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?

ROGER GLADE COVETSOF 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.

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