by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
With 27 productions at regional theaters across the country this season, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was ranked #1 on American Theatre magazine’s 2014-15 Top 10 Most Produced Plays list. One of our most beloved and widely produced contemporary American playwrights, Chris has received multiple Obies, a Tony Award nomination and a Tony win for his work, the 2012 PEN Master American Dramatist Award and is a 2013 inductee to the Theater Hall of Fame. Characterized by a combination of absurdist humor and raging satire, his style has influenced an entire generation of writers.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was the winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, Best Play from the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama League Award and the Off-Broadway Alliance Award—and is now delighting audiences here at Arena Stage. The night after opening, I talked with Chris on the phone about the success of his play, his creative process, and his relationship with Chekhov.
What was your inspiration for writing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike?
My inspiration was realizing that I was the age of the older characters in Chekhov. I read Chekhov in college but now I thought, “I’m the age of Uncle Vanya.” Also, I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in an old farm house on a hill that actually looks out on a pond where the blue heron comes—although it hasn’t been for quite a while so that’s disturbing. I live there with my partner (and now husband) John Augustine. And my house in the country made me think of how, in Chekhov—particularly in The Seagull and Uncle Vanya—there are people living in the county who are unhappy and jealous of people who live in the city.
Unlike Chekhov characters, I am happy in my house. But I had lived in New York City pursuing playwriting for 20 years; so unlike Chekhov’s Vanya, I am not envious of those who live in the city. I wanted trees and quiet, and I got them! But the country people The Seagull are envious of Madam Arkadina, the actress, who is in the city and/or traveling in what seems to be a glamorous life. The professor in Uncle Vanya lives in the city and is praised by the newspapers and everything, which makes Vanya unhappy. And so I was thinking to myself that where I live now reminded me of those bitter people in the country and I decided I wanted to write something like that, set it in the present and in a house like mine—though I’m happy to say it is not autobiographical. I wanted it to be a comedy and I wanted it not to be so connected to Chekhov that you had to know Chekhov in order to enjoy it. So even though my impulse was Chekhov, the play took on its own trajectory. The other thing that occurred in writing the play was that it really became a story about siblings.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is one of the most produced plays in regional theater today. How does it feel to see your play explode across the country the way it has?
I feel like I won the lottery. I’m delighted and surprised. In my career I’ve had some plays that were done a lot. Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You was done a fair amount. And Beyond Therapy. But neither one was as produced as this one. I’m totally surprised and delighted. I was not expecting this at all.
What was your introduction to Chekhov?
I’ve always liked Chekhov plays. When I was around 14 I tried to read The Seagull and I couldn’t make sense out of it. I put it aside and figured I wasn’t ready to make sense of Chekhov. And then freshmen year at Harvard I took a class in theater that jumped from decade to decade, starting with Greek drama and then a Roman play and then Molière and somewhere in there was Chekhov and we read The Seagull. The teacher was wonderful. He would read aloud some of the scenes and he communicated the upset and longing and worry underneath the dialogue. I found myself moved by the characters’ unhappiness.
How does a play start for you – is it a character, a scene, a setting?
Sometimes the character comes to mind and sometimes it’s a theme. For instance when I started to write Sister Mary Ignatius, my mother had had breast cancer and then had recovered for a few years and then got bone cancer. The doctors made it clear that her prognosis was not good. She lasted another two years. I was living in New York and I came into New Jersey where she lived three to four days a week. I had stopped being a believer in my Catholic upbringing and I found myself wishing that I had the same belief in Catholicism as I did when I was 19. And while I was having that thought I started to remember the dogma that we had been taught from first grade on in my Catholic elementary school. And now I was 29 and starting to write what became Sister Mary, and it seemed so peculiar what we were taught, there was an answer for everything. And so I wanted to write a play in which a nun would come out and explain everything to the audience. I decided that she would be giving a lecture and it went from there.
What’s your writing process? Do you have any particular writing habits?
Before computers I used to write by hand and then, when I would type it up, the typed version was almost like making a second draft. Recently I’ve had to be on some trains and I don’t bring my computer with me so I’ve just been doing it by hand—although my handwriting was always bad and it’s worse now. I started using computers in ‘83 or ‘84 and, in some ways, I have trouble now when I’m not sitting at the computer. One of the things about having computers is that you read a chunk and then you think, ‘Oh I don’t think this is the right place for the character to go, however I kind of like it,” so I cut it and put it in a different file. I love that I can save those, because I can then change my mind again. When I can take something out it helps visually to have the section gone, rather than all crossed out. It helps to go from beat to beat.
I have a notebook where I write down ideas—either an idea for a play, a few sentences, or something. Seven years or something before I wrote Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike I wrote down, “We used to lick postage stamps”. I realized that people under 40 have no knowledge of this, because why would people talk about it? It’s not something that would be discussed. By the way I think the new postage stamps are way better. But it represented something from the past, changes. So when I was writing Vanya’s play-within-the-play, I envisioned him getting mad and then I remembered that phrase and it took off from there.
What Chekhov character would you most like to have dinner with and why?
Madam Arkadina. I find her grandiosity entertaining. Also, she’s in theater so I could talk to her about theater and about Russian theater.