HOUSTON -- Each year some 75 student submissions come across three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Edward Albee's desk at the University of Houston School of Theatre, at which he teaches every spring.
Albee selects 10 or so budding playwrights for an intermediate class. Five more are chosen for an advanced class. Sometimes the pool of aspirants doubles to 150.
"I pick the ones who make the most interesting mistakes," Albee explained. "I look for the highly idiosyncratic." Too often the would-be playwrights "know how to write other people's plays," Albee continued, "play the commercial game."
As might be expected, Albee tends to favor the experimental, the raw, the challenging. He's also not in the least interested in the types "who only have one or two personal plays in them, who once they get the autobiographical stuff down, then quit."
The intermediate class spends its time reading important works, analyzing playwrighting theories, and, of course, attending to student writing. A principle technique Albee puts the students through is improvisation. "I like to see how well they know their characters. I often make them stand in front of the class and answer an hour-and-a-half of questions." These students learn much about the basics. The advanced class spends its time in the theater, not just the classroom: shaping student plays for production. Albee leads them through the process of the realization. "A lot of young playwrights have never heard their work read aloud before or had their work presented on the stage," observed Albee. "I help them discover the relationship between what they think they wrote and what they actually wrote." When plays are deemed ready to shift from the ivory tower to the footlights, Albee continued, "I make sure the cast is correct and that the director is not distorting the playwright's intentions." Bottom line, said Albee, who regularly sits in on rehearsals in addition to leading the classroom discussions, "I make sure the play is getting a fair shake. I don't help make it more commercial." Albee was reluctant to cite former students who have "made it" for fear of omitting someone.
As much as possible, casts for the Albee/student productions are chosen from University of Houston students, whether in the School of Theatre or not. Sometimes, however, an extension must be made out into the Houston community. "Student playwrights have the annoying habit of writing roles for 60-, 70-, 80-year-old people," Albee stated, maybe maybe not neutrally. Directors are graduate students from the School of Theatre.
This year, the five new student plays will be given full productions, two performances each, at Stages Repertory Theatre over two weekends, April 24-26 and May 1-3.
On April 24 at 8 PM and April 25 at 4 PM: The Adventures of That Brotherman, by Joe Okankwa, a satirical farce about stereotypes and race relations; and Screwscotch, by Jacob Juntunen, a metaphysical melodrama with humor involving temptation, damnation and computer engineers, set where the afterlife and Silicon Valley collide.
On April 25 at 8 PM and April 26 at 4 PM: Dominique, by Michael Whitley, an urban tale of child's loss of innocence, in which a 9-year-old boy wants to go to Sesame Street to escape his harsh reality; and Terrible Believer, by one-time local theater critic Glenna Bell, a surreal black comedy about a down-and-out actor who celebrates his 40th birthday in Las Vegas.
On May 1 at 8 PM and May 2 at 4 PM: Pawns, by Christian Alexander Nagle, an American tragedy exploring a family on the "bad" side of Brooklyn in the late 1960s, in which a pawnbroker and his daughter share a secret about a local hoodlum.
On May 2 at 8 PM and May 3 at 4 PM: Bleeders, by Hunt Scarritt, an exploration of those who work in, frequent, and hang out in front of a blood clinic.
Edward Albee's University of Houston School of Theatre student productions run at Stages Repertory Theatre April 24-26 and May 1-3. For tickets, which are free, call (713) 527-8243
-- By Peter Szatmary