When the news broke that our greatest living playwright was no longer living, my social media filled with people sharing it. And as I watched the comment threads on facebook unfurl I did not add one word.
Why not? Hard to say. Certainly anyone who knows me knows that I adored both the man and his art. Anything he ever had playing I had to see at least once. On the face of it, one could say I barely knew Mr. Albee... so much so that whenever I addressed him directly that was how I chose to do it. And yet, the two times he spoke to me and/or about me elevated him to unique status for me as so much more than the brilliant artist I admired, but as a champion for bravery in the face of cowardice with an unwavering dedication to telling it like it is, consequences be damned.
I first met Mr. Albee at the theatre conference that was named The Edward Albee Theatre Conference for about a minute until he protested and it was renamed Last Frontier. Held each June in Valdez, Alaska, this strange and wonderful gathering brought together 50 playwrights and countless actors for about 10 days of what felt like theatre summer camp in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on Earth. My play, BODILY FUNCTION, took the top prize that summer but before that happy surprise, I had the pleasure of sitting through two readings of the play. It was back to back readings all day every day and the odds of Edward Albee himself actually attending my own seemed slim. Yet, there he was seated conspicuously in the front row for my first reading and that is how about 90 minutes later I found myself scarfing down a sandwich in the hallway eyeing him from a distance of about 30 feet and wondering what he thought.
Truthfully what was going through my head was something like:
How come he isn't coming up to say something to me? He must have hated my play. Gosh, he's looking right at me. Why hasn't he said anything?
Thankfully I quickly got a hold of my senses:
You idiot. He's Edward Fucking Albee. If you want his feedback, stir up the courage to walk over and ask for it. Directly.
And that's exactly what I did. And the play (and me as a playwright) were never the same. He spent about 15 minutes offering a range of observations about my play that made me feel, perhaps to a degree I'd not ever felt before or since, that I was speaking with someone with a key to my brain, my vision, my work. His understanding of my characters, their intentions, their ways of speaking and moving, was astonishing. So much so that when he gave me two minor tweaks to lines of dialogue based on his understanding of who a particular character was, I took them immediately, gratefully, like a dog being fed for the first time in weeks. Honestly, those 15 minutes were one of the most meaningful playwriting classes I've had. For three reasons, I suppose. 1) Albee was a genius. 2) Albee was always honest to a fault. 3) Albee was generous toward other artists and genuinely wanted them to reach their highest potential.
I remember vividly turning beet red when he smiled and told me, "Of course, you realize you've written two plays. You begin in one and then veer off into a place you obviously did not know you were going to end up in." He was right And I knew it. But his subsequent advice surprised me. "Don't pull them apart," he said. "That veering off is organic and it came out of something in your feelings about where the play begins but instead go back into the first third of the play and see if you can plant a few clues for us so we don't feel abandoned by your surprises."
I always meant to follow-up with Mr. Albee about that play, which was only once produced in a small Off-Off production in New York. I'm not even sure I invited him to our little production at The Culture Project, I was so intimidated by his stature. It's so rare to come into contact with someone who so clearly grasps not only the intention but also the architecture of one's own new play. I feel today, that in allowing my shyness to stop me from pursuing anything more with him (playwright to playwright), I surely cheated myself and that play of a future beyond what I was able to make happen myself.
Nearly a decade later our paths would cross for the second time when, as a new hire at the Dramatists Guild I inadvertently stepped into a quagmire of shit surrounding a prestigious national playwriting conference. In one of my notes to the membership, I'd done what I thought was right by calling them out for the unacknowledged yet widely accepted fact that a majority of slots each summer were pre-arranged and not truly available to the more than 1,000 blind submissions sent in dutifully by playwrights all across the country. For a few days, the push-back from powerful forces aligned with the conference was so intense, I wondered if I might actually lose my job over it. And then the call came in. It was Edward Albee himself, calling my boss to say simply this: "Give Roland Tec a raise. He speaks the truth."
And just like that I was grateful to him again. I find it difficult to think of another human being so fundamentally unwilling to sugar coat the truth. By his actions and through his presence, he served me as a kind of moral compass, a reminder to keep my sights trained on what is real, what is good, in a world increasingly dictated by the whims of PR.
Edward Albee made no secret of the facts of his childhood, adopted by, as he put it, two people who should never have been parents but who adopted a child as something akin to window dressing, or the rounding out of a dossier. If young Edward was loved at all by his adoptive parents, he was only loved as one might love a house or a new pair of shoes.
I mention this only because I think it relates directly to his unique brand of courage. And every time I came face to face with Edward Albee's refusal to mince words or pretty up the uglier things in life or art, I saw a part of him that was that little unloved boy, dropped into a world of pretense and show and determined to wright his way out into the light, one sentence at a time.
He did it for us. And, I believe, he did it for himself.
Rest in peace, dear boy.