McNally Speaks on Career, American Theater

Two-time Tony Award winning playwright Terrence McNally spoke to roughly 70 people in the Dunster House Junior Common Room yesterday, discussing topics that ranged from the state of American theater to his own creative processes.

McNally said that contrary to popular belief, American theater is not on a downturn.

"Broadway as an institution is in a lot of trouble, not American theater as a whole," he said, adding that there is more talent in theater now than during its so-called Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s.

Citing the pay scales of Hollywood actors and the high prices of Broadway tickets, McNally said one of the major problems with the arts is its involvement with big business.

"The arts are [meant] to enrich our lives, not our pocketbooks," McNally said.

After speaking for a few minutes, McNally took questions from the audience. Many asked about the creative process and individual plays.

McNally said there were a number of factors that led to his writing the current Broadway hit, "Master Class," about a series of master classes the opera singer Maria Callas held at Julliard in the mid-1970s.

"I fell in love with Maria Callas' voice" as a child, McNally said.

McNally wrote a play, "The Lisbon Traviata," in which the main character is obsessed with Callas. Then one night he had an epiphany and a vision for McNally's current play was born. "'Master Class' is actually more about me than about Maria Callas," he said.

He incorporated many of his own views on teaching and the arts in Callas' speeches throughout the play.

McNally said that his high school English teacher was one of his greatest inspirations. "She taught me how to appreciate Shakespeare," he said.

McNally's speech was sponsored by the Office for the Arts at Harvard and Radcliffe for the Learning from Performers series.

McNally has written numerous plays during his career. "Love, Valor, Compassion" won the Tony award for best play in 1995. He also won a Tony for best book for a musical in 1993 for "Kiss of the Spiderwoman." His other plays include "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" and "A Perfect Ganesh." McNally is currently working on the book for a musical version of E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime."