It is the story of why, after a long absence, I have decided to start up this blog again.
It is a story that celebrates creative late bloomers, people whose creativity has no expiration date, who are creative until the day they die -- and sometimes even after.
Late last night when I heard that playwright Edward Albee had died at the age of 88, I was transported back to the day more than 30 years ago when I went to his Tribeca loft to interview him for an airline magazine. Albee was rehearsing a play called "Marriage Play," due to debut in Vienna the following week. I had recently been divorced so the play had a particular resonance for me.
|Photo by Michael Childers, 2012 (The Edward F. Albee Foundation website)|
When I heard the news of Albee's death, I wondered if I had a copy of the piece I had written about that visit tucked away somewhere. But quickly I realized that even if I did, I probably could never find it in the mounds of boxes filled with clips and papers I had stored in my garage. The airline magazine which published the piece had long gone out of business -- TWA didn't even exist anymore. I went to bed, giving up any hope of putting my hands on the piece. I contented myself with the vague memory of that day in New York, sipping white wine with one of my favorite playwrights.
Forgetting all about that long-ago memory, I woke up this morning and began to busy myself with a project that I had been putting off starting for months: the creation of an inventory of everything I owned. Everything, that is, that is stored in the house where I have been living with my second husband for more than 20 years. A lot of stuff accumulates over two decades and I wasn't looking forward to the job. The creation of an inventory was prompted by a suggestion made by our lawyer more than a year ago when we drew up our wills. She wanted us to add an addendum to the wills that would state what should be done with our earthly possessions in the event of our deaths. My husband and I agreed to first take an inventory of those possessions.
I decided to start with my office: plenty of stuff to catalogue there. Almost immediately, I fell upon a stack of yellowing papers in a file drawer: the first drafts of profiles I had written for magazines, typed out on my old Remington, no doubt, during my freelancing days long ago. Among the pieces -- and here is that amazing coincidence -- was the original, unedited version of the story of my meeting Albee. Re-reading it, I realized that I had forgotten whole chunks of that visit to his Tribeca loft and particularly the curious answer to a question I had posed to Albee. "Where do you do the bulk of your writing?" I had asked him. "Airplanes," he had replied. "I find airplanes -- especially on long flights -- a very good place to concentrate."
When we were saying our good-byes at the end of the interview, I must have pictured Albee scribbling away on his long, upcoming flight to Vienna because I concluded my piece with this line:
"Somewhere over the Atlantic, I realize with a start, he will once again begin Act One."
Re-reading that line, I thought: We all need to have the courage to begin Act One...again and again. To take on new projects -- or finished old ones -- and remain creative until the end.
It was in that spirit, I decided to re-launch this blog, celebrating late bloomers.
Albee may not seem at first to be a role model for "late" bloomers. He bloomed, after all, relatively early on in his career. He almost won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" when he was 35 and won it for "A Delicate Balance" when he was 39.
In the 1980s, however, he experienced a run of flops on Broadway; critics scoffed at his efforts. He began to drink and fight with producers.
But he sobered up -- thanks to AA and the support of his partner of 32 years, Canadian sculptor Jonathan Thomas -- and he eventually began to write Act Ones again.
|Albee's last play premiered when he was 82.|
In 1994 he won his third Pulitzer Prize for drama for "Three Tall Women." He was 66. In 2005, at age 77, he was awarded the special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. His last play ("Me, Myself and I") premiered five years later in 2010 when he was 82. At 83 he was directing revivals of his plays off Broadway. And throughout his career he presided over the Edward Albee Foundation, encouraging writers and artists who gathered under his name for yearly Long Island retreats.
When I met him in that Tribeca loft, he was 59.
By then he had gained the wisdom of an aging creative. As he was approaching his sixties, he was less concerned with striving for recognition and more interested in concentrating on his own discoveries. "I have been both overpraised and underpraised," he told an interviewer. "I assume by the time I finish writing -- and I plan to go on writing until I'm 90 or gaga -- it will all equal itself out. You can't invove yourself with the vicissitudes of fashion or critical response."
At the time of our visit, Albee was more celebrated in Europe than in his native land -- "Marriage Play," after all, had been commissioned by The English Theater in Vienna, not by an American theater -- but he seemed unbothered by this fall from U.S. attention. What mattered was his own satisfaction.
At one point in our conversation, he contrasted the sensibilities of American and European theater audiences. Europeans, he told me, were more willing to be tolerant of ideas, more willing to go to the theater "to suffer an experience."
When I expressed surprise that we should have to suffer when we go to the theater, he told me that he wasn't using the word "suffer" in the sense of embracing pain, but rather evoking an older meaning of the word: to be willing to be open, to expose oneself to an experience that may be disturbing.
"God knows, when I go to the theater I don't want to emerge from it exactly the same person that I went into it as," he told me. "I want to be made to think about something, I want to be changed in some way, at least to be forced to reconsider my perceptions. Because life is very short. Why waste your time?"
The airline magazine cut out the comments Albee made about suffering. I think they were the wisest thing he told me. Keeping ourselves open to life in all its disturbances seem to me to be the best definition of creative aging.
God knows, I don't want to emerge from life exactly the same person I was when I came in.
Here is the original, uncut version of my article on Edward Albee:
"Hi. Welcome and thanks for coming," says Edward Albee, greeting a handful of guests seated in a semi-circle in the middle of his spacious loft in New York's Tribeca. Invited to see the playwright's latest work, a two-character, two act play called "Marriage Play," we are staring at two leather chairs, cordoned off by asking tape on the wooden floor. At the far end of the voluminous room, which looks like an eclectic art gallery, a shaft of sunshine from a skylight, like a moment of divine intervention, is illuminating a large cross sculpture on a wall of exposed brick.
We are in the fourth week of rehearsals," explains Albee, whose pepper-colored hair and mustache have added liberal dashes of salt since his first full-length play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," assured him a place of honor in the history of American theater. This, he adds, is the final run through before the cast leaves for Vienna where the play will open at the English Theater, which commissioned the work.
Dressed in a dark grey sweatshirt, baggy pants and sneakers, Albee still manages to look boyish despite his 59 years. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he has an air of modesty about him that is almost unnerving.
"I am the author and director of the vast cast," he deadpans. "We pay no attention to the economies of theater so we have a cast of two -- but if you have the right actors that's enough." Kathleen Butler, he announces, will play Gillian and Tom Klunis, her husband Jack.
"It is 3:30 on a weekday afternoon in a suburb or a city -- I'm not sure. This is a living room," Albee tells us, indicating the masking tape. "Out there is a garden," he adds, pointing straight at us. "And if this were not a wall it would lead to the kitchen." He waves his hand toward a sketch by Lipchitz of two figures locked in combat hung in a heavy wooden frame. "Have I forgotten anything?"
A Siamese cat is dispatched to the kitchen. Albee, warning us that he may stop the action at any time, takes his seat beyond the masking tape. "Curtain going up," someone intones.
The play is dense with ideas and lengthy monologues. Gillian and Jack are allowed to lock in verbal and they physical battle without interruption. I wonder: Is the author of the director watching this play? Albee shows no sign of emotion as he carefully follows the script in front of him. "He's really nervous although you'd never know it," a friend whispers.
"You can't worry about what people think," Albee counters later. "You can't allow yourself to worry about it or you become a nervous wreck -- or worse you become owned by the critics of owned by commercial pressure." All his other guests have departed. He has broken open a bottle of white wine, but only pours a glass for me. "There are some people who want to write their first big his and sell out to Hollywood as quickly as they can. Some people you just can't stop from selling out. And there are others who can't figure out how to do it," he says, his fingers gripped around a coffee mug. "But there are still those who are serious about their craft, who just go about their business.
Albee's own work keeps him occupied "16 months out of the year": teaching, lecturing, overseeing the Albee Foundation, which includes an artist colony four miles from his home at Montauk on Long Island, and, of course, writing plays. "Where do you do the bulk of your writing?" I ask. "Airplanes," he replies solemnly. He is serious: "I find airplanes -- especially on long flights -- a very good place to concentrate. I used to do it on ocean liners. I would get on an ocean liner to Europe and I would have a play written by the time I got there. But they've taken most of them off. Now I have to rely on airplanes...and this may be a critical comment on my work. I don't know," he adds with a wry smile.
"The business of playwriting can be tough," he admits. "We have a TV and a film tradition in this country," he points out. "Generally speaking Europeans tend to be a bit more tolerant of ideas, a bit more willing to go to the theater to suffer an experience."
I am puzzled. Do we have to suffer when we go to the theater? "I don't mean suffer in that sense," Albee told me, like a patient teacher. "If you look up suffer, an older use of the word, it doesn't mean pain but to be willing to be open to an experience, to be expose to an experience that may be disturbing." He is clearly delighted that the conversation is turning on a word. "God knows, when I go to the theater I don't want to emerge from it exactly the same person that I went into it as. I want to be made to think about something, I want to be changed in some way, at least to be forced to reconsider my perceptions. Because life is very short. Why waste your time?"
The loft's walkways, wooden beams and objets d'art are now streaked with evening shadows. Albee accompanies me down the building's drafty warehouse elevator to street level to say good-by. I am struck once again by his diffidence. He is, no doubt, already thinking of the next day's long flight to Vienna.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, I realize with a start, he will once again begin Act One.