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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Culture Watch

Albee Plays the Role Model

April 05, 1998|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thrown out by her family last year when she discovered she is gay, Bella Martinez ran off to Los Angeles. The other day, Martinez seemed a world away from her home in Mexico as she performed a scene from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Among those watching: "Virginia Woolf" playwright and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee.

"What I'm learning here is that, I, too, can make it," a beaming Martinez, 18, said afterward.

This was Edward Albee Day at the Eagles Center in Hollywood, a public school for at-risk gay youth.

Housed in the basement of an office building, the 40-student school consists of two classrooms, an auditorium and some makeshift offices. It has no gym, no student lockers, no windows and not a single unclogged restroom sink.

When Albee took the stage, the small auditorium was packed and standing-room-only, not just with students but also with visitors, such as Martinez's nervous 19-year-old friend, Dean Wood-Salleh.

Nervous, he admitted, because he had merely wanted to accompany Martinez to rehearsal and performance, then listen to Albee speak. Instead, he found himself drafted as a replacement for an absent cast member. So there Wood-Salleh found himself, performing in front of the playwright.

"I didn't even know he was alive. Albee's a legend," Wood-Salleh said.

Some 80% of the students--including Martinez--are homeless, says center founder and teacher Jerry Battey. Ranging in age from 13 to 24, nearly all the students have learned to grow up quickly and "search for what holds relationships together," he said.

"We look at what happens when everything is stripped bare, when we stop playing games," Battey said. "Ultimately, we find that, to a great degree, we are all the same."

That, anyhow, is the idea behind the center, but Battey wants to do more than just teach his students self-respect; he wants to demonstrate it to them, to give them role models.

And so he found out about a program by PEN International, the New York-based writers group, which awards grants to send writers to speak in inner cities and areas "where there's no access to literary programs or cultural events," said Kristin Eliasberg, the program's director.

The group's grants are highly competitive, but Battey's application caught her eye, especially since "the center seems to be doing so much with so little." Thus, three writers, including gay historian Daniel Hurewitz and novelist April Sinclair, were to visit separately this year, with PEN sending copies of their books two months in advance. But Albee was the star attraction.

Said Battey: "The kids look to him and think, 'My God, this man is gay and is successful.' Many kids have fine seeds of writing talent. But they have been put down so much that having someone of this import take time to meet with them is exciting. It might even change some lives."

Before the performance, Dena Anderson, 16, fended off her jitters with aplomb. After all, she had had nearly a week's practice jumping gender lines to play the put-upon husband George. Performing in front of Albee, she insisted, was no big deal. "I'm fond of his work. I like the confusion, the characters trying to figure out who they are, how they fit in."

Albee, who grew up never knowing his biological parents and who once called his adoptive parents "rich [and] deeply fascistically Republican," had had his own problems figuring out who he was.

He made his name in 1962 with "Virginia Woolf," a play whose language breached the existing boundaries of etiquette and which the New York Sunday News panned as "a calculated exercise in depraved obscenity." Albee, 70, had his edge honed by the experience of fierce criticism--an edge that was on display at the center.

He recalled his conversation with Mike Nichols as Nichols was about to direct the film version of the play, which appeared in 1966.

"When you see [the film], you'll see what the play was really about," Nichols told Albee. "But," confessed Albee edgily, "I didn't see what the play was really about." Albee's favorite time to watch one of his plays is before the critics "confuse the audience." After the reviews, he said, "it changes the way the audiences respond to the play."

Albee, whom then-New York Times theater critic Stanley Kaufman criticized for "disguising" gay relationships as straight ones, particularly in "Virginia Woolf," still bristles at what he calls such a "cowardly, criminal" analysis.

"The notion that a gay man writing about a woman is really writing about a man is a form of prejudice," he said.

"Do they call Arthur Miller the famous straight playwright? Has anyone ever heard that? Never! So why should I be called the famous gay playwright?"

Further, he warned against the "ghettoization" of writers who are gay, who would thus be restricted to writing about gay themes.

"There's a difference between a gay writer and a writer who is gay," he said.

He also defended the visceral power of the play.

"The fact is that a play is real and dangerous, a present-time experience," he told the students. "Try splattering someone's brains out in a play [as is frequently done in film], and the audience would run out of the theater, screaming and vomiting. Film relies so much on image, there is an element of unreality. In a play, everything's real. There's no artifice."

The overarching theme of his 26 plays, he said, is "about why people cut themselves off. . . . Too many people, too constricted by social norms, miss out by not living a full life. Then, they get to the end of life and realize they haven't lived.

"The important thing," concluded Albee, who lives with his partner of 28 years in a Manhattan loft, "is to be yourself absolutely. When I die, I would like to realize I haven't missed out on too much."

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