Jonathan Albert spills Silverstein’s attic

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“An Adult Evening with Shel Silverstein” opens Feb. 4 in Yulman Theater and wil continue for four days. (Courtesy of Ben Lucas)

Starting Feb. 4, 2016, Yulman Theater will host a four-day run of “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein.” The play, which is a collection of surreal vignettes written by the late poet, will be directed by Adjunct Professor Jonathan Albert. Albert is currently in his second year at Union, and has previously directed “Adult Evening,” and last winter’s “Twelve Angry Men.” Albert also teaches the theater courses Acting I and Script to Performance. I sat down with Albert to talk about bringing Silverstein’s voice to the stage.

BL: How did this play come about?

JA: Shel Silverstein is well-known for “Light in the Attic,” “Missing Piece” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” Much less well-known is that he had a 30-plus year career cartooning for Playboy magazine. That’s where he made his living. He also wrote two volumes of eight-to-ten minute plays. One of those volumes is called “Shel’s Shorts” and the other volume is “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein.” So he was a playwright and he was a poet, but he was also a cartoonist and an artist, and he spent a lot of time putting his poetry to music so he was also a musician. He had a band, and they would play and record music on a houseboat.

With “Adult Evening,” I took different plays from different places, I’ve thrown his poetry into it—we’re using his music in the show—and you hear his voice at the end. I’m trying to incorporate all the different facets of Silverstein into this piece of theater.

BL: Are these stories interconnected?

JA: There’s definitely a throughline. My throughline is about relationships: how we, as humans, relate to each other on a very basic level. This is an absurd world we are creating. We are opening up a page of Shel Silverstein for these actors to jump off [sic]. So it’s absurdism. It’s got a crazy element to it, but it’s also, on a very basic human level, how we talk to each other and how we learn from each other.

There’s a scene with a husband and wife, a scene between business owner and customer, a scene between two guys trying to figure out the world they live in. Through the relationships we have, we learn about humanity and civilization.

BL: Given that you’re basing the look of the play heavily on Silverstein’s work, do you allow room for any spontaneity in the set design?

JA: It’s constantly changing and it’s constantly growing. One of the plays is called “Garbage Bags”, and it’s about a woman who refuses to take her garbage out. There’s also another actor, who is this post-mortem ghost of her telling the story of how she won’t take her garbage out. But it needed something. It needed more action and more of an ensemble nature. So, last night we blocked a scene where the entire cast comes out and places garbage bags around the actor one by one and, by the end, she is consumed by this pile of garbage and she dies. I have to see these pieces on their feet and then start adding different parts of the set.

BL: A lot of Shel’s poetry is very punchy and sort of skips around. How did you interpret that on the stage?

JA: We created a bit of an absurd world [gestures to the set]. We’re making sense out of the jumping around and choppiness of it, and our world can be like that.

We’re living in a bit of an absurd time right now. Our vision is, what it would be like if you took a page of, say, “Light in the Attic” and took those images and ideas and popped them up off the page. [The set] has the appearance of an attic and all this stuff you’d find lying around.

What scene could you create from that? It’s hard having these ideas and seeing them in your head and then hoping, in three weeks, people will understand it.

I feel a great responsibility to do justice to Silverstein. It was a huge part of my childhood and my life. I read my kids these stories constantly. At least, the more appropriate ones. I’ve been saying this over and over again, we’re trying to ‘spill his attic’ onto the stage, whatever that looks like. As borderline psychotic as his world is, we do learn from it.

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