Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.
It’s not that I don’t have a lot to say about the passing of the extraordinary playwright Edward Albee, it’s just that smarter people and better writers have already said everything I could think to say, and a whole lot more that I didn’t know.
I don’t have the perspective or skill to write artfully about Albee’s staggering contributions to, and gravity-changing effect on, American theater. I don’t have access to profound critical insights. I can say that his plays offered me some thrilling evenings in theaters and classrooms; that his work entertained, inspired and scared me; and that I’ll always be grateful for the way his plays and their performances crashed into me. I've been reading, with deep admiration, the critics and scholars who have put Albee's work in perspective and context, but I don't know as much as they do. I wish I did.
But I do have a story, and I think it's a pretty good one. It does involve Albee, but it's less about him than it is about going to the theater, and spending time with actors, and what wonderful and everlasting memories that can create.
So it’s the spring of 2002, on an early afternoon on a Wednesday in New York City. I’ve been invited by a Cable Network That Shall Not Be Named, which has expressed strong interest in one of HMS' ideas for an arts-related TV series, to pitch the idea in person, so I am allowing myself to feel at least semi-optimistic that this might lead to something good.
I’m walking briskly to their offices, which it's easy to do when you think something good is about to happen, when my phone rings, lead to an abrupt conversation confirming that it's not.
Without any explanation or offer to reschedule, the meeting’s been cancelled. I duck into a nearby hotel lobby and sink into both a plush leather chair and a very bad mood.
Moments like this aren’t just disappointing. They’re a little bit humiliating. (And this is yet another example of how developing TV show and series can feel an awful lot like dating.)
Still, the dust always settles, and when it does, there is a moment that follows, a window in the gray when it’s possible to regain composure and buck up.
That moment arrives. I pass on it, and in fact do not buck up, and instead opt to sit and stew for another ten minutes. I am not yet convinced that sitting and stewing will not in some way be productive.
But then that moment gives me another shot, and returns to tap me on the shoulder, asking if I might like to reconsider. It has asked so nicely that I can't say no. It's a very sweet moment, after all. So I decide to haul my self-pitying carcass off of the plush hotel lobby couch and head out the door.
The moment has reminded me that this is, after all, a Wednesday afternoon in New York City, which means that somewhere nearby there’s a theater where a show is about to start. Where there’s a theater, there’s life, and where there’s life, there’s hope.
You’d think a moment like that might call for a razzle dazzle musical or a kooky farce, not an unsettling super dark comedy drama by the man who brought us Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff. But that's what the moment had in mind.
So I grab a ticket from the Times Square TKTS booth to see Edward Albee’s bizarre, unsettling The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and I hustle over to the Golden Theater to take in a play about a man who breaks the news to his wife that he’s fallen desperately, profoundly and quite physically in love with a goat (after which, it is my understanding, things get really strange). I find my seat in the back row of the center section and sit down.
The blue mood settles in again. I'm mad that I'm here, and not in the offices of the Cable Network That Shall Not Be Named, where I should be sealing the deal for a new show. In some kind of pointless protest, I flat out DEFY Mr. Albee and The Goat to lift my spirits.
This is not always a bad way to watch a show. To issue a demand that a something transform your mood is to accept the possibility that transformation is possible, and transformation is a big part of what the theater is about.
But you have to really allow for the possibility and not already have made up your mind that it can't or it won't, and right now I'm not entirely sure I'm capable of letting this happen.
I'm also extraordinarily aware you can't get much more "First World Problem" than this. So now, sitting there waiting for the lights to dim and staring blanks at the back of the seat in front of me, I feel like a self-pitying jerk.
But then I hear something, a familiar voice, one of those distinctive voices that, when it comes at you from a stage or a screen, you immediately recognize to which brilliant British actor it belongs, but when you perceive it in the course of your day-to-day life, it sounds almost too powerful and beautiful to believe, something that could not possibly exist in the real world.
I look up to see who's sitting in front of me, and, yes indeed, it's Alan Rickman.
It doesn’t take long for me to see that he is sitting next to Lindsay Duncan, his co-star in Private Lives (which had just opened on Broadway a couple of weeks before), and that other members of the production are sitting with them too. They must not have a Wednesday matinee today. (How cool is it that when they have an afternoon off from performing their show, they decide to spend it by going to see someone else's?)
The play starts, and what a spectacularly strange, riveting, engrossing and absolutely bizarre one it turns out to be, this provocative creation called The Goat, whose characters and relationships are exploding and imploding before my eyes. From the safety of my seat in the audience, it's a weirdly rollicking good time. And I need all the safety I can get as I watch The Goat’s increasingly unsettling portrait of a marriage collapsing like a black hole. This may not be how most failed marriages go off the rails, but for all I know, this is how it feels when they do. I'm reminded that this is one of those exhilarating things stories -- that they give us the freedom to explore not what something is but how it feels.
And so, lost in a great story being told well, I'm feeling better asThe Goat spills its secrets, lies and revelations all over the stage. I'm riveted by how staggeringly good Bill Pullman and especially Mercedes Ruehl are, as the couple whose marriage is going farther off the rails than any pair I'll ever meet (I hope). I am loving this chance to breathe in shock, tenderness and ache (and, yes, believe it or not, share laughter, a lot of it) with a bunch of strangers. Most of them seem to be digging it, but some are really upset by what they’re seeing. You can feel all of that bouncing off the walls of theater, and it is very, very cool. As this is happening, I recall something Steppenwolf ensemble member Randy Arney told me a few years earlier, during an interview I did with him for our PBS special about Steppenwolf called 25 Years on the Edge. He said that you never really know where the cutting edge is until a few people fall over it. Some in the audience are doing just that, but they are in the minority. Most who’ve caught today’s matinee seem as delightfully jolted, disoriented and entertained as I am.
One of those is, or at least appears to be, Alan Rickman, who, as the lights come up, exchanges a look with Lindsay Duncan that, if I’m reading it correctly, seems to ask, “I’m not sure what the hell we just saw but I’m glad we were here.” Perhaps because this is exactly what I’m feeling, and because I want to be at least a little bit like him, I could be projecting, but I think I got that one right.
Now it’s time to make our way out of the theater, and we all begin walking down our rows, which means that I’m essentially walking side by side with Rickman as we make our way to the aisle. Dozens of people are approaching, so it’s clear he’s been recognized. Before he can exit his row, he’ll clearly have to either accommodate the theater fans who want his autograph, or he’ll have to make a bit of a scene bursting through them. Unsurprisingly, he graciously begins signing.
So great is the number of fans congregating at the end of Rickman’s row that they’ve blocked mine, too, the net effect being that I’m standing next to him, almost shoulder to shoulder, awkwardly trying to stay out of his way while he signs programs, napkins, ticket stubs, gum wrappers, anything that will take ink.
Eventually the crowd begins to dissipate, and he looks up at me, sees me standing there holding my program, and offers to sign it.
I’m not an autograph guy. I work around some well-known people, but I don’t ask for autographs and I don’t collect them for friends. Not only does the idea of the autograph seem kind of selfish, as if I’m taking something from them or trying to enhance my own life at the expense of their time, it also doesn’t seem to be the most memorable way to spend time with someone. Wouldn’t it be more fun to talk? Share a laugh or a story? Talk about our favorite songs, or movies, or actors? Or even what a nice day it is?
So as Alan Rickman offers to sign my program, I say, “No, that’s okay, I’m not asking for your autograph. But I’d love to know what you thought of the play.”
Now, again, I could be imagining or projecting a bit, but I could swear I see a small smile cross his face and a little gleam pop from his eyes. Maybe he’s actually relieved, or even happy, to have a real conversation about the play we just saw, even with -- maybe especially with? -- a stranger, who just loves theater, feels a bit changed by what we just saw together and wants to talk about it. Isn't that the reason we all came here?
So that's what we do. We chat for about five minutes or so, which is a lot of time, really, when you think about it.
We talk about The Goat, and Alan Rickman is as gracious, thoughtful and exuberant about having come to a play as you'd hope. In fact, in this moment he seems just like me. Just like all of us, I bet, even those people tumbling over Randy Arney’s edge, who may be really upset about what they’ve just seen but who also, I guarantee you, are feeling very, very alive on the planet.
“I’m amazed by her,” he says, referring to Mercedes Ruehl's performance with genuine awe. “The information her character receives should by all rights render a person absolutely speechless. And yet she is required to talk about it, almost continuously, for more than an hour. How did she do that? How did she convince us that talking is what a person might do, rather than screaming, or collapsing, or running out the door, or anything other than talking?” And then he says again, “I’m just amazed by her.”
It's the fact that he seems so happy and excited by this that makes me cherish this moment so much. To hear one of the great actors of our generation enjoy, and share with a complete stranger the enjoyment of being an audience member, a fan, an artist and a colleague. To listen to an accomplished artist like this speak so generously of other actors – this is genuinely lovely. (Take note, cynics – All About Eve and Smash aside, the performing arts world actually can be on one of the most supportive and gracious communities in the world.)
Now I’m leaving the theater, and life feels... good. Two hours ago I felt alone. Then I went to a play and had a chat. Now I feel connected to everyone and everything.
So, yes, as promised, this hasn’t turned out to be about Edward Albee, and, as advertised, it contains precisely zero revelatory insights into The Goat, Virginia Wolff or any other of Albee’s works.
Still, despite my lack of academic prowess, I'm glad for the chance to share how grateful I am for moments like this, and why I'm so happy to be walking into almost any theater for almost any reason. I’ll always have a special place in my memory for The Goat and an appreciation for the experience with which it graced me. I'll forever be thankful that Albee conjured this jolting, unnerving tale, that it appeared at that certain time in that certain place, and that it nudged me out of my self-indulgent stupor, leaving a mark that is… what’s the opposite of a scar? I don’t know if there’s a word for that. But that’s what this is, and I'm glad it still shows.