Out on a Limb with Roger Glade

Playwright's Showcase in Houston is doing what no one else is. The question is, does it need doing?

May 1973By Comments

ROGER GLADE COVETS—OF ALL things—the parapets of the new Allen Center complex in downtown Houston. “I could stage a marvelous Macbeth on those parapets!” he says. He probably could. Glade is resourceful, audacious and irreverent—a theater director who has for the past four years been running a one-man theatrical corporation that provides Texas theatergoers with plays they can’t see anywhere else.

His Playwright’s Showcase offers only first-run shows. “I’ll consider any play,” says Glade, “as long as it hasn’t been done before in Houston.”

Glade's real ambition is to develop new playwrights, to stage their untried scripts. But when original scripts don't show up, he does plays by people like Megan Terry, Leonard Melfi, Joe Orton, Peter Weiss and Israel Horovitz—playwrights familiar to theater devotees but not necessarily to the casual playgoer—and classics—like King Lear—that no one else seems to want to take on.

These plays are staged in a small yellow building on South Main called Autry House, which houses the Episcopal Ministry to Rice and the Texas Medical Center. The room where Glade stages his plays has little theatrical mystique. A big, bare open room in which sound bounces and light runs wild, it looks like what it is by day: a cafeteria set up to provide students, doctors and nurses with cheap Mom-style lunches. But by night it is available—not perfect but available —to Glade and, like the parapets of Allen Center, is a practicable resource.

Glade's inventiveness is impressive. In 1969, he staged Peter Weiss' The Investigation as "...a hellish carnival. The background was silver; the costumes were black and the actors' faces were painted white and black. The judges were in white..." The dialogue in that play was lifted unchanged from court records of the Auschwitz trials in Germany, which seen at its most absurd and outrageous could certainly be interpreted as a "hellish carnival," but it took Glade to mount it as such.

The characters in his production of Waiting for Godot were transformed into clowns getting ready for a performance, making up their faces and getting into costumes while saying their lines. The show was a success; the attitude of one critic was that since the technique worked so well, why hadn't someone thought of it before?

In another Peter Weiss play, Discourse/Vietnam, a harsh political indictment, Glade removed the tables from the room and pushed the chairs flat against the wall. Why? "To give people the impression of coming into a prison camp. Up against the wall that way, with no one in front of them or behind them, people were intimidated. That's why I did it, to intimidate the audience. When a guard walked by and looked at someone in the audience, there was no way out: that guard was looking into one person's eyes and each one was accused."

On entering that show, spectators were required to fill out a name and address card and have their hands stamped with a number, like a concentration camp tattoo. "I didn't really care what they wrote on those cards," says Glade. "I didn't care whether it was the truth or not. The idea was to intimidate. To reduce." When one woman refused to have her hand stamped, she was turned away at the door.

His February show this season, an adaptation by New Yorker DeLoss Brown of Henry Fielding's Jonathon Wild, includes make-up in white, lavender, red and black. Wild's costumes include a purple satin coat with gold sequins, a purple see-through shirt and a red-plumed hat (the plume made from an actor's pen). Color, space and audience also come within Glade's range of resources. When he puts them to use with such absolute outrageousness—well, it works! Sometimes the results are glorious: they're never dull.

New playwrights aren't as hard to come by as might be expected. This season, Glade plans to stage six original scripts, only one of them, the Brown play, by a playwright outside the Houston area.

The playwrights Glade uses are a diverse and interesting lot. Jim Bernhard is director of the Society for Performing Arts in Houston and would like to be a fulltime playwright. Glade has staged five of his plays at Playwright's Showcase and is planning another for this spring. Bernhard has sent his plays to producers in New York and to the Alley in Houston and has received the standard rejection slips. He is a good writer with a facile flair for comedy dialogue. "Anytime Jim Bernhard writes a play," says Glade, "I'll stage it."

It was after the production of two one-act plays by Bernhard in 1969 that, according to Glade, "the press began to take my work seriously. After that show, they covered my shows regularly." (For the past two Thanksgivings running, Ann Holmes, Fine Arts editor of The Chronicle, has in her annual wrap-up given thanks for the efforts of Roger Glade and Playwright's Showcase.)

Albert Green is a former violinist who, after 30 years with the Philadelphia and Houston Symphony orchestras, put down his bow and bought an apartment house or two. But Green had the theater bug. A few years later he had written a monstrously long play, the story of his life, which he submitted to the Alley, to Paul Baker of the Dallas Theater Center, to friends in New York and, finally, to Roger Glade. The script was 162 pages when Glade began cutting it. Green accepted the changes, knowing that he had either a book on his hands or an unworkable play. The story was familiar, the life of a poor Jewish immigrant's son, a misfit whom no one understands. But the writing was honest and the theatricality, as staged by Glade, brought the story out of its mediocrity. Green later submitted the play to David Merrick and other producers, all of whom returned the script unaccepted. Green was disillusioned. He went back to managing apartment houses and says he won't write any more plays.

Paul John Stephens has been staging his own plays, at his own expense, for years. A postal employee, he rented space and staged his plays for friends and a few interested spectators until his money ran out. The best thing about his play Her Hair Down Singing was its title. It was an unqualified failure at Autry House in December. Glade had asked for second act changes, and Stephens disappeared. The changes did not come and neither did the playwright. He never saw a performance of the play and those who did weren't happy about it. The play made little sense, which Glade knew, and as a result his direction was as aimless as the play. But after casting the show and getting well into rehearsals, Glade felt committed to doing it. One night a performance had to be cancelled because, like the playwright, people stayed home.

Eighteen months ago, Charles Schmidt, who is head of the drama department at Sam Houston State College, submitted his play The Obit Man to Glade for possible production. Glade liked the play but asked for changes which Schmidt was not willing to make. "After all," says Schmidt, "I've been in theatre a lot longer than he has and I know just as much about it as he and perhaps more." The script went to Houston's Theater Suburbia where they changed not only the title of the play but the script as well, and without the permission or knowledge of Schmidt. Opening night was quite a shock for the playwright.

New Plays. Original scripts...who needs them? They don't make money. (Glade: "It goes without saying that new plays don't make money. The best you can hope for is to break even. Maybe.") Glade's financial successes have all been by experienced playwrights. Summertree by Ron Cowan in 1969, The Investigation, Godot and Lear were his biggest hits, but the size of the audience at Autry is limited to 75 at most, depending on the number of chairs Glade can fit into the space he decides to allot the audience, which varies. The largest amount collected at the box-office was close to $200. Glade takes what he needs for his own living expenses from the gate receipts and the rest goes back into Playwright's Showcase, which is registered as a non-profit educational corporation. The profits from Lear were completely wiped out by the deficit brought on by Her Hair Down Singing. Yet Glade persists in doing untried plays. Why?

"I have," he explains, "pursued and developed a strong image of what Playwright's Showcase is. People know what I am doing here before they come. My image is strong and well-established. I am in the business of selling new plays."

To watch Glade conduct a rehearsal is to see an exercise in revelation by trial and error. Like some mad Hercules Poirot searching for the final clue to a murder mystery, Glade dances, pounces, sings and whispers—looking for the play, searching for the performance. Glade explains to actors, in effective, non-theatrical terms, what he thinks the play is and then sits back to watch the actor reveal to him the play as performance. His eye for theatrical effect is remarkable, and when he suggests a fine-reading or a sight gag that works—then Glade laughs harder than anyone.

"The play's the thing," he says, "only as performed, not as script."

This one-man show annoys some actors. "I heard about Roger Glade a long time ago," said one actress during a rehearsal, "and his reputation for temper tantrums scared me. I wouldn't come over here for a long time. But he does do good plays, and he does get good performances from people and that's why I'm here. But some nights after rehearsal I go home and cry." Still, actors consistently show up in numbers for his casting calls, and he cast Jonathon Wild from his bulging files with no auditions necessary. That's the way he likes it: a stable of playwrights, a stable of actors.

Glade has a small but faithful following who attend Playwright's Showcase productions (let's be clear, most theaters would consider his "small" non-existent; the house sometimes consists of five or six people.) Even for the devoted, entering Autry can be quite an adventure. The room does have a stage, but Glade rarely uses it. He decides where the playing area will be for each show and it is impossible, even for regulars, to predict where he'll put it next.

Roger Glade is usually at every performance to supervise ticket sales ($2.50 and $3.50), watch over actors, coffee preparations, and patrons looking for bathrooms (upstairs, down a dark hall), and in general cluck over his creation like a mama hen over her brood. When someone inadvertently steps into the playing area, as someone often does, and then out of curiosity fingers a prop or part of the set, Glade promptly reprimands the trespasser with "Please...!" or "Dear..." Which is all it takes.

Right now Glade is in debt to Autry House for back rent. His current one-man fund-raising drive is designed to pay off this debt and to help finance his spring program. His alliance with Autry was formed in the spring of 1969 when, after graduating from Rice, finishing classwork towards a master's degree at Columbia and directing in theatres in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington and New York, Glade decided to come back to Houston and form his own group. The chaplain at Autry, John Worrell, had been a friend of Glade's during his years at Rice and the two worked out a deal with Glade staging plays at Autry in the manner of the off-Broadway coffee houses of the time. Eventually, Playwright's Showcase became a separate corporation. Autry House charges it rent to pay for time, space and utilities. Playwright's Showcase has no connection with the Episcopal Church or Autry House, except for the diocese's unspoken support by allowing him use of the building.

Glade doesn't stay at Autry because he likes the pinched circumstances. Being an artist in a garret long ago lost whatever appeal it might have had for him. He would jump at the chance to direct in a building as grand and imposing as the Dallas Theater Center or the Alley—or the parapets of Allen Center, for that matter—where he could indulge himself in luxury. It would be for him like sitting surrounded by mountains of chocolate and vats of whipped cream and all of it his, even the cherry. Without doubt, he'd like to move on and make more of the world his theater.

Unlike most of his aspiring playwrights whose ultimate goal is a New York production, Glade envisions having a "stable of playwrights" someday who write for his theater. After all, Shakespeare had the Globe, Chekhov the Moscow Art Theatre, Brecht the Berliner Ensemble—someone as talented might well have the Playwright's Showcase someday.

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