Legendary playwright offers his thoughts on the theater business

The man described as America's greatest living playwright visits Royce Hall tomorrow night to discuss the power of the arts as a catalyst for change. Edward Albee spoke with KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde about his five decades in the theater.

Kitty Felde: In an alternate universe, Edward Albee might have been Ira Glass, spinning stories on public radio – and not on the stage. Albee says after he was thrown out of college, he was hired by WNYC – the public radio station in New York City.

Edward Albee: Writing continuity for the classical music programs.
Felde: What exactly does that mean?
Albee: Oh, it means trying to remember when Beethoven was born and how he old he was when he wrote the 7th quartet, and things like that.

Felde: But Albee longed to write more than just liner notes. First, he tried fiction.

Albee: I realize I wrote my first novel when I was 15 and looked at it and realized that can't be real. Nobody can write a novel that bad. So then I wrote another one and discovered that the first one was no mistake.

Felde: So Albee turned to verse.

Albee: Thornton Wilder read my poetry and told me to write plays. But I think he was trying to save poetry from me.

Felde: Albee became an overnight success when his one act "The Zoo Story" opened in Berlin in 1959 and moved to off-Broadway a year later. Two years after that came "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" It won the Tony Award and was selected for the Pulitzer Prize.

But the Pulitzer advisory board objected to the play's profanity and sexuality – and declined to give out a drama award that year. Today, it's not language that strikes an audience – it's the structure.

Albee: It's interesting that the three-act play has basically gone away. I think it was partly commercial that people didn't want to be that long in the theater.

Felde: Albee shifted with the times, switching to the two-act structure, and even adopting the current fashion: the long one act for his play "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?"

Albee: I think maybe the idea of letting an audience off the hook twice in the course of a theatrical evening is dangerous. If they get up out of their seats and go and pee and then have a couple of whiskeys and talk to their friends about where the car is, you know they come back in and they've lost contact with what's going on.

Felde: There's been another change in the theater – the disappearance of the critic. Los Angeles lost three theater critics just in the last few months. Edward Albee isn't worried.

Albee: If the audience were more educated, we wouldn't need critics at all because people would tell each other – good people would tell each other what to see and what to stay away from.

Felde: Albee doesn't care much for critics because for much of his career, the critics haven't cared much for him. Robert Brustein, who's covered theater for "The New Republic" for 50 years, once wrote that one of Albee's plays was "really quite an awful piece" – and that Albee himself had "the preposterous idea" that he was "prophet and metaphysician of our disorders." The playwright shrugs.

Albee: The one thing I decided when I was very young is I never wanted to be an employee. I always wanted to do what I wanted to the way I wanted to do it. And when you have that attitude, you take your chances.

Sometimes people are going to like what you do, sometimes they aren't. So you shrug and go about your business – if you're convinced you've done the best job you can.

Felde: Albee looks down his nose at the current crop of Broadway hits like Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid.

Albee: To see a bunch of escapist junk – one of those Disney musicals or something like that, it's a total waste of time. That's not even entertaining. You can do better than that by watching television.

Felde: Not that Edward Albee has much time to watch TV. He's working on two new plays. But of his entire catalogue of plays, which Albee work does Edward Albee like best?

Albee: One of the two that I haven't written yet. Because I haven't made any mistakes in those yet.

Felde: Edward Albee speaks at UCLA's Royce Hall Saturday night at 8.