For Edward Albee, friendship never dies. Twenty years after speaking at the memorial service of his friend, American sculptor Louise Nevelson, Albee resurrected the artist in the form of a character in Occupant. The interview-style play is making its area premiere October 5 - 21 at WingSpan Theatre Company.
Susan Sargeant, the theater’s producing artistic director, will direct, understands Albee’s enchantment with Nevelson. “She was fascinating,” Sargeant said. “Emotionally, aesthetically and as artists, they lined up.”
Nevelson, a Russian-born Jew, emigrated to America as a child. While working as a stenographer at a law office, she met her husband, Charles Nevelson. Once the young couple moved to New York City, she began studying art, earning the disapproval of her parents-in-law. After the birth of their son, the Nevelson family moved to Mount Vernon, New York. Nevelson missed New York’s vibrant artistic community and rejected the conventional role of a socialite wife. She separated from her husband in 1933, divorcing him in 1941 without asking for financial support.
Her art career developed slowly in a male-dominated New York art world. She studied with Hans Hofmann in Munich and began experimenting with lithography and etching. As an impoverished single mother, she gathered wood and other found materials to use in her sculptures. She had her first solo exhibition at Nierendorf Gallery in 1941 and eventually, she became known for monumental monochromatic sculptures, wooden wall pieces and outdoor works.
Nevelson developed a distinct personal style with flamboyant clothing and dramatic eyelashes and began hosting salons to network with other female artists. “She was a pioneer. The only way to truly catapult herself was when she finally gathered other female artists around her,” Sargeant said.
Albee collected art and respected Nevelson as an artist. Like Nevelson, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner did not meet his family’s expectations. Reed and Frances Albee adopted Albee as an infant. His family was wealthy, but the marriage was unhappy and Albee felt alienated as an adopted child. His parents expected him to become a doctor or lawyer, marry and have a family.
Instead, he was a gay playwright who focused on themes of life and death, marriage and children, light versus dark and truth versus illusion. Zoo Story explores isolation in a commercial world. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is about the breakdown of a marriage. A Delicate Balance investigates loss, fear and a desired escape for reality in upper-class suburbia. Learning and growing through pain is at the heart of Albee’s work.
“He tries it all on and then he forces his characters to try it on and he forces the audience to think. It’s entertaining along the way and you are absorbing more than you think,” Sargeant said.
Sargeant met Albee when he received the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2003. She attended a public evening lecture and a private luncheon with him. After lunch, she approached him, mentioned a mutual acquaintance and was amazed to see a sympathetic man who wanted advice on what museums to visit in Fort Worth.
“I saw the very public Albee the night before. You know, the public persona of what we think we expect from Albee: a little wolf-like, biting, witty, intellectual. I met the human,” Sargeant said.
Revealing the humanity of an artistic soul that was Louise Nevelson is at the heart of Occupant. David Benn plays The Man in the show, acting as the Nevelson’s interviewer.
“David said to me when I first cast him, ‘Don’t you think it’s just Albee in so many ways?’ I said, ‘Oh, practically in every way, because the interviewer knows things.’ There’s that kind of menace that goes on in the way she won’t answer the questions. He’s trying to shed the costume, get behind the mask,” Sargeant said. “I think he truly loved her as a human being. It is a valentine to her in so many ways. He still wanted to investigate her because there was still a lot of things he didn’t know or didn’t have the answers to and/or he wanted the world to understand more about her.”
Occupant is part of WingSpan Theatre Company’s 20th anniversary season, dedicated to Albee who died on September 16, 2016. Sargeant has an extensive history of directing Albee’s plays, starting with Seascape at Circle Theatre in 2000. Her growth as an artist is reflected in Occupant.
“I was in my early 40s doing Seascape and now I’m in my early 60s, 20 years down the road. There’s an evolution there. I understood it, but I was a younger person. Now taking on Occupant, with a mature artist, with a mature playwright writing later in his career, and as a mature director,” Sargeant said. “It’s like a revolution of the sun.”
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Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.