Five Things Edward Albee Taught Me
Even If He Probably Didn’t Really Mean To
When I heard this past Sunday that playwright Edward Albee had passed away at the age of 88, I found myself thinking: ‘First Bowie, then Prince’. And then I immediately heard his voice in my head saying: “Come on. Don’t be such a sap. What are you really trying to say?”
OK. So. Somewhere back in the mid eighties (yes, the mid 1980s) while I was a junior in High School, I got the chance to meet, learn from, and work with (aka get politely badgered by) the then two-time Pulitzer Prize winning trickster of the American stage. How? Thinking back, I’m not entirely sure. My mom had recently moved my sister and me from the mountains of Colorado to suburbs of Southern California. And, as you can probably imagine, it was something of a shock.
Suddenly, I was adrift in a new sea of strangers — trying to figure out who I was and where I fit in. Was I was a mod? Maybe, although no Vespa. Was I a goth? Maybe, but clove cigarettes suck. Or was I a jock? Yeah, no. The only sport I only sort of cared about was skiing. Basically, I looked around and saw almost nobody whose backstory was even remotely like mine. Or so it seemed.
And for a whole host of strange reasons I still can’t quite put my finger on, instead of freaking out and shutting down or just trying to disappear into the background, I found myself opening up and trying whatever came my way. Surfing? Sure, I’ll give it shot. Presbyterianism? Whatever. Sign me up.
It felt like anything was possible. And it kind of was. Especially at school— where I registered for everything from Epistemics (the study of language and knowledge, interspersed with a little transcendental meditation for grins), to Drafting (where I spent six successive semesters learning the ins and outs of architecture), to Comparative Literature (where I had the good fortune of being exposed to everything from Shakespeare to Hemingway to Turgenev). Toss in the usual suspects like Algebra, Political Science, and Biology, and it made for a crazy difficult but crazy enlivening experience — one that, looking back, I’m still kind of stupifed by. Isn’t high school supposed to be a drag?
Anyway, it was in a Creative Writing class where I was asked to submit a short one-act play for entrance into what was then called the California Young Playwrights Project. The Project, started by Deborah Salzer, was basically an invitation-only set of workshops for aspiring drama students. If you got in, you’d be able to cut class and get credit for writing with—and getting unsparing feedback from—someone big. Someone important. Albee was the first on deck.
Only problem was, I’d never written a play — much less any actual dialog to speak of. But my teacher saw something in me and she pushed it. I can’t really remember the details of what I submitted. Only that it was called You — and that it was a rambling, overlong two-way tug-o-war of words (set in crowded airport terminal) between a middle-aged version of myself and the the father I’d never known. Something in it piqued Albee’s curiosity — perhaps his own inner orphan — and so I got in.
The next bit is a blur. I remember getting buddied up with other kids in our group of twelve to do readings from each other’s plays — something again that I had absolutely no aptitude or training for. And I remember that jarring sensation of getting sucked into the moment — into the real feelings of a scene — only to get yanked back to the present by a quick but kindly: “OK. Great. NOW. What was that about? Really.”
Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.
Far from being the aggressive, caustic, or aloof figure I’d imagined (having just read The Zoo Story and watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for the first time), Albee was a peach. He was kind. And curious. And patient. He treated us like peers, strangely. Like adults. And it felt like he hung on our every word — asking more questions than talking. He didn’t pontificate. He didn’t actually say anything about capital-D drama. He was there to to help us become whatever we wanted to be. He seemed to revel in our indecision — in the fact that we hadn’t really made up our minds about what we liked or what was beautiful or ugly, or stupid or smart.
And he spent serious time with us, cultivating a healthy disregard for certainty. For comfort. He made us nervous. He goaded us to work hard at making things we cared about. Things of real merit — to ourselves and our peers. “Fuck the critics,” he said. “Round them up and shoot them anywhere but the head. So that it actually hurts.” Or something along those lines.
Here are five of the things I remember him teaching us — whether he intended to or not:
1. Stay curious.
He never actually said it, I don’t think. Instead, he showed it. All the time. He was literally on the edge of his seat — leaning in as you talked, closing his eyes to hear your dialog. Nodding in time with every word of every line. Listening to seventeen year olds like we had something important to say. Honestly wanting to know what we had in mind. What motivated us. Who we were. Who our characters where. But not with an eye toward labeling us or them — not to suss out what they represented. Instead, to know what we meant. Literally. And in some ways, that curiosity is essentially what I’ve built my entire career on. It’s turned into what I do. For a living.
2. Just write (music).
This is one that I still struggle with. Albee was rhythmic master. He showed us the importance of cadence — of being mindful of the musical qualities of good writing. For him, the spoken word was a symphony. And he opened all of our eyes to the work required to compose a great sentence. It was — and is for me to this day — the whole point of sitting down to write. Whether I’m writing an email or a line of copy for a client, the bar is high. Because, good writing should feel like great (if occasionally discordant) music. And chiseling at things until they flow — until they unfurl elegantly and with force — is the whole point.
3. Feel something.
All art should make you feel something. It should change you. It should change your audience. It should make you (and them) see the world differently. If it doesn’t, why bother? Which means, really, that there’s no room for fluff. There’s no room for posturing. Academic exercises are a waste of time. As a writer—and as someone engaged in a moderately creative industry — I still judge my work by whether it’s changed anyone’s heart. Changing minds is easy. Changing hearts is hard. But that’s the real work that matters most. That’s the work that’s worth the trouble.
4. Be weird.
I think maybe my favorite memory of Albee was seeing him jump to his feet and dance around the room, grinning, as two of our fellow students read a scene about a kid trying to (literally) kill himself while his parents argued about what he and his sister should wear to the family holiday portrait. It was hilarious. And sick. And twisted. And sad. And so completely up his alley. And at the end of the scene, he clapped louder than I’ve heard anyone clap ever—and said something along the lines of: “See, there. That’s it. It’s funny because it’s weird. It’s sad because it’s true. It’s beautiful.”
5. Keep at it.
Now, I’m still not totally nailing this one. I haven’t written a single word of actual dialog for close to 20 years. BUT, Albee’s dedication to craft — his willingness to put in the long hours to make something diamond-like, brilliant, and strong is something that I still seek to model. His willingness to just keep exploring — to flip the bird to the critics and keep writing (or, as the case may be, put his writing on hold to talk to a bunch of kids who know next to nothing about drama) is something we can all learn from.
And I can hear him now: “Stop preaching, Jesus! Wrap it up for God’s sake.”