October 24, 2012

The current revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened on October 13th, the fiftieth anniversary of the show’s Broadway debut, and has been greeted with the kind of praise usually reserved for Derek Jeter. Although credited as the brainchild of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where the production first appeared in 2010, the show was in fact a collaboration between the Chicago outfit and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage.

Woolf played Arena in the spring, as part of an Edward Albee festival that marked the decades-old theater’s first season in their new home, the stately Mead Center for American Theater. Certain thoughtful members of the New York theater scene have complained that, as far as credit for the production goes, Arena has gotten stiffed. To right that wrong, we at Bullett put in a call to Edgar Dobie, executive director at Arena Stage.

Tell me about this production’s trip from Chicago, to D.C., to New York. How did it wind up at Arena Stage?

We produced Virginia Woolf as part of the Edward Albee festival, so for us it had a huge arc, and was a really important moment for the theater. Edward is one of those authors who’s involved, and who has absolute right of approval around things like selection of director and casting. Some authors don’t work that way. They write it and allow it to be interpreted whatever way you want. Albee was involved in approving Pam MacKinnon as a director, and he was here for rehearsals and saw the show several times.

Pam’s dream cast was [Steppenwolf ensemble members] Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, so that led to reaching out to Martha Lavey and David Hawkanson at Steppenwolf. We discovered they had wanted to do Albee’s work, and that they just hadn’t done it because they couldn’t reconcile Edward Albee’s way of needing to approve everything with their ensemble format. What we offered was a director, Pam MacKinnon, who they wanted to work with. The vision of the author and the director began to fit like a glove.

The play was very much carefully and lovingly produced at Steppenwolf, but the spark and the opportunity for it, from our perspective, originated here. We’re happy to share it.

Has the play changed since it was first produced in 2010?

It’s exactly the same. It’s a replica of that production. Of course, certain physical adjustments had to be made, but it’s the same creative team. Pam had a real feel for the work, and she put together a wonderful production. We’ve had some of our staff and some of our trustees up to see it. We loved it here, and they loved it there.

Pam has earned praise for finding subtlety in a play that, in the wrong hands, can turn cartoonish. How did she find her way there?

Virginia Woolf has the kind of nuance and subtlety that’s one of the things I love about really wonderful plays—that they stand up to more than one interpretation, and can reveal things that even the authors didn’t know about. It starts with the cast. It may sound a bit fey to say, but a lot of it was just discovered in the rehearsal hall. Tracy had played the role before, and Amy had directed a production, so they were coming back to the play.

There’s something about this production that makes it seem like these people had all done the play before, and wanted to try it a different way.

You know, you hit a certain point where you realize that what we do is so perishable. A play closes, and then you figure out, Oh! Now I know how to do it! It puts a lot of pressure on someone to try to get it figured out the first time, right? And especially something that’s so personal and so collaborative.

I’ve been doing this for forty years, and it still totally fascinates me. I have a three year-old daughter and I read her stories, and she says, “That one’s old, Daddy.” I have to say, it never got old for me.

When a production transfers from Arena to Broadway, does money come back in your direction? Or is it mostly artistic credit?

It’s mainly artistic credit. On the business side of things, Steppenwolf and Arena shared in the cost of preproduction. You bear your own costs when it’s in your own theater. If it has a future, as this production did, Steppenwolf and Arena have an opportunity to recover some of those costs. David Hawkanson’s done a masterful job of protecting that opportunity for us.

But in the end, credit isn’t why we do it. The whole resident theater movement was founded on the notion that you’re producing for the community that you’re in. I’m just thrilled that it’s been so well embraced, in the city that a playwright friend of mine described as “the front line for the end of the world.” It’s an important arena to succeed in. Fifty years on, it’s still finding a new audience.

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