Connie Congdon needs to have her mouth washed out with soap
When I was a sophomore at Amherst College considering being an Economics major, I worked on a production of Lanford Wilson’s Sympathetic Magic. One of the actors in the cast, Kim Rosenstock, told me I should take a class with Connie Congdon, “because she’s awesome.” So I did, and my life changed.
What Kim said is true. Anyone who’s met Connie or seen her plays knows that she is, in fact, awesome. Her plays—Tales of the Lost Formicans, Dog Opera, Casanova and many others—are funny, brilliant, and human, but she also runs what is, in my unbiased opinion, one of the best undergrad playwriting programs in the country at Amherst College in Western Massachusetts. Last fall, Connie had not one but two former students with premieres at the Roundabout—Kim Rosenstock with Tigers Be Still and Julia Cho with The Language Archive.
On September 12, Connie will branch out to performing with her one-woman show, Is Sex Possible? at the Dixon Place Theater. She wears a pink hard hat and demonstrates how to use a Kegelmaster. It is, in a word, awesome.
Brownell (Rail): When you sent me the materials for Is Sex Possible? I thought it would be a play, not a video of you performing! What’s the origin of this piece?
Connie Congdon: I’ve always told stories about my life in the car with my friends. They seem to keep people awake. I’ve been told they’re very entertaining and I should write them down.
Well, I go to the Great Plains Theater Conference in Nebraska every year and this year, they asked me do a short play—they were doing an evening of cabaret pieces as a fundraiser. I had been thinking of these stories that I had and I came up with a title—Is Sex Possible? I made a commitment to the cabaret and then I was forced to do it!
I started writing down some stuff, and as a piece of writing, it was entertaining, but when I performed it, I wanted something more. It wasn’t quite entertaining enough. Carl Zaloom used to do tabletop theater with props, and I just love that kind of theater, so I thought, okay, we’ll do that. So I had this pink hard hat and I went to Home Depot and got a toolbox, and it sort of went from there.
Rail: Was it written down? Did you use a script?
Congdon: No. When I performed in Nebraska, that was the first time I had done it in its entirety. I had my props so I knew I had to get to these various things at different points in the performance, but it wasn’t scripted. The crowd loved it. Some of them were theater people, but it was a fundraiser, so many of them were people from the community, some of them very straight-laced. The chairman of the board, for instance. She laughed so hard she hit her head on the table. I think it was when I brought out the Depends that I had made into a thong.
Rail: In your piece, you talk frankly about sex and dating once you hit 50, 60, etc. Your piece is funny but also so truthful. It’s not something that people talk about so much, and I think that might be why people responded so well.
Congdon: Exactly! They just need it to be okay, you need to give them the sense that it’s safe, no one’s going to judge them, it’s a normal part of life. It’s almost a relief.
Rail: Have you had anyone who didn’t react well to the piece?
Congdon: Well, after Nebraska I took the whole show to Garden City, Kansas, and performed it at my high school reunion. There were some people who loved it but some people haaaaaaaaated it. Afterwards, I brought my props to the car and this woman comes up and points her finger at me and says, “Are you the comedian?” I said yes. She told me, “You need to have your mouth washed out with soap.” The lesson here is, if someone comes up to you and asks if you’re the comedian, get the hell out of there.
And then I go to a slow-pitch baseball game with a friend. The cops were playing a heating company and I was eating a Sno Cone and I got an e-mail from one of my classmates ripping me a new one. It was a bulleted list of all the things she hated about the piece. She said that for people who have to wear Depends, it was humiliating. I wrote back and told her I find humor is the best way to get through the struggles of aging. I was wearing Depends while I was performing the piece, I told her, and I’m wearing Depends right now while I eat a SnoCone at a baseball game.
Rail: I had no idea you were interested in performing. Have you always wanted to do something?
Congdon: You know, I’ve been teaching for thirty years and I find that I don’t really lecture, I just sit in front of the class and talk.
Rail: That’s exactly what I thought when I watched you perform—this is like Connie the professor! Usually you’d bustle in five minutes after the start of class, and within about thirty seconds you’d have us laughing so hard we’d be crying because you had some ridiculous reason that you were late.
Congdon: Exactly. That prepared me for it. I feel really at home in front of the audience instead of freaked out. In my family, we’re all storytellers. I love to sit and listen to somebody tell me a story. I loved Spalding Gray. I used to see him as much as possible. I really could sit there forever, listening, and be happy.
Rail: One thing you taught me, Connie, is it’s actually possible to have a life and a career as a playwright. Has your writing changed since you’ve become a professor?
Congdon: When I just had the profession, I wasn’t as happy. Once I started teaching, I got so much back, immediately. I actually couldn’t believe they were paying me to do it. Teaching helped me get back to the reason I became a writer in the first place, which is not about the industry, or a product. What I loved about teaching is you go in and everybody is a beginner—including me - and you get back to the thing that drives you to write in the first place, exploring reality, creating worlds. You get to enjoy the craft of writing.
Plus, I get to spend time with 19-20-21 year-old people who will never be as funny as they are right now. They’re sarcastic and cynical but they haven’t gotten worn out by the world yet. It’s that kind of irrepressible time when everything is wonderful and, on the worst days, bearable. You see them discover the love of writing and re-discover it yourself.
Rail: Is there anyone who shouldn’t see this piece?
Congdon: No. I think anybody can see this piece. I’m kind of hoping my son doesn’t see it. Although my daughter-in-law has seen it and she thinks it’s really funny.
Rail: What’s your experience been dating in your 60s?
Congdon: It’s been great! I tried Match.com, and that was a disaster, but OkCupid has been fantastic. All the baby boomers, we’re getting to be the same age and we’re having the same problems, and that’s really what Is Sex Possible? is about—it’s to say, yes, sex is possible!
Rail: But it’s not just for baby boomers. I found it incredibly eye-opening and entertaining, like a salty grandmother’s take on The Vagina Monologues; “My vagina isn’t a fucking flower.” Do you think you’ll continue to perform?
Congdon: Yes! I call it sit-down comedy. I once told a friend I became a writer because I have an excess of material. I have so many stories and I want to get them out there, but I don’t want to sit down and write a memoir. This is way more fun.
Connie Congdon will perform her piece Is Sex Possible? on September 12 at Dixon Place (161A Chrystie Street, between Rivington and Delancy, in Manhattan) as part of Little Theater. For further info, visit: www.dixonplace.org.
JULIA BROWNELL is a writer on the acclaimed HBO comedy Hung. This fall, her play All-American will open the 2011-2012 season of Lincoln Center Theater's new works endeavor, LCT3. It starts previews October 24 at the Duke on 42nd Street. For more information, Visit lct.org. Julia graduated Amherst College in 2004 with a degree in English and Playwriting. Connie was her thesis advisor, and most of their thesis meetings took place over blueberry pancakes.