My Life: Constance Congdon, Playwright-in-Residence

Telling stories

Constance Congdon

Interview by Katherine Duke ’05

Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner has called Constance Congdon “one of the best playwrights this language has produced.” Congdon received her M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1982. Highlights of her 30-year career include her original play Tales of the Lost Formicans (produced more than 200 times worldwide, most recently in Cairo and Helsinki) and an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s A Mother with Olympia Dukakis in the lead role. Over the summer, she premiered So Far: The Children of the Elvi and adaptations of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid and Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. Her new verse version of Molière’s Tartuffe will be published in 2008 in a single-volume critical edition by W.W. Norton, as well as in the upcoming Norton Anthology of Drama. Congdon has won grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the W. Alton Jones Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. A strong believer in America’s academic and nonprofit theaters, which she says play a crucial role in “keeping new work alive,” Congdon has taught playwriting at Amherst since 1993.

On early theatrics

My father was a beautiful singer and could do some dancing. He was on a small circuit in western Kansas; he always danced and sang with me. I made a little puppet theater between my bed and my parents’ bed. Snap, Crackle and Pop were three of the puppets, and they had many adventures. When I was 8, I wrote a play called Peter Pan Meets God.

Flash forward: In junior high school, I played a toothless old hillbilly woman in a play called A-Feudin’ Over Yonder. The first real play I saw was Cyrano de Bergerac, and I’ll never forget it, because Cyrano entered from behind me in the audience in that opening scene. Of course, I loved musicals; I hadn’t seen any, but I would stand on my bed and perform entire albums. I wrote comedy sketches in high school. I remember the first time one of those was performed: I was too nervous to sit in the auditorium; I went up in the balcony and sat and listened to people laugh. Oh, my God, that was such a high!

On brand-new adults

I feel so connected to the world through my students. I like being part of the brand-new-adult transition into what they sometimes call “the real world” (though that’s just stupid, because this world we’re in is just as real as can be). I was up for the head of playwriting at Yale, which would be teaching graduate students, and I panicked. As soon as the dean from Yale called me and said, “Well, we’ve made a decision, and it’s not you,” I just started to laugh—I was so relieved. At that point I’d decided I wanted to stay at Amherst, to teach undergraduates.

On Molière and McMansions

I did a new verse version of The Misanthrope for American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Opening night went well. I knew something was up when the board members, who could tell who I was because I was the shortest person in the room, would come up and just pat me. My new verse version of Tartuffe premiered recently at the Two River Theater Company in New Jersey. The director set it in a McMansion in Texas. She didn’t change a word, and it was fantastic. It sounded so Texan! Just put an accent on it!

On controversy

My play Casanova was produced in 1989 at the Joseph Papp Public Theater with an amazing cast—La Tanya Richardson (Mrs. Samuel L. Jackson) and actor Ethan Hawke making his stage debut. But it didn’t get a single good review. That play was involved in the whole National Endowment for the Arts controversy. It contained each of the things Sen. Jesse Helms said art cannot have, and more: homosexuality, the sex act, a rape, bad language (a lot of that), a lot of naming of people’s private parts. I got criticism from the right wing, but I certainly also got it from the other side—the feminist movement. They said, “How can you put rape in a play?” and “How can you portray child abuse?” Well, because there’s a story in Casanova’s life about that. But people only see what they want to see. The critics said I was bashing men. For a woman writer, it’s really hard to get the universal; it’s always seen as “from a female point-of-view.” I hate that. If a man had written Casanova, I think it would have been dealt with in a different way. A couple of years later, my play Dog Opera premiered at that theater to good reviews.

On current favorites

Right now, I’m all about [British humorists] Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I also love Simon Peg and Nick Frost—their most recent film was Hot Fuzz. As long as I’m on the Brits: Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders—absolute genius! Absolutely fabulous! I saw some fantastic plays last year in New York. [Playwright] John Guare saw me and said, “Go immediately and see The Pillowman [by Martin McDonagh],” which I did, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

On the computer
Imaginary Invalid
From The Imaginary Invalid, performed over the
summer at the American Conservatory Theater in
San Francisco.

I think I’m the oldest person on But after some of my friends find out, more of us oldies are going to join, because it’s so much fun. The site asks, “What are your aspirations and interests?” I said, “World peace and role-playing games.” Jon Wemette ’05 warned me off playing World of Warcraft because he saw how addicted another student was. I have an addictive nature, so I took Jon’s advice: I stayed away. I love Age of Empires and Age of Mythology. In some RPG realms, my warrior, Fluffy, is not to be messed with. I’d rather be an orc or a dwarf than a wizard any day.

On new life

When I got the news that my son’s girlfriend was pregnant, I was working with Rene Auberjonois, who was on Star Trek and is a theater guy. He said, “You will be goony. There’s a kind of love that you have for your grandchild that just makes you nuts.” And that is what happened. I can’t get enough of Corabella [born Feb. 15, 2007]. People say she looks like me; I think that’s because I have a fat, round face, but I’m thrilled that they think that. She and her parents are living with me. Eventually they’re going to have to go and have their own lives or something ridiculous like that.

I get a big infusion of hope from Corabella (and from my students). A bunch of old people will sit around and go, “Aw, the world’s going to hell.” I never say that; I feel like the world’s going to be in good hands. I look at this child who will outlive me, and I go, “Boy, the things you’re going to see.” I mean, there may be some horrific things, but there are going to be some fantastic things as well.

Photos: Frank Ward and Kevin Burns