"You're here to interview Edward Albee?" the secretary blurts, her expression changing from mock shock to mock pity. Albee has a reputation for being a difficult interview. It's not that he's uncooperative, mind you -- in our experience, he's quite accessible to reporters. It's just that showing up does not necessarily mean answering questions he feels don't warrant answers. For Albee, that's a lot of questions, and the few answers he does offer tend to be blunt.
But Albee is on his best behavior when it comes to discussing the upcoming Edward Albee New Playwrights Workshop. He answers politely, and avoids saying anything controversial, despite being provided ample opportunity to do so. What does he think about the local theater scene? "Pretty adventurous," he says, smiling wryly. "If the Alley does six productions and I like two of them, that's better than the national average."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright isn't trying to be mean; he's just a firm believer in Sturgeon's Law. This immutable law of the universe was first articulated by science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon when, according to one account, a woman asked him why he wrote in a genre that was 90 percent shit. Sturgeon's famous reply: "90 percent of everything is shit." Albee simply revises those numbers upward a bit.
"Every 200 plays you read, one or two are any good," says Albee, who sifts through anywhere from 75 to 120 plays to select five for his production workshop every year. The ones he chooses tend to show more imagination than technique. "Technique can be taught," he says. "I try to put together plays that are interesting, that I think we can do."
During the semester, the students rewrite, rework and rehearse their plays for this public performance. The authors include a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, a member of the Houston Storytellers Guild, a communications major, an entrepreneur and an associate minister at Unity Church of Christianity. "These are very different plays with very different styles, subjects and durations," Albee says. "I'm very fond of plays that are an hour long," he says, jokingly referring to his career-launching Zoo Story.
Albee admits that some people may show up to see the New Playwrights Workshop because his name is attached to it. "You take your chances," he says of seeing a night of student work -- with or without his stamp of approval. "These people aren't paying to get in," he adds. Albee intentionally takes on plays that aren't quite right yet, so he has something to work with. Since each play presents its own problems and solutions, he feels he learns something from the experience as well.
And at the very least, he points out, this new student work is alive. "I don't think any of them should not be seen," he says. "I think anyone will have an interesting time." Coming from Albee, that's high praise indeed.