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On Albee, Auden and Making Art Happen

Posted on: September 20th, 2016 by Lindsey Ferrentino

 

Edward Albee and Lindsey Ferrentino

Edward Albee with playwright Lindsey Ferrentino.

I am a playwright because of Edward Albee.

In high school, I found a box of letters and newspaper clippings from and about a relative of mine, the poet Chester Kallman, who was life partners and a co-librettist with W.H. Auden. As an aspiring writer myself, I became obsessed with uncovering the story of their relationship, reading and corresponding with those who knew them, who befriended and peopled their lives. I came across an anecdote about how the playwright Edward Albee, as a very young man and recent Greenwich Village resident, wrote a letter to Auden, asking to meet. At this point in time, Albee still considered himself a poet and had not yet begun to write for the theatre. Auden invited the young, nervous Edward Albee into his Cornelia Street apartment, where the two spent the afternoon talking about writing and what it means to devote a lifetime to it.

When I read this anecdote, I decided I had to read the plays of Edward Albee. Most of this reading was being done while I was gainfully employed as a high school senior, working in our Florida small town mall, in what was called the “African Store,” which sold shea butter and dashikis to tourists. I checked The Collected Works of Edward Albee out of the library, moved all of the shop’s large wooden giraffes in front of the cash register (so that the security cameras wouldn’t see me reading), and sat down to read the entire thing, cover to cover, over my week’s shifts. I laughed out loud, cried, and was completely stupefied by the style, tone, and range of realism to absurdism to -isms I wouldn’t begin to learn about or understand until I went to college. I screamed with a bit of joy when I came across a line from Auden’s poem September 1, 1939:

“Art makes nothing happen
We must love one another and die”

It was buried in what would become and still is one of my favorite plays, Albee’s one-act Counting the Ways. I was reading Albee in the context of the post-World War II literary scene, the rise of the beat generation, and it seemed to me that his plays came out of that chaos: of being optimistic in a world that didn’t want you to be, a world where Auden had said he wrote anti-war poems during World War II but realized that the poems themselves didn’t save a single Jew from dying in the Holocaust. Edward Albee’s plays were a challenge to the times that they were written in, a celebration and condemnation of a world gone mad. And on the back cover of his collected plays, I can still remember, his brief bio read: Edward Albee lives in New York and writes plays.

When I first moved to New York, I tracked down the address for The Edward Albee Foundation. I spent my freshmen year gaining the courage to write and sophomore year wrote Albee a hand-written letter, asking to meet to talk theatre and Auden, to be interviewed for a documentary I was making on the post-World War II literary scene. To my shock, I received a response; an invitation to Albee’s apartment in Tribeca for a conversation.

Albee’s assistant let us in. The film crew set up, and I nervously paced, sweating and reviewing my questions, which I’d dutifully written onto index notecards. What I hadn’t told Albee in my letter was that this documentary was contingent on if Albee agreed to be interviewed. Or that Edward Albee was my first interview subject…literally, ever. At 2pm, when it was officially time for the interview to begin, Albee descended a spiral staircase in his living room, sat in the spotlight that the film crew had set up for us, looked right at me into the blinding bright light, and said, “Alright, what do you have?”

Michael Learned with Rosemary Harris

Michael Learned with Rosemary Harris in Roundabout's production of Edward Albee's ALL OVER in 2002. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I would be afraid to go back today and relisten to the footage of my interview. I’m sure it would be full of my eighteen-year-old self, trying to sound intelligent, well read, and thoughtful as I sit eye to eye with my idol, in his home, surrounded by his intimidating collection of modern art. I remember that afternoon as a blur of trying to stay with Albee’s quick-paced thinking and my own out-of-body excitement, where I’d float above the book-filled  nook of his living room where we were sitting, and say to myself, “Is this really happening?!” I remember regretting having asked Albee to talk about Auden because all I really wanted to talk about was Edward Albee himself. I wanted to ask: how did you obtain all of these books and modern art pieces? How did you become so confident in your voice on the page and in life? How did you go from the nervous, pleading young writer asking Auden for advice to the person staring back at me now, giving it?

I asked Albee why he’d included that Auden line in his play and he said, “I did? Hm. I don’t remember. I wrote that a long time ago.” This was not off to a good start. I couldn’t imagine a life spent, devoted to playwriting, where I’d written so many plays that I couldn’t even remember what was in them. However, we continued to speak about that line and Auden’s sentiment behind it. Did art really make nothing happen? And if so, how can you justify a life in the arts? How had he? Albee felt that Auden had gotten it wrong—it wasn’t about whether or not art makes direct political change. It was about creating a playing space where things can happen, where discussions are raised, and where a deeper attempt at communication is possible. Albee spoke about theatre’s utility. How all you can do as a writer is create a space in the theatre that encourages or challenges the audience to be more useful, to live their lives more fully and usefully, every day.

It was daylight when I arrived and nighttime when I left. He had a show running on Broadway, and yet he talked on with me, an eighteen-year-old NYU student with ideas for plays but nothing of substance completed, who nervously flipped through index cards. I remember thinking that that’s how you knew you’d accomplished real success as a playwright, when you had a play running somewhere and didn’t even bother going to see it; that each time your play was performed, it was wholly for the audience and no longer a special event for its author.

I stammered on, trying to stretch my time in his presence as long as possible, eventually repeating questions, which he alerted me I was doing and so said, “I think that’s it.” He shook my hand, thanked me for the interview, and wandered off into his kitchen while his assistant oversaw the breakdown of our film equipment. I needed a restroom and was pointed towards the back of the house, behind the kitchen, where I passed Edward Albee, sitting alone, socks and sandals on his feet, writing at his desk with a pen, against the backdrop of a black and white tiled floor. He looked up and asked me if I was a playwright myself, to which I nervously said yes. He encouraged me to keep writing and apply to the Edward Albee Foundation when I felt I was ready. I nodded, taking a mental picture of my own life in this moment, and shuffled out of his home, waiting to scream until I got into the car with the crew.

Rosemary Harris in All Over. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rosemary Harris in Edward Albee's ALL OVER. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I wrote plays. I applied and was accepted to the Edward Albee Foundation a year later as I was graduating from NYU and facing my student loans and the undertaking of a life as a writer instead of a student. Kicked out of my dorm, my first adult home was in Edward Albee’s barn in Montauk, which I moved into immediately after graduation. What I remember about the Albee from that summer was his lack of formality; his casualness and comfort in his Montauk home, as opposed to being in front of a camera. He wore shorts and would drop by unannounced to see if we were working, to discuss at length with the residents what we were working on. It was in Montauk that Albee and I really spoke about the theatre. He told me that most of what I’d see would be bad, or at least I’d think it was, because I’d be trying hard to figure out my own voice for some time, and until I did, anything that isn’t that would be an affront to my sensibilities. We talked about the play I’d submitted with my application, which was populated with obscure historical figures. He talked about what he liked in the play, what made him laugh, but asked quite directly, “How will the audience know who the hell the characters are?” I mentioned the text references and cited that there will be a program note. He said, “You must NEVER rely on those because the audience NEVER reads them.” And I remember how he told me to find my people who believed in my work – something that, as you’re struggling to emerge and get people to read your work, is always easier said than done. And to learn how to talk about your plays and know why you write them.

On our last night in the barn, the other fellows and I made Albee dinner and did readings of what we’d completed. I did a reading of my one-act play that, looking back on it, was actually a cheap Albee knock off. He nodded throughout the evening, smiled, and ate his dinner. Our dinner discussion turned to the subject of films, and Albee said that “movies are an illegitimate art form because the director chooses the frame for you, whereas with the theatre, you have free will and can choose what to look at.” When people challenged this opinion of his, he stood firmly, spoke strongly, and was short and direct in his answers.

I ran into him occasionally in the years that followed – at various plays and once, rather randomly, at a diner on 14th street. He’d always ask If I was still writing, to which I’d reply Yes. And feel even more determined to make that answer true since, in his eighties, Albee premiered a brand new play and did re-writes of older works, and I’d keep picturing him, quietly working at his desk in the kitchen, still writing, always working.

The Albee Foundation’s Fellowship and Residency remained, for some time, my only professional credit, but it was that credit that attracted the attention of my first agent, of Sam French who now publishes my plays, of the people who produced my first reading, which led to graduate schools, and more plays, and now finally, productions. And when I learned of Edward Albee’s passing, I had just stepped out of a play I was seeing with Jill Rafson, the Director of New Play Development at Roundabout, the theatre that gave me my first professional production, and I couldn’t help but see the domino effect Edward Albee had begun in my life – how Albee’s art had actually made my life happen, that carried me from a high school student reading his plays in my hometown mall, to standing on 42nd Street with my producer and friend.

I think of Edward Albee every time I am interviewed. His confidence, direct gaze, stating his own opinions with confidence of fact. And though I am certainly not that self-assured yet, I try to be honest and know, because of him, why I want to write – which is, like the Auden line, to try and make something happen between all of our living and dying. I try, like Albee did, to keep returning to my desk.

I think of Edward Albee when I realize I feel most comfortable and most like myself, in the company of other artists, hearing about their work. And more than anything, I think of Edward Albee in times of self-doubt, to remember how one thing can lead to another and another; that small acts of generosity as a person and artist can set off an entire chain of events for someone else.

And I can say now, without exaggeration, that because of Edward Albee, my own bio reads:

Lindsey Ferrentino lives in New York and writes plays.


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Origins of the Story

The plot of The Robber Bridegroom is so old and ubiquitous that folklorists classify it by number--it’s a type 955, in which a mysterious man is matched with a maiden daughter, but there is something truly sinister about him.

The origin of this specific variant of the tale can be traced to a young, middle-class woman from Kassel (now in central Germany) named Marie Hassenpflug, who recounted the story to the now famous Brothers Grimm around 1810. The Grimms were collecting and publishing German folktales as a means of promoting unification of German-speaking principalities, hoping to create a sense of a shared culture. It was a nation-building exercise rooted in the idea of a shared German subconscious.

 

Eudora’s Welty’s Adaptation

Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty

In 1942 American author Eudora Welty adapted The Robber Bridegroom (incorporating elements of several other tales collected by the Grimms) into a novella of the same name, moving the story from the forests of Central Europe to the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, in the year 1795.

Welty herself was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduate school at the Columbia University School of Business, she worked at a radio station and wrote society columns for a Memphis newspaper before joining the publicity department of the Works Progress Administration. As a WPA agent, she traveled rural Mississippi at the height of the Great Depression, taking photos and writing press releases. Welty was an avid photographer, and her portraits inspired her first book, a collection of short stories called A Curtain of Green, published in 1941. This ethos of documentary photography would color her approach to fiction writing throughout her life. In her essay Words into Fiction, Welty suggests that “the artist must look squarely at the mysteries of human experiences without trying to resolve them,” as her biographer Suzanne Marrs summarized. The Robber Bridegroom was Welty’s second book and first novella.

Welty’s work is part of the Southern Gothic tradition. Southern Gothic uses characteristics of gothic literature--a dark and mysterious setting, the supernatural, death, taboo issues like rape or racism, miraculous survivals, stock characters, and the experience of being trapped--to comment on (or perhaps expose the dark side of) contemporary southern culture. Playwright Tennessee Williams said Southern Gothic encapsulated “an intuition of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience,” a description that fits well with a tale sprung from the primitive unconscious.

In The Robber Bridegroom, Welty turns the frontier, the root of America’s vision of itself as free, adventurous, and self-sufficient, into a nightmare:

“Murder is soundless as a spout of blood, as regular and rhythmic as sleep. Many find a skull and a little branching of bones between two floors of leaves. In the sky is a perpetual wheel of buzzards. A circle of bandits counts out gold, with bending shoulders more slaves mount the block to go down, a planter makes a gesture of abundance with his riding whip, a flat boatman falls back from the tavern to the river below with scarcely time for a splash, a rope descends from a tree and curls into a noose. And all around again are Indians.”

The cast in rehearsals for THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

The cast in rehearsals for THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom centers on the theme of duality. “All things are divided in half,” Clement Musgrove says in the novel, “Night and day, the soul and body, and sorrow and joy and youth and age.” This duality is underscored by use of grotesque characters, those who evoke both revulsion (often through physical deformities) and pity. “In those early stories I'm sure I needed the device of what you call the ‘grotesque,’” Welty said. “That is, I hoped to differentiate characters by their physical qualities as a way of showing what they were like inside.”

This duality manifests itself in the musical adaptation of The Robber Bridegroom both in tone (a light comedy about dark subjects) and structure: it’s a show about a group of townspeople reenacting the story of the Robber Bridegroom. The actors are at once both the folktale’s characters and the town citizens, play-acting a story they already know the ending to.

 

The Musical’s Sound

The musical adaptation of The Robber Bridegroom uses a bluegrass sound to evoke the rural Mississippi of Welty’s novella. Originating in the traditional narrative ballads and dance tunes of the British Isles, bluegrass developed in Scots-Irish enclaves in Appalachia and traveled south along trade routes like the Natchez Trace, where it incorporated elements of African-American music. Bluegrass is characterized by multiple string instruments (and sometimes the human voice) taking turns leading the melody, often offering complex, virtuosic solos, while the others fill in rhythm.


The Robber Bridegroom begins performances on February 18 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


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2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Robber Bridegroom, Uncategorized, Upstage


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Sondheim on Creating Into the Woods

Posted on: February 4th, 2015 by Roundabout

 

The following is an excerpt from Stephen Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981 – 2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. Thank you to Alfred A. Knopf for allowing us to share the author’s insights with our audience.

 

9752_10152605170954983_8564591556323886762_nAfter the exhilaration of Sunday in the Park with George, I wanted immediately to write another show with James Lapine. I suggested that we write a quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz, the one movie musical I had loved in which the songs not only defined the characters and carried the story forward but were wonderful stand-alone songs as well. James replied that it would be frustratingly difficult to invent a fantasy quest that could sustain itself for two hours or more because there were too many possibilities: a shining irony when you consider that the last line of Sunday in the Park with George comes from the young artist looking at a blank canvas and exalting, “So many possibilities.” But indeed, how do you go about inventing a picaresque adventure peopled with fantastic creatures? When you have infinite choices and no point to make, every plot is possible and every character is arbitrary except for the principals. In Candide, for example, Voltaire had a simple moral observation to propound and tailored a plot to illustrate it, but the episodes are arbitrary (which is one reason the musical Candide has had no definitive script and score since its premiere in 1956). We had nothing we wanted to say, merely a desire for a form, which is not a good way to begin writing a play. (Content Dictates Form.)

Then James came up with the notion of inventing a fairy tale in the tradition of classic fairy tales, one that could be musicalized and fleshed out into a full evening, which excited us but died aborning. After a couple of tries, James realized that fairy tales, by nature, are short; the plots turn on a dime, there are few characters and even fewer complications. This problem is best demonstrated by every fairy-tale movie and TV show since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all of which pad the lean stories with songs and sidekicks and subplots, some of which are more involving than the interrupted story itself. And those are all less than two hours long. It seemed to be an insoluble, self-defining problem until we remembered something he’d concocted a year before when we were looking for a quick way to make a buck.

It was an idea for a TV special: a story involving TV characters from situation comedies (for example, Ralph and Alice Kramden, Archie and Edith Bunker, Mary Richards and Lou Grant, etc.) in a car accident which brings to the scene characters from the cop shows (T.J. Hooker, Joe Friday, Cagney and Lacey, etc.) who take them to the hospital where they are treated by Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby and Ben Casey, etc. I loved the idea and proposed to James that we write a brief treatment and sell it to Norman Lear, the most imaginative producer of such fare. Lear loved the idea, too, and declared he couldn’t wait to see the script. We explained that we weren’t interested in writing the script, just selling the idea. He in turn explained that he wasn’t interested in buying the idea, just in reading the script. This concluded our conversation. Now, in 1986, James came up with the notion of applying the TV idea to the Brothers Grimm. We would write a story in which the lives of famous fairy-tale characters would collide and intertwine in a mutual meeting ground, and where else but the woods, where so many of the stories take place? To weave them together, James invented his own fable, that of a Baker and his Wife, a pair who would go on a quest that would touch and involve such characters as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel, the Three Little Pigs, Snow White and, of course, a Wicked Witch. The pigs and Snow White got left behind in San Diego, where the show tried out, but the others remained to populate an olla podrida of (mostly) farcical and (finally) tragic events. We ate our cake and had it, too: it would be a fairy-tale quest.

And ah, the woods. The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wise or destroyed, and a major theme in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which is the book that everyone assumes we used as a source, simply because it’s the only book on the subject known to a wide public. But Bettelheim’s insistent point was that children would find fairy tales useful in part because the protagonists’ tribulations always resulted in triumph, the happily ever after. What interested James was the little dishonesties that enabled the characters to reach their happy endings. (Dishonesty was something Bettelheim preferred not to deal with, as the posthumous revelations about his falsifying his academic credentials would seem to indicate.) James was also skeptical about the possibility of “happily ever after” in real life and wary of the danger that fairy tales may give children false expectations. As his play Twelve Dreams had demonstrated, he was drawn not to Bettelheim’s Freudian approach but to Carl Jung’s theory that fairy tales are an indication of the collective unconscious, something with which Bettelheim would be unlikely to agree. James and I talked about fairy tales with a Jungian psychiatrist and discovered that with the exception of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which apparently is native only to the British Isles, the tales we were dealing with exist in virtually every culture in the world, especially the Cinderella story. African, Chinese, Native American – there is even a contemporary Hebrew version in which Cinderella wants to dance at the Tel Aviv Hilton.

In inventing the story of “The Baker and His Wife,” James contributed his own cultural fairy tale, an American one. The Baker and his Wife may live in a medieval forest in a fairy-tale medieval time, but they are at heart a contemporary urban American couple who find themselves living among witches and princes and eventually giants. Cinderella gets transformed into a princess, Little Red (which is how we always referred to her) gets eaten by a wolf and comes back to life, Rapunzel gets rescued by a prince, but the Baker and his Wife are merely trying to earn a living and have a baby. Their concerns are quotidian, their attitudes prototypically urban: impatient, sarcastic, bickering, resigned – prototypical, except that they speak in stilted fairy-tale language and are surrounded by witches and princesses and eventually giants. This makes them funny and actable characters, and their contemporaneity makes them people the audience can recognize.

In any event, the gimmick – or, more respectably, the idea – of mashing the tales together gave us a form, much as gimmicks have done in the past (see Schnitzler’s La Ronde). If we were to focus on the consequences of the little transgressions each character makes in pursuit of his or her heart’s desire, it followed naturally that the first act would deal with the traditional telling of the tales up to the Happily and the second with the Ever After. The first would be farce, the second melodrama (still with laughs, of course). As I say, Content Dictates Form – or should.


 

Into the Woods is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 12. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


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2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Into the Woods, Uncategorized, Upstage


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