Wednesday, December 23, 2009


As the year wraps up, I'm doing a little bit of mental housecleaning. I read about this little controversy a couple of months back, had some thoughts, but then I got distracted. As happens. But I did want to weigh on it.

I think Laura Parker was totally right. Albee is indeed an old fogey with outdated ideas about the way a playwright should be. If the interview he gave in Australia was in any way like the interview he gave at my grad school a while back, I can definitely imagine her walking away thinking, "Jeez. I'm not even sure this guy likes anyone in the world."

Just for shits and giggles, I think the same of David Mamet. A dinosaur, mucking around in the tar pits. Okay, a very, very successful and rich (well, maybe not so successful after all) dinosaur who will probably live a long time, but you get the picture.

Either way, I think they're both equally mired in old school thinking. And a fair dollop of just plain orneriness. Seriously. That Michael Riedel bit about the royalties for American Buffalo? Dude.

But onto Messr. Albee. He did indeed come to speak at my grad school when I was a student there and we all crowded into the hall to hear him. To give him his full credit, he is known as a teacher and he was gracious with his time and energies. It's just that, after an hour and a half with him, you didn't want to work in theatre at all.

I think one of the great, more modern advances in the general thinking about theatremaking is the idea that it's a collaborative art, that the play begins as a text, words on a page put there by one person's hand, but in the hall, it becomes something...else. Something more. More than the sum of its parts. There's been a lot of talk about the director's art and how to describe what a director brings to the table and it's all interesting, but this is all a relatively new development in theatre. I personally think it's a good thing.

But to hear Albee's all about the playwright. End of story. He's a big proponent of the Artist as Magician. When he spoke to us, he said that some people were playwrights, whether they write plays or not, and some people just aren't, no matter how many plays they write. It's just something intrinsic to their nature and no amount of training or craft will actually do them any good. Talking about his own plays, he said that he walks around, musing, going about his business and then, one day, finds himself "with play." Then he writes the whole thing down, leaving a few lines in so the director feels like he's doing something. No rewrites, no revisions. That's it.

I think that's really old school. And not in a good way.

There's a distinct difference between the situation that Laura found herself in here, and the situation Bruce Norris describes here, where the director is going completely off the reservation and refuses to actually collaborate. Collaboration should be the goal and when either side digs in their heels and doesn't want to play along, the whole waterworks falls apart. You might get a good play, a fine play even, but you can get a better one when you work together.

And speaking of working together, we have Messr. Mamet. Now, to be honest, when I think talkback, my skin crawls. To re-phrase the old joke about Hitler in New Haven, I'm pretty sure that wherever Hitler is right now, he's doing a talkback after a reading. Because he's in hell. Get it! Moving on. So I can see, if it was one of those things where you sit on the stage with a fake smile plastered on your face and you get asked why you made your characters so stupid, I would never want to do it either. But the way that it's described by Michael, it actually sounds pretty cool. It invites the audience into the experience in a new way. We don't just send people out into the bars to talk to just the people they came with, but to talk to other people in the audience, to hear differing opinions, connect with each other.

We want engaged audiences and audiences want to be engaged. They want forums and chat rooms and phone numbers to text to affect the outcome of the story. Giving them a little of that in the theatre could have changed the experience. Make it more of a two-way street. Instead Mamet opted for the old model: they're the passive receptor, I hold them captive for 80 mins., take their money and then let them go. All that's missing is the ransom note.

And I don't think there's anything wrong about calling them old fogeys for this stuff. And, yeah, I'm probably being ageist. And taking their words out of context and throwing it back in their face. What can I say? It's my house, y'all.


Duncan Pflaster said...

I don't think it's unrealistic to expect that a playwright's intent be honored.

99 said...

I don't think it's unrealistic, either. But I do think it's unrealistic, as a playwright, to walk into rehearsal and not expect to hear other voices, incorporate other ideas. Intent, sure. And text, as well. But I think it's better to be open to the collaborative possibilities.

Jack Worthing said...

Albee doesn't realize (or admit) that there are many different ways of arriving at the same place. Playwrights too often fall back on the 'I just wrote a story, I don't know what it means' thing. You have to know your intent, and know how to articulate it. (This is difficult.) And you have to be open to the perhaps unorthodox ways of realizing it. (I once wrote a historical play that was staged by a European expressionist director. The tension between styles was stunning.) But the writer must not accept a single thing that will, in the end, put them off the mark. Because when you accept one, all the rest come rushing in. I don't think you mentioned Laura Parker's rude awakening, 99.

99 said...

I didn't, because, in a lot of ways, I think it's very different from the kinds of things that Albee says in general. Absolutely you don't want someone telling a different story than you're telling, or making the story you're telling secondary to their own expression. While some of Albee's comments fall in that area (and I think Parker's subsequent experience does as well), there's also a general sense of inflexibility about what he's saying. A sense of saying, "This is the story I'm trying to tell and I alone know the best way to get at it." That inflexibility, whether it's in the director, playwright, actor, designer, whoever, is the killer.

Jack Worthing said...

Fair point. Let's note that Albee also thinks that plays are as complete an experience on the page as they are in the theatre, which is ridiculous.

Leonard Jacobs said...

So presumably you don't support copyright protection for playwrights. No, Laura was wrong. What Albee is is specific about what he wants and what he sees. Why is that wrong? If you don't like it, don't see his plays, isn't that simpler? Don't produce them, don't direct them. Wouldn't that be simpler, too? How does calling someone an old fogey prove your approach to or philosophy of playwriting is better than that of Mr. Albee?

99 said...

I think honest folks can disagree about this stuff, even with a little cheeky name-calling thrown in, without one person being "wrong" and it's not a matter of not seeing or not producing. I'm not a critic, or just an audience member or a producer. As a playwright, I have an active stake in ideas about playwriting and how playwrights collaborate with others.

I don't think I said that Albee was "wrong" or mistaken or anything. I disagree about the nature of playwriting and I agree more with Laura's point of view. I think it's wrong to pillory her as being wrong (okay, that one confused even me). Edward Albee can say and think whatever he likes about the way a playwright should be and the best way to protect their work. I'm not begrudging him one iota of that. I simply see another way.

As for copyright protection, I'm certainly on open source end of the spectrum, philosophically. But I don't see how this is a matter of copyright protection. Even if it is, it's become a relatively recent province of the playwright to decide about stage directions and presentation. So it's not exactly a tradition out of time immemorial, not to be questioned. I think the collaborative spirit should be the first, and most important ingredient and attitudes like Albee's are an impediment to that spirit.

For the "fogeys" tag, I was being a bit cheeky, but, like I said, it does strike me as an old-fashioned point of view on the role of the playwright. I hope we want our playwrights to be more supple and less ego-driven. I admire Albee's work very much, but still disagree with this attitude. Lanford Wilson is one of all-time favorite writers and my personal model for playwriting and he shares this view. I see it as a part of an older generation and that we've moved on. Again, are these bad things?