Subversive playwright Christopher Durang's plays are known not only for their darkly comic streaks but for going after such sacred institutions as the church (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,), marriage (The Marriage of Bette and Boo), parenting (Baby With the Bathwater) or the theatre itself (The Actor's Nightmare). In a new play getting its world premiere by City Theatre in Pittsburgh, Durang is slamming the oven door on the beloved figgy pudding known as Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," renowned as a regional theatre and movie staple. Kristine Nielsen, the big-eyed character actress who was a crazy punctuation mark in Durang's Betty's Summer Vacation for Playwrights Horizons, stars as a fed-up Mrs. Bob Cratchit in the holiday sendup, Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge, Nov. 7-Dec. 8 at Pittsburgh's City Theatre. Soft-spoken Durang talked to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about approaching the classic tale of Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and the other denizens of yuletime Victorian London. And he spoke of his role as a teacher of emerging playwrights.
Playbill On-Line: How did your version of "A Christmas Carol" come about? Did City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden call you and say, "Dickens"?
Christopher Durang: No, she didn't say "Dickens." I knew her from Manhattan Theatre Club, when she worked there. She did give me a call. She asked if I was interested in a commission and she also wondered, specifically, whether I might have an idea for — I can't remember what words she used, but I got from it, " a crackpot take on a Christmas play." Not necessarily A Christmas Carol. As a matter of fact, she even mentioned "Gift of the Magi." But when you think of it, one's brain goes to A Christmas Carol. I thought it was a fun idea. It's odd when people suggest topics, that happens in Hollywood a lot. I had an immediate response to it; I thought it was a fun idea. And I also like A Christmas Carol.
PBOL: Did you see it stage version as a kid?
CD: I mostly saw a movie version. The one I saw and liked the best is the 1950s British one with Alastair Sim. I did, as an adult, see the Madison Square Garden one, and I did see one at McCarter Theatre. I guess I've seen a couple of other movie versions. Depending on the year, I will sometimes watch the Alastair Sim one as a sort of holiday feeling, and some years I'm not up for the story again.
PBOL: Did you stick with elements that are well known in the story and its various versions — for example, the vivacious Fezziwigs and the party they throw?
CD: The other thing I did, I finally read the Dickens story. I liked it. It's good. The Alastair Sim version has some plot things that aren't in the story. They added things about his sister, Fan, and her death. I felt the additions were quite good, but they are not in the Dickens. I was amazed to see in Dickens the Fezziwigs are done in three pages, it's really small. He doesn't even describe them very much, except their matrimonially available daughters. The two stage versions I saw, the Fezziwigs are always such a big deal, they're always a musical number. In our version, they're also a musical number.
PBOL: When approaching a new play, do you see situation or character first?
CD: I don't know that I have something that's true for every single play. I do know for this one it would be something about A Christmas Carol, but I didn't know what. The first thought I had — that made me feel like this was a way in — was to make Mrs. Bob Cratchit, who is pretty much a pale character in all the versions, the main character. What if she just couldn't stand how pathetic her life was? [Traditionally,] she's just so patient and calm and long-suffering. For a while, I thought she would run off with the play, as it were, and go away from A Christmas Carol and that she would run into many other Dickens characters. I was thinking of Fagin and Nancy and Bill Sykes from "Oliver Twist." When I sat down to write, I suddenly had an impulse to show Ebenezer Scrooge as a child, which none of the versions ever do. It's always him as an adolescent. My idea was the 8-year-old already said, "Bah! Humbug!," and then I had the idea to present it as an undiagnosed [case of] Tourette's Syndrome. I wrote that scene right away because it was in my head. Thus, it starts with Ebenezer as a child and Jacob Marley as a child. In my version, they were friends. Then I had grownup Scrooge come on stage and have an argument with his younger self. All of a sudden, Scrooge became much more important than I thought he was going to be. Indeed, what sort of happens is the play starts out as a genuine parody of A Christmas Carol, but Mrs. Cratchit keeps taking the plot off and the ghost magic keeps not working. For the first couple scenes, the ghost keeps trying to get them to the Fezziwigs and they keep ending up different places: One of them being the Cratchit house way too early. PBOL: Mrs. Cratchit is mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore?
CD: Yeah, kind of. She keeps running off to the pub to get drunk and jump off London Bridge, and the ghost keeps stopping her because it ruins the Scrooge story if Mrs. Cratchit kills herself.
PBOL: In every version we've seen, the Cratchits are always so resigned and positive about their plight.
CD: Oh, they're so resigned!
PBOL: Are conventions like caroling a part of your version? There are songs?
CD: There are four original songs in it. I did the lyrics and a composer named Michael Friedman did the music. Originally there were three songs in it and Tracy asked me to put in a fourth one, which was a very good idea. She said there's always an opening song where the townsfolk are wandering about London singing, and you meet them. They're looking in shop windows and pointing. I kind of immediately knew what she meant. It's a play with music; there are only four songs.
PBOL: Are there three ghosts in your version?
CD: There are but they are all the same person. It's a black woman.
PBOL: In approaching a play like Betty's Summer Vacation, did you know starting out that the play's theme would be a critique of our appetite for sensationalism?
CD: That sort of emerged. No, I didn't sit down knowing that was going to be the theme. It sort of came about. I had in my head wanting to do something set at the seashore, because I went there a lot as a child and have pleasant memories of it. It was like I was gonna sendup "Baywatch." Not literally "Baywatch" because the stories are so dull there. Somewhat like a sitcom parody set at the ocean. I was thinking it was going to be light, like Beyond Therapy is, and the first three pages were like that, and the third character, Keith, comes in — and he's a serial killer with a head in a hat box. My imagination was in a dark place. I don't know. I feel primarily it's about our appetite for sensationalism, which I don't consider myself guilt free of. Some of the stories on television, you start to look forward to. There's a kind of fictionalism or serialization that seems to happen [with news stories]: The way the networks put movie-like music underneath: "The Presidency in Crisis!" I don't even know what one should do about it. I guess I'm just saying, "Notice it."
PBOL: Was there a temptation with Mrs. Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge to deliver what the audience expects — a warm feeling?
CD: No, there wasn't an temptation to make it a warm feeling. I think I am sending up too much of the sentimental aspect of it, particularly among the Cratchits. I will say, I think the ending is oddly happy. It won't give you a "warm feeling," but basically Scrooge and Mrs. Cratchit both get what they want. There's a different reality in which Mrs. Cratchit and Scrooge get to live — in which they're actually happy without having to change. I also work out another way where Mr. Cratchit and the children are not unhappy left behind.
PBOL: In your version, the Cratchits have 20 children who live in the root cellar because Bob Cratchit keeps bringing home foundlings.
CD: That's right, they're all fairly happy.
PBOL: And Tiny Tim is a character?
CD: Oh, indeed. I wrote it thinking a child could play it, but Tracy decided, and I think she was right, it's safer to have a grown actor, albeit boyish, play it.
PBOL: You teach playwriting at Juilliard. As a rule-breaking playwright, how do you approach your students in terms of addressing certain "rules" of storytelling? I know a lot of playwrights who have been damaged — or discouraged — by teachers who have said, "You can't write it this way."
CD: Our setup is a weekly seminar around a table where we read plays aloud and then have discussions. I'm realizing that anything that ends up feeling humiliating is not a good idea. I do know that can exist and people can be harsh in their criticism. When Marsha Norman first asked me to join her [as co-director of the Juilliard Drama Division's Playwright Program], to teach jointly, I had hesitations. I had a few teaching experiences when I was young right out of drama school and I felt ill-equipped for them but I kind of needed the money. I was so close in age to everybody that I didn't feel like I knew that much. Then a couple times I was asked to go to somebody's class and listen to a play reading and then critique it. I remember having at least one experience where I went with no idea what play I was going to see and it was just a play I didn't respond to. But I didn't want to say I didn't respond to it: I didn't want to be humiliating or nasty, but I had great trouble coming up with anything constructive to say. I'm not a great bullshitter that way. A lot of my tension about initially teaching was, "What do I do if I don't like something? I don't want to be destructful." Here's the plus part, at least as it happens at Juilliard: Because we get to choose the writers from plays they submit, and because Marsha and I are choosing them together, we have chosen to take people we both felt enthusiastic about. Because you start out by choosing somebody whose play you liked, frankly you're starting on a good footing. Classes that I found valuable — and I did find some valuable classes at Yale Drama School and one in college — were just about getting feedback. One of my teachers at Yale was Jules Feiffer, whose work I admire a lot, and not only was I excited that he seemed to like my work, I found that when he gave me feedback he would be specific: "I was really liking the play...and then on page 24..." One of the things I find valuable is to try to be specific. The other thing about having two teachers is that even when Marsha and I agree, we have different ways of expressing our[selves]...it implies there's not just one way of looking at it. We also try never to tell somebody how to rewrite their play. You can indicate you're having an issue with the character in question, but you're not saying: "By all means, you must cut it."
PBOL: Places like Hollywood have studio execs who are prescriptive.
CD: I find it so hard for me to function in Hollywood because of that kind of thing. I'm old enough that I've been around for the different theories. You can sometimes go to a movie that has a structure but there's no heart to it, or the characters don't seem real. And you realized they've written from somebody's intellectual outline. They've taken the creative spark out of it: "By page 25 such and such has to happen." You think, Oh there's some secret I don't know. Good writing isn't formulaic. It isn't mathematic. On the other hand, Marsha will say a very smart thing that I will try to apply to myself: If you raise expectations with the audience — if it sounds like we're going to learn who killed so and so — and you don't follow through, they're gonna feel frustrated.
PBOL: When you were a younger playwright did you have professors or artistic directors saying to you, "You can't write like this"?
CD: I'll tell you, I've had really pretty good experiences in theatre and with teachers. I had a couple — I was taught by Jerzy Kosinski and he was a mean man, but I knew he was mean and I just laid low. I tried never to bring work in. You will get people making sweeping comments. When I first wrote Sister Mary Ignatius, which is a long one act and the first half is a long monologue, my agent sent it somewhere and the dramaturg wrote back, "Well, of course you can't have a play where the first half of it is a monologue." I realized, rules were written to be broken and what are you talking about? Beckett wrote Happy Days — the whole damn thing's a monologue!