In July 1977, on my 30th birthday, I received a phone call from Glyn O’Malley, then assistant to three-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Edward Albee. Glyn, whom I’d met in the summer of 1970 when he was a student attending my very first lecture/workshop at the Rhode Island Governor’s School, said that Edward would like to meet with me to discuss the possibility of putting together a tour of his one-act plays that he intended to direct.
Needless to say I was thrilled and flattered. Albee was a personal hero as a writer for me. His plays were famous, he was both notorious and noted and just the idea of meeting with him was exciting, even if nothing came of it. During my student days at Emerson College I’d directed Act III of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for my directing class (to some minor acclaim).
Next day we took our meeting and Albee revealed he’d asked his long-time producing partner Richard Barr to produce it first but he’d declined. (Surely it was no insult to be second choice). Edward decided HE would produce and direct the plays – and I would be the agent to book the tour.
We worked together in the structure of what would be three separate evenings of a total of seven of his then eight one act plays (see brochure below). We realized that it was not realistic to include The Death of Bessie Smith in the mix both for practical reasons of an expanded cast and the length of the evenings. The idea was to create a small “repertory” company of actors that would play several different roles. And while the ideal would be to book longer runs in first rate theatres, we would book one-night stands as well.
In the fall of 1977 I began booking the tour, planning for it to begin in October 1978 and end in May 1979 – were we lucky enough to fill that span of time – with breaks for Christmas/New Years and so on included.
In the late spring of 1977 I’d been at the TNT (The New Theatre) Festival in Baltimore, where I was an advisor and co-coordinator of groups. There I’d met a young, intriguing, scraggly actor working with Theatre X from Milwaukee, and we shared a ride back to NYC in the back of a van, talking most of the way.
He told me he wanted to make the move to New York and give it a shot. I suggested he get in touch if he did as I always had some projects to work on if he needed a job. He called; he moved to New York, he came to work for a few months on the booking of the Albee project. (His name is Willem Dafoe).
While this was happening, I was simultaneously completing my Doctorat and thesis at the Universite Paris VIII. By June 1978 I’d booked $375,000. Worth of dates including a premiere of a three-week run to be the first event to open a new arts center at Stony Brook (State University of New York). This was a sort of coup as it would also provide a place to rehearse, build the set and so on. I’d also, prior to booking the opening there, been hired to be a member of the faculty of the theatre department.
In June 1978 I was in Paris, had just defended my thesis and was awarded my Doctorat (with honors) when I received a phone call from my lawyer in New York informing me that Albee had decided to ditch the project.
I was aghast. I’d put my guts into putting the project together, and my reputation on the line – prestigious as it all was – not to mention my agreement with my upcoming faculty – and having arranged to bring several students on board to intern with the project.
Edward was busy trying to complete re-writes for his new play, The Lady from Dubuque, under deadline, and estimated that he wouldn’t make as much money off the project as he’d thought and measured what realistically he could and couldn’t do.
Needless to say I got on the next plane back to New York, no time for celebrations, and my lawyer suggested I take over as the producer. I’d produced tours before but on a lesser scale with many theatre companies between 1970-76, but this was to be a “Broadway road-show” level tour. And, with rehearsals originally set to begin in 6 weeks’ time (casting had not yet been done) I would have to raise a lot of money – and fast!
So the sweat was on. Forth of July I was driving out to the Hamptons for a sit-down signing with Albee’s lawyer after hammering out a mutually acceptable arrangement. (As producer I shared equal decision-making power in casting and other areas). I felt sort of like a young Max Bialystock, only instead of descending into “little old lady-land” I was diving into another pool of Warhol-owning, high stakes people who were pleased to invest in a class-act theatrical endeavor.
When I’d raised enough to get the project rolling I began the process of announcing auditions. Actually Albee and I held a rather expensive (appearances are everything) buffet-lunch press conference at Sardi’s with casting to follow.
I guess my devotion to the downtown scene was evident even then as I decided to not go the route of agents first and decided we’d do three days of Equity auditions and two days of non-Equity to give a shot to young and non-union talent.
My estimation is that I sifted through several thousand photos and resumes – as well as the Players Directory – and narrowed it down to about 200 actors (we saw 40 a day for 5 days) to fill 8 acting spots – playing several roles each.
In actuality Edward had several actors he’d worked with before in mind. So, two spots went to them: Wyman Pendleton and Eileen Burns – both first rate professionals. He also had an actor in mind for the lead roles in Zoo Story and American Dream, but I had someone in mind as well, and as HIS choice had an agent that wanted commission on top (and budget-wise that was not possible) that option faded.
The actor I had in mind had played the role of Nick back in my Emerson College class project of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Stephen Rowe, and that’s who we hired – and subsequently he’s worked with Edward on Broadway and off over the decades.
The rest of the mix we hired out of the auditions. Through the generous offer of space at Columbia University by then chair, Andrew Harris we held our first weeks of rehearsals in the city, thus saving money on per diems and housing, then, moving the last weeks out to Stony Brook.
So, the project began two months earlier than originally projected, and ran until June of 1978 – more than a month longer than planned – finishing up with a month-long tour of major theatres in East Asia – the National Theatre of the Philippines in Manila, Seoul, South Korea, Tokyo, Japan and ending at the Hong Kong Festival.
During the run there were some bumps and grinds – a couple of cast changes (which cost a lump) but brought on Sudie Bond, who created the original roles of Granny in The Sandbox and The American Dream.
We had a three-week run at ACT in San Francisco, two weeks at the Kennedy Center in DC and many week long repertory runs at major theatres and universities in the U. S. and Canada coast-to-coast as well as one nighters. Cars, trains, planes. Ultimately, almost $600,000. 00 in bookings. Nonetheless, the project, while being a ‘success de estime’ it lost about $70,000.00.
All of the productions were videotaped and are available to be seen upon special request at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center:
The archives of the tour can be found at:
The Brochure, Albee Directs Albee, (1977-79):
Edward Albee directing rehearsal of Listening, 1978:
Performance: The American Dream, 1978. Sudie Bond as Grandma and Wyman Pendelton as Daddy:
(Program): Premier run of Albee Directs Albee repertoire, official opening of new arts center, SUNY Story Brook, 1978: