John Clum: Theatre Expert, Playwright Continues Work in the Arts

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At a young age, Clare resident John Clum fell hard for theatre.

“Like most things, it’s kind of an irrational love,” John says. “My parents took me to the theatre as long as I can remember.”

There’s one instance in particular that stands out to John as a pivotal moment. He was 11 or 12 years old, and his mother bought him a matinee ticket to a play called Inherit the Wind while she went shopping.

“I was just mesmerized by it,” he says. “I thought in some way or another I want something to do with [theatre]. And I came to a point in the early 1970s where I realized I can’t live without it.”

Luckily, John found himself in a position where theatre opportunities were abundant. After going to graduate school at Princeton University to study dramatic literature, John was offered a job at Duke University in the English Department. There, he launched a summer theatre program and helped to establish a drama discipline for undergraduates, which he headed for 10 years. He directed several plays and operas, and wrote in his spare time.

Of all these experiences, John says the most nerve-wracking times came when his own plays were produced.

“I’ve been an actor, I’ve been a director, and I’ve been a playwright,” he says. “And the scariest opening nights are when you hear your own words spoken.”

On Writing Plays

Over the years, John has written nine books on modern contemporary American and British drama, on people like Tennessee Williams and on gay drama and musical theatre. He also wrote a number of plays, many of which have been produced both locally and nationally.

“Sometimes they were based on things that I saw happening in an area, and sometimes they were just ideas that came to me,” John says.

Early on, his method of writing plays was slightly unconventional, but for John, it worked.

While driving the 10 hours round trip between Durham, North Carolina and Baltimore to visit his partner, now husband, Walter Melion, John improvised dialogue and recorded it.

“I must have looked crazy to the people on the road next to me, this guy talking to nobody in the car,” he says. “But it was very helpful, concentrating and having that time. I couldn’t do anything else, so I made up plays.”

One of John’s most memorable plays, titled Randy’s House, left its mark in the LGBTQ community.

Around 1993, when Walter had gotten a job at Emory University in Atlanta, John learned of outrage over a supposedly pro-gay play (“which was odd, because there were no gay people in it,” John notes). A county neighboring Atlanta then made an official resolution as a result, stating gay people were not welcome.

“I kept thinking about that and how bizarre it was,” John says.

And so came the inspiration for Randy’s House, in which a family has a child who is gay while living in such a scenario. It took a few years to write and get workshopped, but the response to the play was tremendous.

Often, Randy’s House was produced in conjunction with chapters of PFLAG, the first and largest organization in the United States to provide peer support, education and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals and their families. In one instance, Randy’s House was the centerpiece of a conference bringing together LGBTQ students from several Arkansas universities, a first for the state. Through it all, John had the opportunity to hear inspirational stories from parents and observe the impact of his play.

“The interesting thing about the life of that play was experiences like that – going to a place where the play was doing political work for the community,” John says.

 On Life After Duke

After 42 years of teaching, John decided to it was time to move on. He looks back on his time at Duke fondly, especially witnessing his former students go on to significant careers.

“I think the most inspiring thing has been watching some of my students go on and grow and do great things,” he says. “It’s fun when you see somebody in an embryonic stage of their life and career, and then see them having blossomed into something more than that.”

Once such instance occurred recently for John, when he and Walter saw a play at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival. One of John’s former students was a lead in the play. Otherwise, a pair of students from his first group at Duke stand out: Jack Coleman, who went on to star in Dynasty and Heroes, and Charles Randolph-Wright, who directed Motown: The Musical.

His retirement didn’t signal an end to his passion for and commitment to theatre, though.

“When I retired from teaching, I didn’t feel I was retiring from writing,” John says. “If anything, I’d have more time for it.”

And John has certainly kept himself busy since retiring from Duke in 2011. He’s taken on writing librettos for a small opera company in New York dedicated to new work, for example, with an adult version of Rumpelstiltskin opening in May. This libretto proved challenging, because they asked for 90 minutes, when Rumpelstiltskin is only seven pages long. John therefore had to channel his creativity to make up a backstory and to present what happens after the fairytale as we know it.

His craziest libretto to date, John says, was for an opera called Heartbreak Express that opened in the fall of 2015 in New York.

“The composer came to me and asked if I would be willing to write an opera about Dolly Parton fans,” John recalls. “They gave me a couple of documentaries to watch to get some ideas, and I found people in them who could be characters in the opera.”

It was fun to write, he says, but it was definitely difficult. Dolly Parton couldn’t be named or appear in the opera, so it was an interesting puzzle to piece together.

“I don’t know what wacky thing they may come to me with next,” he says.

Aside from writing, John also recently joined the board for the Raven Theatre in Chicago. And since moving to The Clare, he gives lectures for the community about different works that residents are taking trips to see.

His work may not be curing cancer, John says, but he believes it’s important to promote the arts as much as possible and to use theatre as a means of social change and education.

“Much of my work has been about the political aspect of theatre and the way in which theatre and playwrights have hoped to change things for the better in certain aspects of society,” he says. “I like to push that idea.”