I’m writing this on a train heading for New Haven where I’m scheduled to perform my solo piece, You Only Shoot the Ones You Love, tonight for an invited audience. How many people will show up is another question, as Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the East Coast. I probably won’t be returning home tonight as the trains and subways are being shut down. I have friends in New Haven and will likely stay with them.
I’ve spent much of the past couple of weeks doing interviews and research for the book I’m writing on the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center. Some of the interviews I’m doing in person, and some via Skype, recording with a swell program from an outfit called Applian called Replay Telecorder (happy to plug a product that works so well).
Had a nice long conversation with George White, who founded the O’Neill Center in 1964. What particularly impresses me is that, though he didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do, he knew he wanted to do something for the theatre in his home town of Waterford, Connecticut. When the town of Waterford leased the decaying estate of a long-dead millionaire to him, White’s first impulse was to try to start a regional theatre in the barn. Though he did indeed produce full productions of a couple of plays, the “backyard readings” he organized proved to be more significant. The full productions didn’t cause much of a stir. The readings, which included the first act of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves and Israel Horovitz’s Indian Wants the Bronx (featuring an unknown young actor named Al Pacino as a menacing hoodlum), generated the real excitement, and White decided thereafter to have his National Playwrights Conference present only staged readings of new plays. The story of how his decision transformed American theatre will be a large part of the book.
Of course, I’m also talking to playwrights who clocked time there. I’ve known both Edward Albee and John Guare since I was a young playwright and they were kind enough to encourage me, but it was a particular treat to have them reach back almost fifty years and talk about those days when they were both part of and witness to the sea change in the theatrical culture.
Guare was particularly articulate about the hostility some of the traditional Broadway playwrights expressed toward the younger writers experimenting in small theatres in Greenwich Village. “You can’t imagine the contempt the uptown world had for us.” The contempt was expressed even a few years later, after some of the downtown writers had actually had work produced on the Main Stem. “There were people at the Dramatists Guild who did not want Terrence McNally and me to be on the [Dramatists Guild] Council because we were not Broadway playwrights. We had had plays done on Broadway but we were not Broadway playwrights. We were from a different world and we shouldn’t be on the council. It was great animosity and contempt and dismissal because we were part of a whole new path of building theater.”
My visit with Albee came within days of seeing the much-praised fiftieth anniversary Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a production that originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. The production stars Tracy Letts, till now best-known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of August: Osage County. So we have a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright starring in a play by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. In the meantime, Sam Shepard is playing a key role in the film version of Letts’s play, so another Pulitzer Prize winner is acting in the work of a fellow Pulitzer Prize winner. (This reminds me of when the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jason Miller, author of That Championship Season, appeared in a TV movie about Marilyn Monroe playing a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Arthur Miller [no relation].) Letts is playing George opposite a Martha played by Amy Morton. Morton previously was nominated for a Tony for acting in August: Osage County and had directed Letts in an earlier production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
What fun when theatre people wear multiple hats.
I’m happy to confirm that Virginia Woolf is very good indeed, and with the perspective of history one can see that its premiere fifty years ago was the beginning of the insurgent downtown sensibility that took over the main stages of modern American theatre. With Albee and Guare now among the revered elders of American playwriting (though still producing provocative work), we look to the O’Neill Center to learn who the new important voices are likely to be. And that too will be part of the book.