Dallas — This weekend, WingSpan Theatre Company continues its celebration of Edward Albee for its 20th anniversary season, with the regional premiere of one of his last plays, Occupant, about famous sculptor Louise Nevelson. This follows WingSpan’s entry in this summer’s Festival of Independent Theatres, Finding the Sun.
WingSpan co-founder and Executive Director, Susan Sargeant, has loved Albee since directing his second Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Seascape, for Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre in 2000. She has directed six other Ablee plays, including Occupant, and acted in a production of Marriage Play.
In Occupant, Constance Gold Parry plays the sculptor, who appears after her death, as a ghost, answering questions by an interviewer called The Man (played by David Benn). TheaterJones asked both Parry and Sargeant about the work, the role, and the playwright.
TheaterJones: Tell me about the research of Louise Nevelson's life and work you did for playing this role.
Constance Gold Parry: Susan had recommended a couple of books on Louise’s life. We both read Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life by Laurie Lisle and I watched numerous interviews with her. The volume of lines to learn kept me from reading any more than the one book. Susan is a wonderful dramaturg and had a thick notebook ready for us on day one of rehearsal to refer to. She had historical information ready for review also.
Then, what did you learn about her strictly from working on this character?
CGP: She was very driven by an inner need of finding herself that she pursued until her death; an inner voice that was never quiet. She knew she was special, and kept going even when nothing was going her way. Brave, determined, undeterred, and focused. Egocentric, selfish. If she hadn’t been selfish, would she have achieved what she did? I don’t think she thought there was any other way. I don’t think she thought of herself as selfish. It really is amazing what she achieved—but at what cost to her relationship to her son? I was sometimes just shocked at her lack of maternal instincts. So completely different than me.
How does he keep this interview from sounding merely like an interview session?
CGP: Oh my goodness, there is so much music in the words. The relationship between the interviewer (man) and Louise is complicated. Just like her real-life relationships! Nothing comes easy in the responses. The Man has to push and pull, tease, and coax. He is able to push her emotional buttons and extract revelatory memories.
Sculptors rely on their hands, which of course is one tool actors use. How does she use her hands in this play? How does Susan direct you to use your hands?
CGP: The videos of Nevelson interviews were informative for learning her postures and gestures. She seems to shape the air at times. Sculpt the air? Other times, her hands seem so relaxed. Her dance history is revealed in her postures and gestures. Susan has pointed out certain Louise gestures to be incorporated especially when Louise is reflecting on pivotal moments of her life.
Susan, you picked Albee to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Wingspan. Why?
Susan Sargeant: Edward Albee is a playwright that has been a part of my professional career since 2000. When Edward Albee passed away on Sept. 16, 2016; it was an easy decision for me to dedicate my 20th Anniversary Season to the grand provocateur Edward Albee. I have been fortunate to direct eight Albee plays: Seascape (2000) and Three Tall Women (2001), both at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth. For WingSpan Theatre Company: The Play About the Baby (2007), The Sand Box (2010) and The American Dream (2010), Counting the Ways (2012), Finding the Sun (2017) and Occupant (2017). Plus, I also got to perform in an Albee play for WingSpan Theatre Company: Marriage Play (2004), irected by the Late René Moreno.
You’ve directed so many of his works, from his earliest to more recent. What does Occupant, first performed in the early 2000s, say about his evolution as a writer? Even when some phases of his career weren’t critically loved, he always came back with something that reminded everyone of his talent, as in Three Tall Women, The Goat, etc.
Edward Albee was in his 70s when he wrote Occupant. So the play was written from a more mature and different vantage point in his life. Edward Albee and Louise Nevelson were friends. Occupant is a salute from one artist to another. Edward Albee spoke at Louise Nevelson’s Memorial at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Ironically, Louise Nevelson and Edward Albee both died at the age of 88.
If you look at the character of The Man/The Interviewer as a stand in for Edward Albee, the inspiration for Occupant, was perhaps an opportunity for Edward Albee to have a final conversation with the ghost of Louise Nevelson. The play is a quest to pursue unanswered questions of what is “truth vs. illusion.” Louise Nevelson was known for embellishment and as The Man/The Interviewer says in the play: “misrememberings.”
Compare/contrast Albee’s Nevelson to some of Albee’s notable women, such as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or the woman in three phases in Three Tall Women, or Miss Alice in Tiny Alice.
Louise Nevelson fits the mold of Albee’s strong and complicated women. I would say the common ingredient in many of Albee’s women, in his canon, is that they are survivors. The character of A in Three Tall Women, Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I would add Agnes in A Delicate Balance all possess similar qualities. Albee uses the word “tough” in Occupant referring to Louise Nevelson. The word “tough” has several meanings but the one that captures Louise Nevelson and other Albee women is: “Strong and durable; not easily broken or cut.”
What did you think of the controversy this year over the Albee estate and a black actor playing Nick in a production in Portland, Ore., in which the director described it as a “color-conscious” choice, as opposed to “colorblind casting.” But then a few months later, Chicago’s Pulse Theatre had a production with black actors playing George and Martha that was well received and not closed by the Albee Estate. (Readers, see the review in the Chicago Tribune for some excellent context.)
Based on the reading that I have done, the theatre company in question [in Portland], handled things poorly with the Albee Estate. It appears that the theatre company had not fully secured the royalties to the play and did not negotiate ahead of time. The Albee Estate made what they thought was the best decision given the circumstances.
Unfortunately, this situation put the name of Edward Albee and The Albee Estate in an unfavorable light. Perhaps if the theatre company had handled it better the outcome would have been different. The Edward Albee Estate does have the right to protect, what they believe, to be the playwright’s intellectual property.
If you would like to read/learn about it secure a copy of The Dramatist Magazine/September 2017 Issue. The September 2017 Issue is dedicated to Edward Albee. Also, The Albee Estate debate is vividly discussed and well-presented from various viewpoints and perspectives.
Albee and Sam Shepard (who died this year) were probably considered the greatest living American playwrights. Who takes up that mantel now?
Many playwrights have been influenced by Edward Albee and Sam Shepherd. Who picks up the mantel now? One playwright that comes immediately to mind is Will Eno, who was an Edward Albee Foundation Fellow. You can see the Albee earmarks and bloodline in his plays: Thom Pain (based on nothing) and The Realistic Joneses.
In which playwrights’ work can you see Albee’s influence?
Last year, in 2016, I produced and directed Breadcrumbs by Jennifer Haley. I remember reading the first page of the play and it just grabbed me. I loved that it was not conventional and it had all the things that excite me: complicated relationships, humor, masterful wordplay/language, and the world of play really intrigued me. There are many other playwrights that have been influenced by Edward Albee: John Guare, Tracy Letts, Annie Baker, Tina Howe, Emily Mann, to name merely a few. The bloodline of Edward Albee will ... Go On ...