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Albee, McCann, Richards, and Thomas Speak at Drama Desk Seminar logo
Elizabeth McCann, Edward Albee, Martin Richards,
and Richard Thomas at the Drama Desk event
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
As the Drama Desk celebrates its 50th year, many members, guests, and celebrities gathered on Monday evening, January 17 at Tony's DiNapoli Restaurant (147 West 43rd Street) for a buffet and seminar. The subject was the effects of the past half-century's social changes on the American theater, and vice-versa. Drama Desk president William Wolf introduced the moderators, Charles Wright and Ellis Nassour, who, in turn, introduced the panelists: playwright Edward Albee, producers Elizabeth McCann and Martin Richards, and actor Richard Thomas.

Currently appearing in Democracy, Thomas began his Broadway career as a child actor in 1958's Sunrise at Campobello. He recalled a 1963 audition for a production of Strange Interlude. "What do you want to be more than anything in the world?" demanded director José Quintero. "An actor," young Thomas replied. "Good," declared Quintero, "you've got the part!"

Albee remarked that, 50 years ago, he spent most of his time in Greenwich Village, so "my notion of what was going on in the American theater was highly corrupted." He had a wonderful time, Albee claimed, paying $2, $3, $4 for tickets to shows at small theaters. The high cost of today's productions (and tickets) was a subject that came up often throughout the seminar. The original production of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened at a price of $42,000, whereas this spring's revival of the play has a tab of $2 million. "Everything's gone up," noted Albee, "with the exception of the author's royalty. It used to be 10 percent. Now, for most people, it's five percent." The playwright said that he's seen "lots of wonderful stuff" regionally and in Europe, but "not on Broadway at all." He added: "The majority of the stuff that shows up on Broadway has begun somewhere else. Very little exciting stuff begins on Broadway."

McCann stated that theater has been in the forefront on such issues as the Vietnam War and AIDS and believes that, today, young playwrights are "getting a raw deal; [they're] not allowed to fail." Richards recalled his father referring to shows that his son had produced (e.g. Crimes of the Heart, La Cage aux Folles, Sweeney Todd, March of the Falsettos) and advising him, "People like to see normal things." That provided a cue for Albee to observe, "Those are all normal!" When McCann was asked if she would ever tell backers that a play she might produce was experimental, she scoffed, "Never." She insisted that three terms were never to be used when speaking to backers: "experimental," "satire," and "social-consciousness."

Thomas talked of Albee's Tiny Alice, in which he has twice played the role of Julian. He recalled having spoken at length with John Gielgud, who created the part in 1964. Inquired Albee, "Did [Gielgud] finally understand it?" Replied Thomas, "No." Forced to leave early due to another commitment, Thomas fielded a few questions from the audience and seemed justifiably annoyed by one query about the portrayal of Willy Brandt in Democracy. The remaining members of the panel then spoke about how seldom young people attend the theater, mostly because of the cost. McCann remarked that when she saw the original production of The Glass Menagerie, she sat in the rear balcony for 50 cents; the price for the upcoming revival's rear balcony seats, she informed us, would be $71.50. McCann had recently attended a matinee of Gem of the Ocean and, at first, was not overjoyed to see so many young people there because she feared that they'd be unruly. But she reported that, to her "absolute stupefaction," they were "one of the best audiences I ever sat with."

Remarking that many students of Marian Seldes (including Laura Linney and Boyd Gaines) are appearing on Broadway these days, McCann then surprisingly disparaged the veteran actress and teacher by saying to Albee, "She doesn't always remember her lines; right, Edward?" Albee quickly responded, "She remembers enough of them." The playwright recalled that his first theatrical experience was Jumbo at the old Hippodrome. ("It had a baby elephant and Jimmy Durante -- they were very hard to tell apart -- and a great Rodgers and Hart score.") A Q&A session followed, during which Albee stated, "I never met a serious artist who was anything but a political Democrat." He also commented that new playwrights need places for their work to be seen.

While the subject supposedly under discussion took up only a small portion of the evening, it was still very worthwhile to hear the various thoughts of one of America's leading playwrights, two astute producers, and a well spoken actor, not to mention a pair of entertaining moderators whose hard work made it all look easy.

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