Photo by Johnny Knight
I’ve loved Playwright Edward Albee since high school, when I picked up a resale copy of “Seascape,” his absurdist work about a pair of human-size lizards processing their relationship issues. I was instantly hooked, and not just because it made about as much sense as anything else going on in my sixteen-year-old life.
Years later, in 2002, I got spur-of-the-moment discount tickets to “The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia.” Serendipity incarnate. Turned out I’d landed smack in the middle of the Broadway opening night with Albee himself in attendance. By turns shocking, funny and heart-rending, the show was startlingly current, boundary pushing in new and important ways.
Our Town Edward Albee has courted controversy for over fifty years. How does he stay current?
James Bohnen Perhaps being gay in a period when society wasn't accepting contributed to his focus, but I wouldn't presume to conclude that. Albee pushes boundaries because [as] a passionate and engaged man he has held to his belief that the theatre is a place where the norms of society should be constantly exposed and examined. He is a man of great trust in the theater, bless him.
OT What attracted you to the play?
JB We had hoped to do “Virginia Woolf,” but heard Steppenwolf was, so I decided to read “The Goat.” My hair stood on end. It was so bold and tight and challenging. The action took you on a downward spiral and yet it was filled with a wonderful balance of love and loss. I fell in love at first read.
OT What unique challenges does it present?
JB Many, but hardest is to keep the audience from deciding early whose side to be comfortably on. I was determined nobody watching should be able to say, "Well, that is so far from my own experience that I will just check out." The other challenge is to allow the actors enough time and understanding to risk as much as they obviously must to make the audience believe in the struggle. This is exacerbated by the intimacy of the playing space at Greenhouse; it is both thrilling and harrowing for actor and audience to have pain that close.
OT Albee is known for over-the-top fight scenes. How did you humanize moments of high drama?
JB We approached them as simply and truthfully as possible. If violent action isn't fully grounded in an inability to express yourself any other way--at least with Albee's intelligent characters--then it seems gratuitous and gives the audience reason to distance themselves. We built each moment with as much emotional precision as we could to make the audience wince with a sense of "I might have done the same thing in that moment.”
OT What about the china breaking sequence?
JB [That] always presents problems. One day in rehearsal we were exploring regular terracotta pots and Annabel [Armour] threw one and it just exploded. I was twenty feet away, and a shard hit me. Needless to say, they were never considered again. We experimented a great deal with breakage issues: color, safety, all the usual suspects. We borrowed some fine pottery from various friends to make the room look elegant [and] had our breakable stuff built by a potter at the Lill Street Gallery and Studio. The challenge was to have the breakables not seem obvious in the immediate context.
OT Any favorite lines or moments?
JB For me, favorite moments come and go, but: the wry and battered exchange deep in the battle scene when Stevie says to Martin, “I wish you weren't so smart,” and he replies, “Yes, I wish you weren't smart either." Another is when Martin is passionately arguing with his friend Ross late in the play and he has to acknowledge how much he has hurt his son, but that the son still loves him. That gets me every time.
OT Describe your directing style.
JB I build trust by letting the actors see I know my way into the various levels of the text. I encourage them to explore by not judging too early. I tell plenty of jokes, frequently cry, and am always listening to the words and connecting them obsessively, thought by thought, and then encouraging emotion to fill the space created by the words.
OT This is your last play as artistic director of Remy Bumppo. What’s next?
JB It was wonderful to make such a challenging show my last. It represents all I hold dear in the theater: rich language, intelligent people grappling with large issues, unexpected humor, vivid arguing. As for what's next, I am opening a bookstore; Arcadia Books in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where I direct in the summers at American Players Theatre. I will continue to direct for them, and here in Chicago if somebody comes along with an interesting project. I’ll [split] my time between the two places and keep my ears and eyes open for adventures.
"The Goat" runs through May 8. Purchase tickets here.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez