‘Defamation’ brings playwright Todd Logan ’75 back to campus
Todd Logan ’75 writes plays that he hopes will remain vivid for audience members after they leave the theater and get into their cars. That ride home, he explains, can be a magical time, when the emotions stirred by what they’ve just witnessed will spark discussions of the play’s themes, its performances, and the lingering questions about the characters’ fates beyond the script’s confines.
“As I write, I’m always trying to think about why I’m writing this particular play, why I am into this subject, and what do I want people to be thinking about when they’re in the car,” Logan says. “Most people are deciding where they’re going to get dessert, or who’s taking the babysitter home. But the fantasy of the writer is that on the car ride home, they’re thinking about the play.”
One can only imagine the post-show conversations generated by Logan’s drama, “Defamation.” The play, which will be performed in Clark’s Little Center on Sept. 28 and 29, centers on a civil trial, with the audience acting as jury. An African-American woman from Chicago’s South Side has been accused by a white real estate developer from the suburbs of stealing his watch, a charge that she claims is not only untrue but which has also harmed her business prospects. She sues for defamation, and both sides square off in the courtroom under sometimes withering cross-examination from attorneys that will impugn reputations and cast doubt over seemingly ironclad testimony. Once the trial is concluded, the judge hands the case to the audience, who, before rendering a verdict, are left to consider and debate their own assumptions about race, class, and justice while faced with the additional burden of divining the truth in this he said-she said case.
Logan traces the inspiration for “Defamation” to an event in his own background. After living in Brookline, Mass., for 15 years, the Chicago-area native moved with his family to Winnetka, Ill., a largely white suburb in the North Shore outside of the city. One night, Logan attended a friend’s play reading in Chicago and later went out for drinks with three of the actors, who were African-American. The experience left him questioning his own progressive roots, and he realized that even the best-intentioned people tend to self-segregate.
“While I was sitting there it flashed into my mind: when was the last time I was in a social situation with several people who were African-American,” he recalls. “I had to scroll back a number of years. And I thought, how did that happen? How did I end up in lily-white Winnetka, and these [suburban] towns that haven’t changed? Is that meaningful or not? It got to me. And I realized it wasn’t just me, and it wasn’t just people on the North Shore, and it wasn’t just people in Evanston, or people in Chicago. Where most people live is segregated, whether by building, by block, by neighborhood, or by town. So I wanted to write a play about it.”
“Defamation” has struck a nerve. “The format provides a powerful platform for dealing with hot-button issues that continue to divide our society today,” Logan says. “I want ‘Defamation’ to contribute to addressing difficult issues through civil discourse, which generates empathy and greater tolerance.”
Logan notes the play is being performed not only in theaters, but in churches, synagogues, schools and civic venues, places where one can expect to hear substantive philosophical exchanges.
“With ‘Defamation’ Todd has linked his passion for the arts with his interest in class, race, gender and religion to inspire audiences of all ages to think critically and reflect deeply,” says Nancy Budwig, Clark University associate provost/dean of research. “I believe the play provides a highly engaging forum to explore tacit assumptions about issues of consequence through meaningful dialogue. The impact lingers long after the final act.”
The desire to break away from the North Shore and attend a New England liberal arts college led Logan to Clark in the early seventies. He describes himself as “not academically motivated” in high school and was twice rejected before gaining admission. When a buddy bet him Celtics tickets that this wasn’t true, Logan produced the rejection letters and won a trip to the Boston Garden.
At Clark, Logan got motivated, excelling in the classroom and earning Phi Beta Kappa designation. He played on the Clark tennis team, experienced the unique charms of the El Morocco, discovered late-night eating treasures in the Boulevard and Miss Worcester diners, and browsed the stacks at Ephraim’s bookstore.
‘You got to be yourself at Clark. If you didn’t know who you were, then you’d find out.’
– Todd Logan ’75
He didn’t necessarily consider himself a writer (“I couldn’t write thank-you notes,” he laughs), but in the summer of his junior year, he found himself working in a family business with little to do. So he began composing short humor pieces in the style of syndicated columnist Art Buchwald. “I thought, my god, this is kind of interesting. This is fun.”
When he returned for his senior year, Logan approached the editor of The Scarlet and secured space for a humor column.
“I must have been somewhat ambitious, because even after writing a few columns I sent them to Buchwald, [New York Times columnist] Russell Baker, and [San Francisco Chronicle columnist] Art Hoppe. Then The Scarlet editor called me in and she told me she was ending the column — they weren’t funny. I was fired. I don’t know how many people have been fired from The Scarlet.”
In the interim, both Buchwald and the editor of The Worcester Telegram sent Logan letters saying they enjoyed his columns.
“Now I had ammunition and went back in to see the editor, laid down the letters, and didn’t have to say anything. She gave me the column back … and four weeks later she fired me again.”
After graduating, Logan continued writing, getting several of his humor pieces published in The New York Times. For a time he coached women’s tennis at Clark, and then launched Sportscape, a Boston-based literary sports magazine with contributors who included the likes of authors Robert B. Parker, Germaine Greer and William Zinsser. Logan also started a trade magazine for health clubs and stores, and created a trade show business that he eventually sold in 1993.
His work as a playwright has often focused on themes of love and marriage, particularly the challenges of finding and sustaining both into middle age. A highlight was the staging of his work, “Botanic Garden,” about a widow hesitantly reentering the world of dating — a chore made more complicated by the periodic reappearance of her dead husband. The play’s New York run was directed by Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, with whom Logan sometimes sparred over changes to the script. The nine preview performances included post-show Q&A’s with the audience. Logan recalls that after the opening performance, the no-nonsense Dukakis came out on stage to loud applause and told the audience, “Stop it. I don’t want to hear the bull****. You loved me in ‘Moonstruck,’ but we’re here to talk about this play.”
When writing “Defamation,” Logan knew the post-performance deliberations not only would be lively, but would allow him to eavesdrop on conversations to which he otherwise wouldn’t be privy.
“I had this case with no smoking gun and I realized I don’t have to end it — let the audience decide,” he says. “And by letting the audience decide, I get to hear the discussions for the car ride while they’re still in the building.”
“Defamation” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 28 and 3 p.m. on Sept. 29 in The Little Center as part of Family Weekend. The play will also have a special performance for students at University Park Campus School. Todd Logan will be on hand to lead post-show discussions.Read more about “Defamation,” watch scenes and read reviews.