An icon of the American theatre, Edward Albee, died this week. Scholars & Rogues honors him and notes the small ways that the influence of great artists can affect our lives for years to come.
We read The Zoo Story in one of my classes at Wake Forest – maybe freshman or sophomore year. I absolutely loved it. I think Jerry spoke to my teenage sense of who I was and what I didn’t want to be, and this dynamic was reinforced by the culture of the university. Wake was conservative and elite. I was conservative, but working class. Many of my fellow students were preparing themselves for sensible, practical, conventional lives. I wanted to be a poet. So while I don’t believe I necessarily understood that tension then the way I do now, I felt an immediacy in Peter and Jerry’s confrontation that, truth be told, still resonates for me today.
One might argue that I have been metaphorically throwing myself on the knife in Peter’s hand my entire adult life.
Fast forward to my senior year. A requirement for all theater majors (actors, anyway) was that they direct a show as their final thesis. I saw a list of the one-acts that were to be staged that semester, and one of them jumped out at me: The Zoo Story, which was being directed by Lee Sellars. (Lee was brilliant then and he has now become a talented character actor whom you have probably seen on television). I had never acted, although I imagined I might okay at it. And it occurred to me how very much I’d love to play Jerry.
Zoo Story was in the second or third set, I think, and I realized that if I were going to try this I should, at the very minimum, get some practice at auditioning. So I went in and auditioned for the first set of shows going up.
I was utterly stunned when I landed a lead in one of them, and thus began my brief career as a college thespian. But I was like the dog that’s been chasing cars all his life, then one day he catches one. I had zero idea what was involved. I had never memorized lines. I didn’t know what blocking was. I didn’t know the difference between stage left and stage right (although since we were performing in the round that was less a concern). I’d certainly never worn makeup.
I did okay for a rank rookie, although there was no risk of awards being won. While not a great show, it was a remarkable learning experience. For instance, I benefited from the fact that it was an intense dramatic role, which I learned is a lot easier than comedy. Comedy, I discovered later on, is hard. Scowling and screaming, that’s a lot more manageable for the newcomer.
Mainly, though, I learned that I loved it. I was a writer and was moved by the creative process already, but performance, to inhabit a role, to hear people applauding the work, it was absolutely addicting (especially if you were as much of a ham as I was – nothing was more important to me than being the center of attention back then).
So I kept auditioning and I kept getting roles. The only part I auditioned for that I didn’t land? Ironically enough, it was the part that set the whole thing in motion. I didn’t get Jerry.
By the time I graduated the following year (5-year plan) I had been fortunate enough to have parts in five or six shows, and two of them were outstanding productions owing to the talent of the respective directors. I learned that I was pretty good when I had a good director and really not so good if the director was clueless, and there were a couple of those. I was central to what was probably the worst show on a Wake stage during those two years, but I was also a big part of two of the best, The Dining Room and Pvt. Wars. My buddy John Cavanaugh cast me as Gately in Pvt. Wars, and that remains one of the most incredible experiences of my life to this day. That was where I began understanding how to do comedy – no mean feat for a guy who wasn’t naturally very funny.
If you read back over this you’ll realize that Edward Albee played almost no role at all in my theatre experience past being the inspiration for me trying it. In a way he was the butterfly flapping its wings in China, and a love of and respect for theatre has been a gentle, revitalizing rain in my soul ever since. I doubt I’m alone in feeling the debt I owe to Albee, even though I can’t say I’m even a percent as familiar with all his work as I should be.
Art is like that, isn’t it?
Thank you, Edward. We’re better for your influence in our lives, even if we don’t always realize it.