Edward Albee, October 2011

As ABC cameras filmed their every move, the 8 playwrights participating in Theatrelab 2006 (Vanessa Bates, Bill Fleming, Bruce Hoogendoorn, Jane Harrison, Caleb Lewis, Catherine Ryan, Fiona Samuel and myself) nervously awaited the arrival of a walking talking icon of 20th Century theatre.

When Edward Albee first took his seat at the head of the table, it was with a strange and delicious exhilaration that Theatrelab 2006 took off.

In Albee’s first session, we had no idea what to expect, and I don’t believe any of us could have predicted the life changing experience that lay before us. As playwrights of various backgrounds, amongst us we represented the young, indigenous, regional, emerging, NZ, grey matter and open award winners from around the country. With Albee already having read the plays (not just once either!), we were each allocated a day for a discussion round that same table. The schedule for these discussions was distributed. I was first!

Sharp, articulate, prepared to speak with an honesty and authenticity, Albee, who began at Theatrelab as something of a monument, quickly became to each and every one of the writers present, a rich source of support despite and possibly because of his sharp, no-holds barred critiques. He is a man of passion, severity, and clarity – yet he is a man primarily of compassion and humanity, and he slowly trusted us enough to allow that to seep out in his strange private and public conversations. Before long he was just ‘Edward’ and we laughed and chatted with him – when he was in the mood – as one would with any contemporary. But he was Edward Albee, it was he who had written “The Zoo Story”, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Goat”, and for him to be discussing our work in passionate detail, asking us questions about our characters and talking of them as if they too were in the room with us, as if they too were charged with blood, guts and bone – to be taken so seriously by a master was an extraordinary thrill for us writers. Beyond that we weren’t so much taught ‘writing skills’ as encouraged to organically pick up what worked for us through his own experiences and through the immense wealth of resources that spilled from his person in intelligent, direct and strangely moving stories.

Albee’s style was conversational and almost anecdotal. It is probably impossible to relay what was learned as most of it was absorbed on a visceral level, however I am inundated with questions, – What was he like? What did he teach you? What were his secrets? I can’t answer them. So instead offer the following thoughts:

Albee is truly like noone else, highly unsentimental, occasionally almost distant and then overwhelmingly generous and intimate when in passionate conversation. A strong advocate of playwrights, he strongly believes that above all the written play is the most important part of theatre – the blueprint for everything that follows. Urging us to remember this responsibility and not to be pressured into popular compromise, he went one step further in quizzing our directors “How are you going to protect your playwright?”

So what did he teach us? Below are some of the gems I gleaned but I imagine for each of us they took their own form.

Albee doesn’t put pen to paper until he has lived with his characters for long periods so he knows them inside out. He takes metaphorical dogs on metaphorical walks on metaphorical beaches (I have to assume the beaches too are metaphorical as he lives in Manhattan), and allows them to grow and develop. He asks his characters what they would do if they were in a particular situation in a particular set of given circumstances.

He never bases his characters on people he knows or actors that could play them for the sole reason that he stated again and again “it would limit the character, they couldn’t surprise you with what they would choose to do” – and then he would innocently ask, raising his expressive eyebrows “Why would you choose to limit a character?”

Albee, incredibly, will not write a word until he knows his characters inside out, and when he does he doesn’t pre plan the plot but rather has an idea for what the story is and then writes the whole play from beginning to end allowing the plot to unfold and the characters to react as they do – they are after all by this stage real people who dictate to him how they will respond. He, therefore, is as delighted with the discovery of what his stories are about and how his characters would react as we are as audience members when they finally reach our theatres. Then, unbelievable, when he finishes the final scene, that is IT. The play is complete – he doesn’t believe in redrafting.

Big drawing of breath from the playwrights around the table.

No redrafting. Ok so he IS a genius but surely he can’t expect us never to redraft. He does expect though that we have done all our research and all our character work – in our minds, in detail – before we ever pick up a pen. He screws his face up at pages and pages of notes on character reminding us that to pick up the pen changes the nature of the creative process. “

“Don’t ever start writing a play until you know the characters very very well – better than you know yourself. I can hold a play in my head for 2 years before I write it down. Characters come into my head and I think about them and they come back more formed. After awhile I think up a situation that cannot possibly be put in the play and I will put my characters in there to see how they will behave. And if I know my characters well enough they will behave as themselves. If you know your characters well enough and you have some sense of destination you can trust your characters to get there. “

For all his intellectualism, highly educated tastes and rational approaches to the world, it was Albee’s insistence on trusting one’s intuition – something he believes, as do I, exists within the mind. He stressed that plot is something that appears arbitrary while it is happening but it seems to take you where you are going. Trust that intuitive process. We can imagine anything but we cannot imagine that which we cannot imagine.

“Don’t write out long essays about the play before you write it. Have no idea – just know the destination, who the characters are and what they want. If they are three-dimensional characters then they are people and you can’t control them, they have the control and they will guide the play. Don’t limit yourself by forward planning. Writing a play is just writing it down”.

According to Albee, as you write your play you should see and hear it as a PLAY being PERFORMED in front of you. The rhythm and pacing should be heard as you write it; the choreography and design should be seen. The emotional pauses and intensities should be felt like music. In fact Albee is a musician at heart and regards his early years where he yearned to be a composer as the beginning of his theatrical training. Just as a composer knows how to indicate long notes and the quality of various musical sections, which instruments are used where – so too should a playwright construct a play, using punctuation as a tool, and not leaving anything to chance or interpretation if it is something fundamental to the piece. Of course there was heated debate as to what is left for interpretation which Albee enjoyed but stood strong on his view that the play is the blueprint and it is the job of the playwright to write it so that there is nothing left to chance – that the play performed is exactly the work that was originally seen and heard in the playwright’s mind as it was being written.

He didn’t order that we read various plays; instead he implored us to listen to classical music and to note the scoring. Albee impressed upon us that if we did this we would learn more about our craft than from any other exercise. He urged us to note the precision and specificity of structure and textures in classical music. As playwrights he particularly referred us to Bach, the structure of whose work he believed would inspire us if we were prepared to see and hear it.

When you write a play, it is a play as opposed to another written form because it is for the stage. When you write that you must know that the only thing that can be acted is the moment-to-moment action of the characters in this situation. This is what you must write. Metaphor and symbolism cannot be acted.

Playwriting at its best is an ‘essencing’. A play shows the parenthesis of life – and the playwright decides where the parenthesis goes.

Don’t think about what the play ‘means’ just write the story moment to moment. The meaning is a separate thing to the ‘perfomability’ of a play, and it is the ‘perfomability’ that is the task of the playwright.

For me the learning experience went even further. When I, with great embarrassment explained that the name of one of my female characters, Honey, was not an attempt to emulate him with his identically named character in “Virginia Woolf”, but in fact the name of my accountant’s secretary which had attached itself to this particular character, he curiously told us that his character was not actually called Honey. Her name was in fact never revealed in the play. Only her husband addresses her, he only ever calling her Honey. I have read that play dozens of times, watched it performed many, and I had never realised that small subtlety and extra layer of character that existed on the page. Albee’s work always offers a fresh way to inspire.

In his more intimate moments with us, he provided us with some precious stories where he recounted lines he had placed in “Virginia Woolf” that were there primarily to amuse his friend at the time Tennessee Williams – apparently the two of them did it with many of their plays. Williams then, after attending the premier of “Virginia Woolf” in his own state, called Albee to victoriously inform him that he had indeed ‘spotted’ the bits that were placed in the play for him. That the Theatrelab 2006 playwrights were privy to those lines and their origins was a moment of writer-bonding as unique as it was surreal.

The fortnight sailed along, culminating in the last week where Edward, as we now referred to him, sat with the playwrights and urged each of us to stand before the others as they provided random character details. Then the lone playwright was to ‘become’ the character weaving a story as they answered the questions that were also posed from the floor. For those playwrights never to have set foot on a stage it must have been terrifying (it even was for those of us who had, after all Edward Albee was our audience), and yet, how amazing it was to see these real life characters emerge and take shape. It was a moving and challenging finale for the group, and luckily a session without the ABC cameras. Without indulging in sentimentalities, there evolved a warm connection amongst the playwrights, and while I would like to think that that included the playwright Edward Albee, there is always his mysterious enigmatic manner that keeps one guessing.

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