Working with My Mentor, Playwright Edward Albee: A Retrospective

I read that Edward Albee died recently.  He was my professor and friend and I have many memories of him that I would like to share, including a handwritten correspondence that we kept up for many years.

Back in January of 1992, I jetted down to Houston my 1978 Chevy Nova to enroll in the MFA program in Creative Writing at University of Houston.  I had seen in the AWP book that Edward Albee was adjunct to this program in the theater department, and it was my main reason for applying.  I was already working on my MA at the Bread Loaf School of English and honestly didn’t think I would get in, seeing as University of Houston was ranked #2 for Creative Writing, right under Iowa.

So, in Jan. ’92, I signed up for a fiction workshop with Rosellen Brown to see if I would like the program.  Even though I only took one course with her, she would later step in on my final thesis committee, a committee on which Albee also served in 1994.

My first semester in Houston was a bit lonely, but I went to the Alley to see Albee’s Marriage Play, where I actually met him after the performance–and we talked casually for a bit.  He was very approachable.  It wasn’t until fall of ’92 that I learned I had to again apply to be in his class.  He accepted six plays to produce and I was in his production workshop in 1993 for my play Do Not Miss the Main Attraction.  We were given a student director as well as actors, and for the entire semester watched our plays come alive.

Albee and I had lunch many times.  He liked to recite Dorothy Parker and was fond of telling me that I needed to always keep my sense of humor.  My play he had chosen was about a mother who gets her family together for a final dinner because she’s “quitting the family.”  What began as a one-act in Houston with a few performances in May 1993 ended up being produced in LA for six weeks at the Attic Theatre and reviewed in the LA Times, LA Weekly, Dramalogue and LA Reader.

When I asked Albee for a quote, he and I were talking on the phone.  “You can use this,” he said, “‘I remember Do Not Miss Main Attraction from a previous production where it was anarchic, rambunctious and often brutally funny.’  Don’t forget the first part!”

I of course did forget the first part and only used “anarchic, rambunctious and often brutally funny,” something I have felt guilty about ever since, especially since Albee never wanted anyone changing the words of his plays, down to high school productions.  He viewed his work as one might a work of art.  “You wouldn’t go in and change a painting, would you?  So why do they think they can change my words?”

I asked him for a recommendation once and this is what he sent me, handwritten:

img_32191

Over the years we maintained a correspondence through letters.  He was on my MFA thesis committee the day he won his third Pulitzer for Three Tall Women, and I appeared on CBS Sunday Morning with him when I was taking his Playwriting course.  He called me the night before it appeared, “Damon, we’re going to be on t.v.”

I also introduced him at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston after poet Bob Phillips asked me to do so.  Over time I saw him in New York when Mel Gussow wrote his biography; in fact, I went to staged reading of Counting the Ways and Listening in Manhattan, after which Mel and Edward were signing the bio–and I have a copy of that book that I love.

One time my mom went to see him read in Virginia and he wrote later in the PS, “I think I met your mother.”  Some of his letters could be harsh about my work, forever insisting to “write from my gut.”  He could tell when I was lost in the annoyances of my mind; I wrote several failed plays because of this.  And he always knew the difference between gut and mind.

I asked him to read a piece of academic writing once, and he snapped back, in a letter, “. . . send me the scholarly (ha!) piece whenever you want.”

People used to mispronounce his name as Al Bee.  But he would correct him with “Awwwl Be.”

One sign-off still moves me: “Take care; be well; work hard; expand in all directions.  Edward (real name).”

Right before this sign-off, the wrote me the words I remember the most:  “But . . . the big game is the only one that’s not minor league.”

As a teacher he was the American Dream, for a writer like me.

And . . . lights for Edward.

img_32201 img_32221 img_32251