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills. Sheridan Square Playhouse, New York, New York.
- 1963: Eat at Joe's. The Open Theatre, New York, New York.
- 1963: When My Girlfriend Was Still All Flowers. The Open Theater. New York, New York.
- 1964: Calm Down Mother. Sheridan Square Playhouse, New York, New York.
- 1965: Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool, Dry Place. Firehouse Theatre, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
- 1966: The Magic Realists. Sheridan Square Playhouse, New York, New York.
- 1966: Comings and Goings
- 1966: In the Gloaming, Oh My Darling
- 1966: Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie, (music by Marianne de Pury). The Open Theater, New York, New York. (Published by Broadway Play Publishing Inc. in the collection Plays By Megan Terry)
- 1967: The People vs. Ranchman
- 1970: Approaching Simone. Boston University Theater, Boston, Massachusetts. (Published by Broadway Play Publishing Inc. in the collection Plays By Megan Terry)
- 1973: Couplings and Groupings
- 1973: Nightwalk, (with Sam Shepard and Jean-Claude van Itallie). The Open Theater, New York, New York.
- 1974: Babes In The Bighouse. Omaha Magic Theater, Omaha, Nebraska. (Published by Broadway Play Publishing Inc. in the collection Plays By Megan Terry)
- 1974: Hothouse
- 1978: American King's English for Queens
- 1979: Attempted Rescue on Avenue B: A Beat Fifties Comic Opera
- 1979: Goona Goona. Omaha Magic Theater, Omaha, Nebraska. (Published by Broadway Play Publishing Inc.)
- 1982: Molly Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones
- 1985: Objective Love I. Omaha Magic Theater, Omaha, Nebraska. (Ppublished by Broadway Play Publishing Inc., 2012)
- 1955: The Dirt Boat. KING-TV, Seattle, Washington.
- 1968: Sanibel and Captiva
- 1969: One More Little Drinkie
- 1968: Sanibel and Captiva. National Public Radio.
- 1972: American Wedding Ritual Monitored/Transmitted by the Planet Jupiter
- 1974: Home: Or Future Soap
- Smith, Patrick S. (2003). Arnold Markoe and Kenneth T. Jackson, ed. "Megan Terry." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Gale Biography In Context. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
- Keyssar, Helene (1999). Brenda Murphy, ed. "Feminist Theatre of the Seventies." in The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 177–85. ISBN 0521576806. Retrieved 21 July 2012.
- Schmidt, Kerstin (2005). "Megan Terry and Rochelle Owens: Transformation and Postmodern Feminism" in The Theater of Transformation: Postmodernism in American Drama. Amsterdam: Rodopi. pp. 129–37. ISBN 904201895X.
- Holsinger, M. Paul, ed. (1999). "Viet Rock (Musical)." in War and American Popular Culture. Westport: Greenwood Press. p. 425. ISBN 0313299080.
- Partnow, Elaine T. and Lesley Anne Hyatt, ed. (1998). The Female Dramatist: Profiles of Women Playwrights from the Middle Ages to Contemporary Times. New York: Facts On File. ISBN 0816030154.
- Qtd. in Partnow and Hyatt (1998). The Female Dramatist.
- Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, ed. (1987). Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books. pp. 377–381. ISBN 0688044050.
- Sullivan, Dan (26 Sep 1966). "Play on Vietnam to Open at Yale: Work Follows 7 Soldiers From U.S. to the Front". New York Times (ProQuest Historical Newspapers). p. 48. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
- Gary Botting, The Theatre of Protest in America, Edmonton: Harden House, 1972.
- Pasolli, Robert (1970). A Book on the Open Theater. New York: Avon.
- Bell-Meterau, Rebecca (1987). Frank N. Magill, ed. "Megan Terry." in Critical Survey of Drama. Pasadena: Salem Press. p. 340. ISBN 0893563897.
- See also Spolin, Viola (1999). Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 081014008X.
- Hughes, Catherine (1967). "The Theatre Goes to War". America. 20 May: 759–61.
- Terry, Megan; Sam Shepard, Stanley Kauffmann, Robert Patrick, Lawrence Kornfeld, Crystal Field, Richard Kostelanetz, Carl Weber, Wynn Handman, Rochelle Owens, Carolee Schneemann, and Michael Feingold (Autumn 1977). "American Experimental Theatre: Then and Now". Performing Arts Journal 2 (2): 13–24. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
- Bottoms, Stephen J. (2004). Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 178–81. ISBN 047211400X.
- Terry, Megan (Fall 1966). "Introduction to Viet Rock". Tulane Drama Review 11: 196–98.
- Kerr, Walter (11 Nov 1966). "The Theater: 'Viet Rock': Play by Megan Terry at the Martinique". New York Times (ProQuest Historical Newspapers). p. 38. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
- Terry, Megan; with an introduction by Richard Schechner (1967). Viet Rock and Other Plays. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0671211714.
- Wollman, Elizabeth L. (2006). The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 43–44. ISBN 978-0-472-11576-1.
- Miller, Scott (2003). Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of Hair. London: Heinemann. pp. 56–62. ISBN 978-0-325-00556-0.
- Leavitt, Dinah Luise (1980). Feminist Theatre Groups. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 0899500056.
- "Megan Terry." in Contemporary Authors Online. Gale Biography In Context: Detroit. 2001. Retrieved 21 July 2012.
- Breslauer, Jan; Helene Keyssar (1989). Lynda Hart, ed. "Making Magic Public: Megan Terry's Traveling Family Circus." in Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre (Reprint ed.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472093894.
- Larson, James Wallace (1988). Public Dreams: A Critical Investigation of the Plays of Megan Terry, 1955–1986. Dissertation: University of Kansas.
- Schlueter, June (1990). June Schlueter, ed. "Megan Terry's Transformation Drama: Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place and the Possibilities of Self." inModern American Drama: The Female Canon. Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 978-1611471397.
- Terry, Megan (10 Nov 1958). "Who Says Only Words Make Great Drama?". New York Times. Retrieved 21 July 2012.