They say it's difficult making a living at playwriting, but it's living that makes a playwright. Or so says Constance Congdon.
"As a playwright, you do need to be involved in life,'' said Congdon, whose play "Tales of the Lost Formicans'' opens Friday at the Lawrence Community Theatre. "It keeps you in touch with the audience, and it's life you're writing about. Life includes people. You draw on the people you live with, your family, and you can't be like Jackson Pollock and be in your own work. The art of the theater is very difficult.''
With 18 plays, theater adaptations and musicals to her credit, Congdon seems to have gotten the hang of the theater, despite the obstacles placed in the way of emerging playwrights. In a telephone interview late last year from her home in Longmeadow, Mass., Congdon discussed "Formicans'' as well as growing up in the Midwest and the general state of contemporary playwriting.
"FORMICANS'' AT least in part deals with her father, who suffered from from Alzheimer's disease. But instead of approaching the emotional subject straight-on, Congdon throws in an assortment of characters, including a group of people from another planet who analyze the characters.
"It just came to me," Congdon said of "Formicans.'' "I thought of what visitors from another planet would think about things like kitchen chairs and television, and I thought of my father's decline. I tapped into my own very distinct, ironic look at the past.''
Congdon said her ancestors were among the first settlers in western Kansas, but she was born in Iowa. Her family followed her father's jobs across the Midwest, and she eventually ended up graduating from Garden City High School. She's now in the school's hall of fame.
ALTHOUGH SHE began writing early, she said she was slow to develop an interest in the stage.
"I really wasn't involved in theater, because we were too busy moving around," Congdon said. "The first play that I saw was when I was 14, when we were living in Colorado Springs. I got to see a play in Chicago when I was visiting relatives. In Garden City, I wasn't involved in theater at all. It wasn't a big art form in Garden City then. But as I grew up I became more and more interested.''
She graduated in 1969 with a bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado, and she spent much of her young adult years writing poetry. But she said poetry became too lonely an art form.
"I HAD been a poet, but I got dissatisfied with the isolation of that form,'' she said. "It entailed writing by yourself, and you're really by yourself. I wanted to do something big. Then a small college in Maryland with some production money commissioned me for a play, so I wrote it, they produced it and it was wonderful. It hooked me.''
When her husband took a job in central Massachusetts, Congdon went back to school, eventually earning an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1982. While there she wrote "The Bride,'' which went on to win the American College Theatre Festival National Playwriting Award in 1981. That award can boost any playwright's career.
"It helps because I think when it comes to new plays a lot of producers don't know what good is,'' she said of awards. It validates your talent. That just comes from ignorance about new works, but I think it does help you get productions.''
UNTIL "FORMICANS,'' her best-known play among theater professionals was "Native American,'' a relatively naturalistic drama that was produced in Portland, Maine, and in London. With each successive script, she found producers surprised by her flights from realism.
"I never was a naturalistic playwright,'' she said. "I wrote one naturalistic play, and everyone who knows me from that play is surprised when they see my other work.''
During the 1980s, Congdon won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Arnold Weissberger Award and a Rockefeller Playwriting Award all significant grants given to a few, select playwrights. She has also been produced in the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Ky., one of the most noted new-play festivals in the United States, and she worked for several years as literary manager of the Hartford, Conn., Stage Company.
NEW YORK, which some call the theatrical capital of the United States, has not proved inviting to Congdon's work. But a good New York production is often essential if playwrights want their work produced elsewhere. For example, Congdon's latest play, called "Casanova,'' opened in the spring of 1991 at the highly visible New York Shakespeare Festival. It took a licking from the critics, and she says the play now is considered damaged goods.
"If (New York Times theater critic) Frank Rich likes it, everybody calls,'' she said. "But the fact that it got panned by Frank Rich and everyone else means almost no one calls about `Casanova.' There was a lot of interest before.''
On the other hand, "Formicans'' has been produced by at least 50 community and regional theaters. It was published first in an edition of American Theatre magazine and subsequently by Broadway Play Publishing. With the play, Congdon finally has found a way to touch an audience with a piece of her life.
"It's struck a chord with a lot of theaters,'' she said. "I think it says something about families in Middle America that people respond to.''