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A Q & A with Edward Albee: His Thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and Preparing a New Generation of Playwrights


This is another glimpse at the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference, this time through the prism of playwright Edward Albee, who served as artistic director its first couple years. The 2011 conference, running May 28-June 4 in Omaha. I did the following Q & A with him by phone in advance of one of the early conferences. He’s since disassociated himself from the event, which led to some speculation about its sustainability, but after a limbo year or so the event has come back stronger than ever. In the intro to the Q & A I share some of the trepidation I felt going into the interview. I mean, am used to interviewing celebrities and public figures in all different fields of endeavor, and the names and reputations of some of these folks carry even more weight than Albee’s, but he is a writer extraordinaire known to not suffer fools gladly, all of which made me more than a little tense. It went fine, as these things usually do, and his easy charm is a big reason why the interview session went smoothly, though I distinctly recall feeling a self-imposed pressure to not tarry or dally or digress, but to get on with it, to move quickly from his answer to my next question.  If I had been a bit more reflective and deliberate I think I would have gotten more from Albee, but while it’s not a great interview, it’s more than satisfactory looking back on it now a few years later.

 

 

 

A Q & A with Edward Albee: His Thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and Preparing a New Generation of Playwrights   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly

That old lion of American theater, Edward Albee, wears well the mantle of expectation that comes with being his country’s “foremost” or “preeminent” living playwright. The descriptions of him, used as if official titles conferred by some ministry of theater, appear whenever his name is invoked. Living legend status is part of the baggage that comes with being a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. As he might wryly observe, there are worse things he could be called.

Considerations of Albee are far from abstractions for locals now that the Great Plains Theatre Conference  he helps direct is an annual event hosted by Metropolitan Community College. The second annual conference features a full schedule of play labs, readings, panels, lectures and performances.

Before you ever interview Albee, you hear that the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Seascape, A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women can be peevish and prickly. That he reads everything written about himself and his work and won’t hesitate to point out errors. That he’s an intellectual of the first order, you don’t need reminding. You hear, too, how deeply he cares about theater. How he generously advises young playwrights. How the future of this art form is often on his mind.

In preparing to talk with him you read his plays. Then you realize it’s folly to engage him in a discussion of his work. No, it’s best to focus on the conference and his efforts at passing on his wisdom to the new wave of playwrights coming up. To draw him out on his long association with Metro president Jo Ann McDowell, who’s responsible for making the conference and luminaries like Albee fixtures in Omaha. The two met when she directed the William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kan. and they went onto organize the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. Last year they launched the GPTC.

Still, you despair: What hasn’t he been asked before? How to go beyond the banal?

When you finally speak to him, by phone, you find an amiable man who, as expected, listens closely. His responses come quickly, precisely on point. His speech is formal, his delivery measured. His glib sense for irony and his dry wit ever present. You’re keenly aware of the analytical mind on the other end of the line. One always a step or two ahead of you. It’s intimidating. It all goes by in a rush.

As you’ll see below, the Q & A resulted in several of my questions being longer than his answers, which is less than ideal, but I think I evoked reasonable responses in most cases. I was likely a bit too timid and deferential and not being as active a listener as I needed to be. Though he was nothing but gracious, I think it’s safe to assume he was not the most willing of participants.

LAB: McDowell says that when she informed you she’d accepted the Metro presidency, she was afraid you might look askance at doing a conference here, but you embraced the idea, saying something like, They do my plays there — we’ll have better audiences in Omaha.

EA: “Well, you know, we did it for 13 years or so in Alaska and it was lovely up there, but it was a little harder for a lot of people to get up there. And I just thought it would be a lot easier for people to get to Omaha then to get to Alaska. And it being a bigger city and having a theater culture already — because Valdez had no theater culture, we had to create it — that it might make a lot of sense.”

LAB: Other than residencies at Creighton University and an awareness your work is performed here, I take it you didn’t know much about this place?

EA: “I’d been to Omaha a couple times over the years. I’d been to the art museum and I’d been to that lovely downtown complex (the Old Market or Old Towne as he calls it) of galleries and shops. I knew Omaha a little bit.”

LAB: But isn’t what really sold you on Omaha, McDowell?  She says she can’t imagine what made you two “click” given your disparate backgrounds and can only guess her demonstrated passion and commitment for theater gained your trust.

EA: “Well there it is, she has great passion and commitment. She gave the impression that she could work miracles, and if you’re in the theater you like people who can work miracles.”

LAB: You obviously have an understanding of what each other wants.

EA: “She and I disagree sometimes on how best to go about it, but it’s her conference more than mine, so she gets to run the show.”

LAB: But isn’t the event informally known as the Edward Albee Theater Conference?

EA: “Well I’ve been doing my very, very best to destroy that impression. It’s now the Great Plains Theatre Conference. There are many who get invited there — major theater people. It’s not just me showing up, You know, I guess my name sells a few tickets or gets a few people there, but I don’t like being used that way.”

LAB: Yet I’m told this is the only event of its type you lend your name to.

EA: “I’ve lent my presence and my participation and I guess the name goes with it. I wouldn’t lend my name unless I felt there was some virtue to it, and we’ll see how this develops there in Omaha.”

LAB: You’re far more than a figurehead. I mean, you take an active role in the meat of the conference — the play labs.

EA: “Yeah, sure, of course. I try hard to do that. One thing I’m not happy with and it’s one thing this conference has to develop is a much broader base of young playwrighting talent, because it’s tending these days to be a little parochial and I’m afraid the quality of plays being submitted has declined from the Alaska days. But we’re going to be working on that…There’s no point in having all of these wonderful professional theater people around to evaluate work that really isn’t worth evaluating, and there’s quite a bit of that I’m afraid. So it’s got to become less parochial. I understand it is Omaha-based and we have wonderful theater companies in Omaha, and they should be involved in doing the work, but we’re going to have to have to get a much more national and international base of young playwrights coming there for the thing to really matter.”

LAB: By casting an ever wider net?

EA: “Yes, of course, which I’ve been trying to do, but I’m going to have to try harder. We’re going to have to do better than we’ve been doing it.”

LAB: Are there other things about the event you’d like to tweak?

EA: “I just want to find out what all this film nonsense is that’s beginning to happen (He refers to a cinema component this year called Fringe Fest.). I don’t feel there’s room for it at all. But, again, that’s just me. I’ll talk to her (McDowell) about it.”

LAB: It may come as a surprise to people that someone of your stature takes such a hands-on role. I’m told no detail is too small to escape your attention.

EA: “I’m a control freak, but so is Jody. You get two control freaks together, you get a lot of control, and a lot of freaking.”

LAB: Why do you choose to take such a keen interest in emerging playwrights?

EA: “Because I think if you’ve had some experience in the arts and you know something about teaching and you know what you’re doing in the arts, you have a responsibility to pass on the information and that expertise to younger people. You need the new, young generation of wonderful creative people and if you can be helpful in keeping them on the straight and narrow and keeping their sights where they should be, then it’s your responsibility to do it. In the same way I feel creative artists should be loud and vocal politically.”

LAB: When you were a young playwright were there experienced writers who served that same function for you.

EA: “Well sure, but those were the playwrights whose work I was beginning to see in Greenwich Village. The great Europeans — Brecht and Beckett and Inoesco and Pirandello and all those people. And then when a whole new generation of us came up at the same time. Me and Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit and Jack Richardson and Lanford Wilson and a bunch of others (including Omahan Megan Terry) were there, and we were feeding off each other.”

LAB: Were there events like the Great Plains Theatre Conference then?

EA: “There may have been one or two, but I didn’t know about them. I was living in New York City, in Greenwich Village, in the theater hotbed, in the center of experimental and adventuresome theater in America, which New York still is.”

LAB: So in that sense every night was like a play lab.

EA: “Of course it was.”

 

 

 

 

 

Melinda Dillon and Arthur Hill in original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

LAB: Omaha’s a long way from New York. McDowell’s maintained her commitment to theater wherever she’s been and that’s never wavered despite various political machinations she has to contend with.

EA: “It seems not to have to. Yeah, sure, I understand the pressures, but whenever I think the pressures she is under are dangerous and destructive, I try to put a lot of pressure in the opposite direction.”

LAB: She likes to say she’s been “carrying this thing around with me for 26 years,” meaning her devotion to theater and these conferences. Her support of theater has remained consistent in an era of scant federal funding for the arts in America.

EA: “Certainly, look at the last 25 years. The William Inge Festival was begun by her and then the Alaska Last Frontier Conference and now this. She just keeps right on doing it. Of course continuity is very important. And I appreciate her ability to get funds from the local big wigs. I think that’s very important — as long as the local big wigs don’t have anything to say about what we do.”

LAB: Do you ever involve yourself in the fund raising?

EA: “No, she seems to get that all done before we show up.”

LAB: Earlier you mentioned Omaha’s fine theaters. From what you’ve glimpsed of Omaha’s theater community, how do you appraise it?

EA: “Well from what I’ve seen when they come to do readings of plays they do a fine job. They’ve very talented people. You don’t need to be an equity company to be good. I’m always gratified when I find people are doing what they should and doing it well.”

LAB: As you say, local theater companies are a vital part of the event.

EA: “We just want to be sure we give them the best work we can possibly find for them to participate in. It’s good publicity for them. They’re doing a responsible act and they’re probably being exposed to interesting new plays they probably wouldn’t have known about without the conference.”

LAB: As all of theater is, the event’s very much a collaborative, communal affair…

EA: “What do you mean by collaboration? A play is written, that is the individual creative act. Everything else is interpreted.”

LAB: Well, in the sense that a team comes together…

EA: “That is not a creative act, that is an interpretive act. That shouldn’t get in the way of the creative part of it.”

LAB: The conference mission statement mentions your quest for an important, enduring discussion of theater at the national level. What aspects of theater need addressing on a continuing basis?

EA: “Trying to develop an audience that wants theater that matters rather than safe, escapist stuff. Basically developing audiences and critics who know the difference between junk and excellence. And a conference if this sort can be very helpful.”

 

Maggie Smith and David Hilder (center) and participants at the 2015 Great Plains Theatre Conference.

 

LAB: In line with that you have a goal of growing audiences for serious theater.

EA: “The only way to do that is to give them good stuff to see and that’s why we have to keep improving the quality of the scripts by casting our net wider.”

LAB: You’re often asked your opinion on the state of American theater. Last year you were pessimistic in the wake of the deaths of Arthur Miller and August Wilson. Since then, Lloyd Richards and Glyn O’Malley (a participant at last year’s GPTC and a director of Albee’s work) have died. All great voices silenced. You seemed to lament the theater can’t recover from such losses.

EA: “Well we can recover from our losses. Losses are always terribly distressing and damaging, but if conferences of this sort can develop a whole new generation of first rate theater people than the continuum is on.”

LAB: But these have been such major losses.

EA: “Well we’ve been having them all along. Look back at every decade — you lose an awful lot of good people.”

LAB: Miller, Wilson and company were more than colleagues, they were friends.

EA: “Yeah, of course. Well the older I get I keep having to scratch out more and more names in my address book every week. It’s terrible. I must develop a lot of younger friends. See, I usually have friends older than I am because I learn something from people who know more than I do, but they seem to be going away pretty fast.”

LAB: Have you seen promising new talents emerge from conferences like the GPTC?

EA: “Oh sure, a number of talents have emerged, but you can’t ever tell whether that’s going to be enough to save theater from the forces of darkness, which are commercialism and sloth — intellectual sloth.”

LAB: At a play lab last year I was struck by how many questions you asked the playwright, such as Did you consider this? or What was your intention here?

EA: “Yeah I like to teach by the Socratic Method of asking questions rather than giving answers because I have a lot more questions than I have answers about everything.”

LAB: Do you follow a similar process, internally, with your own work?

EA: “Gee I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about what I do when I’m writing. I try to stay away from too much conscious awareness of what I’m doing. I just let it happen.”

LAB: Is there someone you show your work to as you’re developing it?

EA: “No, I don’t show it to anybody until I’ve finished it.”

LAB: May I ask what you’re working on now?

EA: “Nothing right now. I just finished a long two-act play about identical twins, Me, Myself and I, which is going to be done at the McCarter Theatre (Center) in Princeton, N.J.  next fall. (To be directed by Emily Mann, a visiting artist at the GPTC in Omaha.)

LAB: Has the subject of identical twins fascinated you for awhile?

EA: “Apparently it has. If you go and read The American Dream (an early ‘60s play by Albee) there’s a pair of identical twins there, so it goes back a long time in my career.”

LAB: When you come to Omaha are there rituals you follow to begin your day and to end your night?

EA: “Well let’s see, unless I get to read the New York Times I’m an incomplete person, so I do that over breakfast. I try to go to the gym. I work out every day. At the conference Jody has us doing things 27 hours a day, so it’s very difficult to do anything else. Sometimes it’s even hard to get the Times read. The only things I keep protesting are the social events.”

LAB: A necessary evil?

EA: “Ahhh, I decide about half of them are a necessary evil. I involve myself in what I think the most important things are.”

LAB: What about the host site, historic Fort Omaha with its military provenance, Victorian buildings and green spaces?

EA: “It’s a really interesting campus. They always give me a nice place to live and I’m happy when I’m there. They give me a car, not that I ever get a chance to drive it anywhere. They treat me very nicely.”

LAB: McDowell’s stated she wants Omaha as the permanent home for the conference, which she hopes to endow. Are you fine with that?

EA: “Oh, of course. Why not for heaven’s sake? Sure. I have nothing against Omaha.”

LAB: We spoke of losses before. You suffered a great personal loss recently with the death of your longtime partner.

EA: “Yeah, I did. Thirty five years with the right person, that’s a pretty big loss.”

LAB: I know you were really hurting at least year’s conference. How are you doing?

EA: “Oh, I’m functioning. It never gets better, it just gets different…that kind of loss.”

And with that, one could only say, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Albee.” “You’re very welcome,” he said.

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