July 22, 1932
She has produced over fifty works for theater, radio, and television, and is best known for her avant-garde theatrical work from the 1960s. As a founding member of The Open Theater, she developed an actor-training and character-creation technique known as "transformation". She used this technique to create her 1966 work Viet Rock, which was both the first rock musical and the first play to address the war in Vietnam.
Life and work
Early life and education
She was born, as Marguerite Duffy, to Marguerite (née Henry) and businessman Harold Joseph in Seattle, Washington. She first showed an interest in the theatre after attending a play at the age of seven. She wrote, "I went and I looked at the stage and I fell madly in love... I knew I wanted to do that, whatever it was." As a child, she wrote, directed, and designed sets for productions staged in the backyard of her family's home, earning her the nicknames "Tallulah Blackhead" and "Sarah Heartburn" from her father. He was not pleased by her interest in theatre.
After years of participating in school plays, 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 an effect on her view of theatre in society. 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 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. Midway through her degree program, 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 Bachelor of Education degree in 1952.
After graduation, she decided to focus on theatre for children and began teaching at Seattle's oldest performance conservatory, the Cornish School of Allied Arts. She also organized her first ensemble, the Cornish Players. At this time, she was writing a series of controversial short plays for youth dealing with issues like sex and politics, and adopted a pseudonym to shield her professional career as a playwright from her more conservative 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 City, The Open Theater, and Viet Rock
Terry faced backlash for the edginess of her earliest plays, Beach Grass and Go out (1955) and Move the Car (1955). She became increasingly frustrated with creative and political restraint in the Seattle theatre community, and decided to move to New York City. Once there, she continued writing 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 begun working as a prostitute to support her drug addiction. Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills opened in 1963 at Edward Albee's Playwrights Unit Workshop. Despite the success of these early productions, Terry had to support herself by working as an actress in television serials.
In her free time, she began forming connections in the theatre community, including with fellow playwright Maria Irene Fornes and director Joseph Chaikin. Chaikin was then working with The Living Theatre. Together with Peter Feldman and Barbara Vann, they founded The Open Theater in 1963. The Open Theater was a cooperative that progressed from a closed experimental laboratory to an ensemble. The Open Theatre used the methods of the worldwide collective theater movement and was particularly inspired by the work of the acting teacher, Nola Chilton, and the innovator of theater games, Viola Spolin.
Along with her colleagues at The Open Theater, Terry began working on exercises 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. The resulting productions exhibited sudden changes in mood, time, or character meant to disrupt the audience's sense of immersion and 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 Terry's work as she and the company produced such plays as Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place at the Sheridan Square Playhouse and Gloaming, Oh My Darling at the Martinique Theater, both in 1965. The self-guided theatre experiments were cut short by the ensemble's outrage at the United States' decision to go to war with Vietnam. In protest, Terry and her ensemble began work on what would become 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, and 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 evolved from workshop improvisations in The Open Theater laboratory, with music by Marianne de Pury. The musical premiered off-off Broadway at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and had a preview run at the Yale Repertory Theatre before opening off-Broadway at the Martinique Theatre on November 10, 1966.
Terry described Viet Rock as a "folk war movie" about the "futilities and irrelevancies" of war and the "nightmares, fantasies, regrets, terrors, confusions" of the Vietnam War. Viet Rock conveys "the bombardment of impressions we get from the mass media" along with firsthand testimonials about the war. Following the lives of seven soldiers on the front lines, the predominantly female cast juxtaposed intimate scenes, like a boy crawling on his belly 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 veterans and incorporated them into a satirical antiwar testimonial with a rock and roll soundtrack. Richard Schechner described Viet Rock as "Elizabethan in scope and tone" and compared the technique used by Open Theatre to that of Shakespeare. Some praised the vigor of the play's social protest, while others did not. New York Times critic Walter Kerr called the musical "truly distressing" and "an essentially thoughtless from-the-gut-only noise."
Cast member Gerome Ragni borrowed Terry's anti-war theme, improvisational technique, and rock and roll aesthetic to create the musical Hair with fellow actor James Rado. Canadian playwright Gary Botting noted, "It is fair to say that Viet Rock was unrivaled in popularity on Off-Off-Broadway until the advent of the rock musical that was directed by the same man, the rock musical that appeared to take the world by storm: Hair."
Following the mixed reviews of Viet Rock, which was translated and produced internationally,Terry left New York and The Open Theater. She moved to Minnesota and became the writer-in-residence for Minneapolis' Firehouse Theatre, where she had previously been a Rockefeller Fellow during the development of Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place. For several years, she split her time between theatre in Minnesota and commissions for television and public radio, including the program Home: Or Future Soap (1968). She did return to New York City to develop new plays such as Changes (1968) at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, St. Hydro Clemency, and Massachusetts Trust, all directed by Tom O'Horgan.
Approaching Simone (1970), Terry's play about the twentieth-century French feminist philosopher Simone Weil, won the 1969/1970 Obie Award for Best Off-Broadway Play. Terry took a stronger interest in women's issues after the production of Approaching Simone and began working to increase the visibility of women in theatre. Along with Fornes, Rosalyn Drexler, Julie Bovasso, Adrienne Kennedy, and Rochelle Owens, Terry founded New York's Women's Theater Council in 1972. Though the council was short-lived, it served as a consciousness-raising organization and facilitated the authorship of numerous important feminist plays. While in New York, Terry 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, in 1973. Following this production, Terry again left New York and settled at the Magic Theatre in Omaha, Nebraska, where she remained as playwright-in-residence and literary manager for the remainder of her career.
In recognition of her achievements and innovations in the theatre, Terry was elected to lifetime membership in the College of Fellows of the American Theatre in 1994. Her other awards have included the 1983 Dramatists Guild Award, an Academy of Theatre Arts 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.
Her papers are kept at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and at the Omaha Public Library. Many of her plays are available from Alexander Street Press, and some are available at the Rutgers Drama Library.
- 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 City
- 1963: Eat at Joe's - The Open Theatre, New York City
- 1963: When My Girlfriend Was Still All Flowers - The Open Theatre, New York City
- 1964: Calm Down Mother - Sheridan Square Playhouse, New York City
- 1965: Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool, Dry Place - Firehouse Theatre, Minneapolis
- 1966: The Magic Realists - La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and Sheridan Square Playhouse, New York City
- 1966: Comings and Goings - La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
- 1966: In the Gloaming, Oh My Darling - Martinique Theater
- 1966: Viet Rock: A Folk War Movie (music by Marianne de Pury) - La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and Martinique Theater and The Open Theatre, New York City (published by Broadway Play Publishing in Plays by Megan Terry)
- 1967: The People vs. Ranchman - La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (produced by the Firehouse Theatre, Minneapolis)
- 1968: Massachusetts Trust - Spingold Theater, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts
- 1968: Changes - directed by Tom O'Horgan at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
- 1968: Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place - La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
- 1970: Approaching Simone - La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and Boston University Theater, Boston, Massachusetts (published by Broadway Play Publishing in Plays by Megan Terry)
- 1973: Couplings and Groupings
- 1973: Nightwalk (with Sam Shepard and Jean-Claude van Itallie) - The Open Theatre, New York City
- 1974: Babes In The Bighouse - Magic Theater, Omaha, Nebraska (published by Broadway Play Publishing in Plays by Megan Terry)
- 1974: Hothouse
- 1974: Calm Down Mother and The Gloaming, Oh My Darling - La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
- 1978: American King's English for Queens
- 1979: Attempted Rescue on Avenue B: A Beat Fifties Comic Opera
- 1979: Goona Goona - Magic Theater, Omaha, Nebraska (published by Broadway Play Publishing)
- 1982: Molly Bailey's Traveling Family Circus: Featuring Scenes from the Life of Mother Jones
- 1985: Objective Love I - Magic Theater, Omaha, Nebraska (published by Broadway Play Publishing, 2012)
- 1990-1992: Star Path Moon Stop - written and toured for Magic Theatre
- 1995: No Kissing in Hall - commissioned by J. Larson of Rose Theatre, Omaha, Nebraska
- 1955: The Dirt Boat - KING-TV, Seattle, Washington
- 1968: Home or Future Soap (directed by Glenn Jordan) - Channel 13 NYC
- 1969: One More Little Drinkie - Channel 13 NYC
- 1968: Sanibel and Captiva (radio play produced on national radio by PBS-Boston)
- 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) p. 18-20, 24-28.
- 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; Michael Feingold (Autumn 1977). "American Experimental Theatre: Then and Now". Performing Arts Journal. 2 (2): 13–24. JSTOR 3245333.
- 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 (1967). Viet Rock and Other Plays. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0671211714.
- Richard Schechner, Public Domain, cited in Gary Botting, The Theatre of Protest in America (Edmonton: Harden House, 1972, 28.
- 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.
- Gary Botting, "Megan Terry", in The Theatre of Protest in America, p. 28.
- 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.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Magic Realists, The (1966)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Clown Play, The and Comings and Goings (1966)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Viet Rock (1966a)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Viet Rock (1966b)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Viet Rock (1966c)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: People vs. Ranchman, The (1967)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Massachusetts Trust (1968)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Changes (1968)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place (1968)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Approaching Simone (1970)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Calm Down Mother and The Gloaming, Oh My Darling (1974)". Accessed August 14, 2018.
- Breslauer, Jan; Helene Keyssar (1989). Lynda Hart, ed. Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. Making Magic Public: Megan Terry's Traveling Family Circus.
- 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. Modern American Drama: The Female Canon. Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. pp. Megan Terry's Transformation Drama: 'Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place' and the Possibilities of Self.
- Terry, Megan (November 10, 1958). "Who Says Only Words Make Great Drama?". New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2012.