Congdon plays off Amherst

Q: How did your writing career begin?

A: I was a poet. When I was a little girl I wrote poetry, and when I was in the sixth grade I wrote a poem about the snowfall in Colorado when I was home sick one day. My stepmother sent it to school and my teacher read it [aloud] and I was sitting in class and I didn’t recognize it. I thought, ‘That’s not a bad poem,’ and it turned out to be mine. That had a tremendous effect on me. Then I wrote songs from the time I was a little kid and played them on the guitar and sang. I did that for a long time. So there was never a sort of separation. It seemed normal to write poems. When I was in junior high, I got so good at it that my teachers would ask me to write occasional poetry, like for retirements. They were humorous, satirical things. From that, I got a lot of affirmation that I could do it.

Q: Did you ever know you would become a professional writer?

A: It actually never occurred to me that I would ever make a living as a writer. I planned to be a teacher. My mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Kansas. We used to still hear from her students and I thought that was a perfectly fine life.

Q: When did you become a playwright?

A: I felt I was making too much money in poetry so I switched to theater. A friend of mine offered to produce my play, if I wrote a play. I was teaching at this small liberal arts college in Maryland and it was just an irresistible offer. So I put myself on a schedule and I wrote a play. She produced it and it was very, very beautiful-that hooked me. And I just kept up the habit. Luckily, I got productions. I also got encouragement from the beginning. I think a lot of playwrights start that way, where they get encouragement from the beginning.

Q: How is playwriting different for you from writing poetry?

A: The audience for both is always the writer. It’s just that poetry is not public. It ultimately is at its best when read silently and then reread for more meaning by the reader. There are a lot of truly great poems that if read aloud don’t necessarily have the same impact as when read silently. The exception is with writers like Richard Wilbur, whose work reads beautifully aloud as well as silently. But the main difference is that playwriting is collaborative. Poetry isn’t-you’re collaborating with yourself. In playwriting you’re collaborating with a lot of different people, most important are the actors and the directors. If you don’t like to collaborate, then that isn’t the form for you.

Q: How did you end up as the playwright-in-residence at Amherst?

A: I was on the artistic staff [with the Hartford Stage Company] and was the playwright-in-residence there for a while. It was a great theater, but there wasn’t really time to write. But then the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] started to become imperiled and started to dry up. I already had two individual grants so I wasn’t eligible for another grant-but it affected so many of the theaters that produced individual works. It was at that time that Michael Birtwistle, then-chairman of the theater department, asked me to come to Amherst. I started as a visiting writer and then I stayed. I liked it so much, they asked me to stay and I asked to stay. So I’ve been here ever since. It’s been great for my writing, and it’s been a wonderful community to be a part of.

Q: Do you miss the theater community in places like New York City?

A: A lot of my friends in my generation of playwrights have spoken many times of how envious they are of the commission I have at this truly, truly wonderful school. And a lot of my generation of theater artists have teaching positions now. It’s kind of the way it happens. You can only live for so long without any of the accoutrements of no health plan and things like that. But, mainly, I think anybody who likes teaching and has contact with good students would enjoy this. You get so much out of it that it’s deeply satisfying. I think that people who really love to teach know that we’ve got a great job.

Q: Are you usually satisfied with productions of your plays?

A: Most of the time. When you aren’t, well, that’s why you’re involved in the first production so everyone can collaborate and come up with a pretty clear vision of the play that you wrote. In the first production I am totally involved, including casting. After that, there’s little to no involvement.

Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?

A: I think it’s the contact with my students. They’re some of my favorite people. They’re brand-new adults, if you know what I mean. They don’t have a lot of preconceptions. There’s a tremendous lack of cynicism and an incredible amount of energy. They have a beginner’s mind, and people try to study Zen Buddhism after a lifetime to try to get the beginner’s mind. They’re very, very smart and very, very driven, and they ask me really good fundamental questions, like what is dramatic action and what’s a character. They’re not simple questions and this keeps me connected to the most basic and strongest things in the art form. In my effort to answer these questions, it connects me to the real reason that the theater is important and how it works and what it does.

I like spending time with my students because they’re really interested in the art form only; they’re not connected to the highly political world of professional theater in N.Y. and other cities. What show is where? How is it doing? Who’s getting produced and who isn’t? Why aren’t they getting produced? Who’s running what theater? How’s the funding happening? What actors are available? I get enough of that from my professional friends on the phone. One can waste an enormous amount of time on the politics of theater and pointless discussions like that. [My students] express interest in how theaters are funded and all of that, but they’re interested in the art of playwriting. It keeps me truly focused on the art and the reason I got into it in the world of theater.

Q: What kind of advice do you give your students?

A: I have this theory about the practice of writing: to not fret about being blocked, to just to sit down, start writing and then have faith in what turns up on the page. I’ve had to take my own advice when I’ve gotten blocked on things. There are times when I’ve sat down and started writing dialogue without an idea of what purpose it serves, and I got a play out of that. Writing is better than not writing. Sitting down and thinking about it and not writing is not the way to do it.

Q: Who would you consider your biggest influences?

A: If Thornton Wilder were a train heading from the east to the west and Carol Churchill were another train heading from the west to the east and they crashed in Kansas, that would be me. I could be the spawn of that accident. But I also feel as influenced by life and just trying to get my feeling about what the experience of life is on stage. I think back to my childhood and I was probably deeply affected by [The George Burns and Gracie Allen] show where George Burns would be in a scene and go upstairs and watch everything on television and talk to us. The kind of humor and point of view that came out of there was a big influence. Certainly the spoken word had a tremendous affect because I was raised with people who talked a lot and were clever and funny and witty, though not necessarily educated. I came out of a family of great storytellers and that had a tremendous effect on my work.