Sometimes you come across a photo that makes you stop and look, I mean really look, and wonder, and look again. That’s what this photo did to me a few days ago. Maybe it was the sepia tint giving it gravitas, or how the figures stand out against a blurred cityscape, a hint of the ethereal. Maybe it’s their collective youth and implicit aspirations.
Such evocative pictures can be found in worn-edged boxes in junk shops all across the land. I have no idea what the shutter speed would have been. Let’s say 1/250 second. A camera caught that invisible moment in their young lives. And now a half-century later the image lands in front of me. A caption did no more than estimate a year (1965) and provide names.
The place is downtown New York City. The overcoats and shiny pavement read as damp winter day. The lady’s plaid suit and the men’s ties tell us the image is not casual; an occasion is being recorded. I recognized three of the names and the rakish fellow standing apart to the left, cigarette and scarf dangling. He is the great American playwright Edward Albee, who played a brief, important role in my writing life. He died last year at the age of 88. The others are (left to right) Lanford Wilson, Paul Foster, Kenneth Pressman, Lawrence Osgood, Adrienne Kennedy, and Lee Kalcheim.
I was intrigued enough to do some digging. Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened on Broadway in 1962 and was such a success that its author and coproducers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder were making a bundle. That windfall enabled Albee, Barr and Wilder to found the Playwrights Unit in 1963, with the mission of encouraging the work of new dramatists. Additional funding came later from the Rockefeller Foundation. Former member John Guare recalls that what Albee did with his royalties from Virginia Woolf was unprecedented: “He leased a theatre on Vandam Street. Plays would rehearse for two or three weeks, play four or five performances, and not be reviewed. It was a place to learn.” All his life Albee was generous to other writers, particularly those struggling early in their career.
During its eight years of existence, the Playwrights Unit (along with La Mama and Caffe Cino) was New York’s boot camp for dramatists. Some 100 plays were presented, including works by Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Paul Foster, Jean-Claude Van Itallie, Israel Horovitz, Terence McNally, Adrienne Kennedy, John Guare, Megan Terry, Paul Zindel, and A. R. Gurney Jr. Its two most successful productions were Dutchman by Amiri Baraka and The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley.
I suspect the photo documents members of the Playwrights Unit, perhaps outside the theatre on Vandam Street in the West Village. This would explain why Albee stands apart, he being the founder and funder. The mid-60s were a particularly fertile period for grassroots theatre in New York. (Cheap downtown rents helped.)
Still curious about these young artists, here’s what I dug up about their journeys after the Playwrights Unit.
Lanford Wilson (1937-2011)
The most produced playwright of the group, he wrote over 20 plays, including Talley’s Folly which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980. Several of his plays ran on Broadway and three received Tony Award nominations for Best Play. He also co-founded, with Marshall Mason and others, Circle Repertory Company in New York. He became plagued by alcoholism.
He would become a founding member of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, located on the Lower East Side. He served as its president. One of his plays was Balls.
His plays include Girl In Green Stockings, Hunting the Jingo Bird, Insider’s Price, Diary of a Hitman, Threesome, and Rückstände. He has been produced at Playwrights Horizons, Cherry Lane Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and elsewhere.
Novelist, essayist, Arctic traveler, and director as well as playwright. His novel Midnight Sun was published in 2005. Soap, The Rook, and Pigeons are among his plays.
Her surrealism-tinged dramas have addressed race and violence in American society. She is best known for her first major play, Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), which Albee coproduced (also hosted the opening party). Funnyhouse was recently revived at Signature Theatre in New York. Now 85 years old, Kennedy still writes and next year her new play He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box will open at Theater for a New Audience in New York.
He went on to write for television and film. Two shows he worked on were “Sanford and Son” and “All In The Family.” For the latter he received an Emmy Award in 1972.
Edward Albee’s largesse gave these young artists faith in themselves and helped strengthen their craft. As my mini-bios reveal, the training took; all stayed on the path of dramatic writing in one form or another.
These writers Albee befriended are 10 to 20 years senior to me. While they were posing on that West Village street, I was starting high school in Salt Lake City. As I look at the picture I can’t help but imaginatively place myself into it. What would that look like? Post-college I pursued a much different path – starting and managing companies, raising a family. Not until I was 49 did I write my first play. I didn’t meet Edward Albee until 2001. Now that I am focused on theatre full-time, “What if?” is a question I ask all the time. What if I had been a 30-year-old playwright in the West Village in 1965? What if?
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