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Edward Albee's Mindscape
The acclaimed playwright (and part-time Coconut Grove resident) remains an unparalleled observer of our culture -- and a genuine stickler for details
By Pamela Gordon
Edward Albee stands in the light while everyone else is in the dark, and he doesn't like it that way. Two giant spotlights are trained on the playwright as more than 100 students and faculty at Miami's New World School of the Arts lean forward in their seats, obscured from his vision. He is visiting the school to conduct workshops with play-writing students and then answer questions. Moments earlier he had been greeted with a standing ovation he acknowledged with a wily smile -- both pleased and amused -- and an appreciative wave. But now he wants to get down to work.
Shielding his eyes with one hand, he peers into the darkness and says, "We can't have a conversation if I can't see people." Theater dean Jorge Guerra signals to technicians, who scramble off to the lighting booth. The students and faculty who had been awaiting the author with excitement bordering on frenzy now fidget uncomfortably. But Albee puts them at ease. "Playwrights are in the dark too often," he quips. Suddenly the lights behind him go on. Without missing a beat or altering his tone, he notes, "Those are the wrong ones." For a couple of heart-pounding seconds no one is certain if the guys will get it right before the famously acerbic playwright lays into them. "Those are the difficult ones," Albee says, pointing up at the two lights. "This is called theater," he tells the audience, defusing the tension one more time, then adds, "I'm being a troublemaker."
With a slightly audible and satisfying click, the spotlights go off and the house lights come on. "That's nice. That's better," he says. With student playwrights and renowned playwright now fully illuminated, the conversation can begin.
As the New World students get over the initial ecstasy that propelled them out of their seats when Albee entered the room, papers begin to rustle, backpacks are rifled through; in the uppermost rows of the risers on which they sit, kids snap gum and whisper to each other. Albee sits on a chair, a floor microphone by his side. He listens.
Amos Mendez and Raquel Almazan are perched on stools beside him, reading a scene from Mendez's play in progress, in which an eighteen-year-old rapper hits on a woman during a party. The language is punchy, colloquial.
"I want you," the rapper says.
"I belong to no one," the woman shoots back. The audience giggles.
Albee then fires off a series of questions: "Where does this take place? How many people are in the first scene? Do you know what's going to happen in the piece?"
"They get together," Mendez offers.
"What does that mean?" Albee wants to know.
"They go out."
"What does that mean?" Albee presses, not letting him off the hook.
When Mendez explains that the play includes drugs, rap music, dirty cops, and guns, Albee jokes that it sounds as though it could be a film. But he tells Mendez: "Your dialogue is good. Your ear is good. The only thing I worry about is this becoming impersonal. Keep to the people you care about as much as you can without the other things overwhelming them."
Albee seems to be at ease with the students, energized by their enthusiasm and his own ability to penetrate to the heart of the work.
"I like the aggression," he tells Erica Boynton, who has just read a monologue called Anger. Clad all in black (including finger and toenails), Boynton wiggles on the stool and looks pleased. "But every once in a while I hear a few too many words before a noun. Every once in a while I hear writing. I don't want to hear writing. I want to hear a person speaking."
After he offers his comments, Albee asks the students if they have anything to add. New World faculty members sitting around a table next to Albee's chair prefer that he save questions for after the workshop. A professor leans over to suggest that the students would benefit more from him than from each other. Albee hears him out but counters: "It helps them."
Several days in advance of the recent press opening of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Albee sits near the back of the empty theater flipping through old playbills from past productions on this stage.
He opens to the title page of a 1965 road show of Virginia Woolf starring Shelley Winters, whose name is emblazoned in thick, mile-high type over the title. Pointing to his own name below the play's title in much smaller letters, he says, "I would never allow that to happen now."
From the outset of his career, he fought for control of the presentation and interpretation of his work. "I go back far enough that we still had segregated theaters in America, so my first contracts said [the plays] must be performed in an integrated theater." He has subsequently insisted on contract clauses to ensure that the actors in his plays are the same gender as indicated in the script -- this the result of speculation in the press during the Sixties that Virginia Woolf was really about two gay couples instead of two heterosexual couples. His contracts also grant him approval of translations, casting, set design, costuming, and lighting. Recently he learned of a Swedish director who inserted an intermission in the middle of Act Two of Virginia Woolf. He held up the show until the theater restored the work to its original form: "So I'm going to have to put in [my contract] now that there must be intermissions where the author has intended.