David Benn and Constance Gold Parry star in Edward Albee’s ‘Occupant,’ about pioneering sculptor Louise Nevelson. (Photo courtesy Lowell Sargeant)
WingSpan Theatre dedicates its 20th season to American master, gay playwright Edward Albee
In the 20 years since Susan Sargeant founded WingSpan Theatre Co. — with its mission to tell stories by, for and about women — probably no playwright has been more represented than Edward Albee (at least seven since 2004). Albee passed away a year ago, and so for the company’s milestone anniversary season, Sargeant has pulled out another one by the most acclaimed playwright of the 20th century: Occupant.
Written in 2001 but not produced until 2008, it’s a conversation between The Man (played by David Benn) and the American sculptor Louise Nevelson (Constance Gold Parry). WingSpan opens its production on Oct. 5 at the Bath House, with Sargeant directing. We sat down with her and Benn to discuss Albee’s place in American letters, as well as the compelling tale of survival and artistic expression.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
Dallas Voice: What was your first exposure to Edward Albee? How has your opinion of him as a playwright evolved?
Susan Sargeant: The first Albee play I ever saw was The Zoo Story. I was a young woman, and I was totally knocked out by it. I had never had an experience like that before in the theater. I could not stop thinking about the play for days. As a more mature person, I am still knocked out by Albee’s plays. I wanted to celebrate Albee’s legacy and I thought there was no better way than dedicating my 20th anniversary season to the grand provocateur.
David Benn: I, too, was captivated by The Zoo Story. At the time [in the 1960s and ’70s] I had no idea [Albee] was gay, or that I was, for that matter. But something about Albee really connected with me. Now that I know his story and have admired and studied him for decades, I realize how much we had in common. His experiences as a gay man and artist making his way in the world were, and are, inspiring to me. As I’ve gotten older, my appreciation of his genius has remained. My youthful enthusiasm for the bold, in-your-face modernity of his plays has matured into a greater appreciation of his insight into the human condition, which sounds perfectly trite. Sorry. He remained a brilliant wordsmith and provocative thinker and teacher.
WingSpan has done a lot of work by Albee, as well as another gay scribe, Tennessee Williams. What attracts you to their work?
SS: The playwrights that you mentioned — and I would add Samuel Beckett, who was a great influence on Albee — started as poets. Albee certainly embodies music of language, intelligence, wit and searing insights into the human condition. I find these elements irresistible.
DB: I’ve never been a part of a WingSpan production, but I have a great appreciation for Susan’s expertise with the Albee canon.
Occupant — one of Albee’s last plays — is about the life of his friend, the sculptor Louise Nevelson, known for her epic, monochromatic woodcarvings. What drew you to this piece?
SS: I have known about the play for quite awhile, and I was fascinated by [Nevelson] and also the construct of the play. Nevelson and Albee were friends, and the play is really a salute from one artist to another. It also provides a tremendous tour-de-force role for a female actor. This play also spoke to me as an artist and most especially as a woman.
DB: I had heard of Occupant, but I had not read it until Susan sent it to me back in the springtime. It is an intelligent rumination on several themes, but most important is Louise Nevelson herself: Her work, her life, and her unforgettable strength and tenacity. Occupant
has lots to say about the challenges women in art, and women in general, must navigate in American society. Louise Nevelson’s journey is worth revisiting. Sadly, some things just don’t change fast enough. She is a cautionary tale in some ways, and a role model in others. Albee and Nevelson were great friends, so, maybe this was his last chance to talk some things out with her. That is a conversation worth listening to.
Because he writes mostly in “theater of the absurd,” Albee’s plays aren’t linear and clearly plotted, and the characters are often “types” or stand-ins for ideas. What are the challenges making them “work” as a director? As an actor?
SS: Albee plays are lighter on plot and all about the human landscape. The complicated humanity of Albee plays are always at the forefront for me when I am in the director’s chair. There is a great book entitled A
Singular Journey by Mel Gussow [the late New York Times theater critic]. It has been a touchstone for me over the years when I am taking on an Albee play.
DB: The challenges are great [as an actor]. He was a poet who wrote plays, so the wordplay keeps us on our toes. But his one-act, The
Sandbox [which WingSpan produced in 2010], is the perfect one-act play. Period. For an actor, the absurdity of it is liberating. Things don’t have to make sense, but they have to be true.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 29, 2017.