The other day I mentioned I’d been absent from this blog for the same reason as the last several times I went AWOL for a few months: I was cast in a play, and what a play it was: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee. As Martha. My dream role.
That was last August. Our performances were in late October, early November. What a rocky road this production had!
I was the second actor cast as Martha, because the first actor backed out after the initial read-through, telling the director she wasn’t “comfortable” with the subject matter. Who the hell auditions for and ACCEPTS a role in a play without knowing what the play is about? And a world-famous play at that? Apparently this woman did. So the director called me and I leaped at the chance. I had been waiting until I was old enough to play Martha since I first read the play sometime in the 1980s. I had big footsteps to fill.
Uta Hagen, originator of the role of Martha — 1962
I was not the only cast member change, however. The original Nick didn’t like the original Martha, and he backed out. The original Honey also left because her parents’ home had been destroyed in the Houston flooding after Hurricane Harvey, and she needed to go down there to help them sort out their lives. Only the original George was left standing.
While our director auditioned for a new Nick and Honey, Edwin (playing George) and I began rehearsals. A few days later, Jamie (Honey) and Josh (Nick) joined us. And we were complete.
Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in the 1965 film version
Then the real trouble began. Our director gave us strange line readings and odd blocking. He had us wandering randomly all over the stage with no real reason for the movement. He cut rehearsal short and left promptly at 9:30 or earlier every evening, often in the middle of a scene. And then would want to start the scene exactly where we left off when we returned the following evening, instead of at the beginning so we could build the emotion and energy again.
Kathleen Turner as Martha in the 2007 revival
As actors, we became increasingly frustrated at these artificial restrictions and interruptions to our flow. I mean, it wouldn’t kill anyone if we stayed an extra 10 minutes or so past the scheduled end of rehearsal to finish out a scene, would it? And thus, the inevitable happened.
Woolf War I — the Bergen incident
One night, I arrived at rehearsal a little early. Edwin and our director were already there, deep into a disagreement over the pronunciation of a word. In the show, George delivers a monologue about his time in prep school when he went out with a group of young men, and one of the young men mishears the word “bourbon” and orders a “bergen” instead. Edwin pronounced it with a hard G. The director corrected him and said it should be a soft G instead. Edwin disagreed and explained his reasoning (with the hard G, it sounds more like “bourbon” than with a soft G, and besides, everyone who’s ever done this play, including the original Broadway production, pronounced it with the hard G). The director insisted. I don’t know who raised his voice first, but voices were raised, and both men lost their tempers. Much yelling ensued. I bailed out the rehearsal room and literally hid in a corner until the argument was over.
Imelda Staunton as Martha, 2017 London production
Sometime later, we were off book. For those of you unfamiliar with the process, “off book” means we deliver lines from memory instead of reading from the script. The first few days off book are always rough, and actors generally “call” for a line with some frequency — that means we’re asking the stage manager to give us our next line because we can’t come up with it on our own.
Me as Martha; Josh as Nick
That’s the whole point, though: we ask for the line. On purpose. Unless you had our director. At every pause, however minute, he jumped in and gave us our line, whether we asked for it or not. We asked him repeatedly to let us struggle for it and call for it as needed. He ignored us. And thus occurred…
Woolf War II — Don’t give me a fucking line until I ask for it
Edwin, bless his heart, lost it one night after one too many unrequested lines given. All four of us were fed up; Edwin was just the most vocal about it. If I thought Woolf War I was bad, then this was bad times 10, because the director escalated it unnecessarily, yelling and screaming and tossing the script on the floor. At one point, Edwin walked out and we all followed him down the hall as one of the producers was on the phone to the theatre’s artistic director about the argument. I overheard him say, “Oh great, now the whole cast is leaving…”
Clockwise from left: Jamie as Honey; Josh as Nick; Edwin as George; me as Martha. Yes, they’re all a foot taller than I am.
We didn’t leave. We stopped at the end of the hall; we all took a few deep breaths; we talked to the producer for a little while who then mediated a conversation with the director; and then we went back to rehearsal. We finished out the night, the director left, and the cast went out for a drink.
That was the first time we had got together outside rehearsal: our first time to be able to talk as a group about our hopes and dreams and ideas and thoughts about this production without a member of the theatre staff within earshot. It was an excellent bonding experience.
The next night our director didn’t show up. We rehearsed anyway. He didn’t show the rest of the week. We rehearsed anyway. A full week after Woolf War II, the artistic director told us the director wouldn’t be coming back and she would take over directing the show.
Well, that didn’t happen, exactly. The artistic director came to a few rehearsals and gave us a few notes, but she was in the middle of auditioning, casting, and directing the show that would immediately follow ours, so we ended up directing ourselves for the most part. Thank the theatre gods for Edwin and his extensive theatre training and background, not to mention his contacts throughout the Atlanta theatre community. Several of his friends came to our rehearsals and provided guidance and direction and suggestions for improvement. We fixed the weird blocking and changed the odd line readings. On a personal level, I am especially grateful to Edwin’s friend Esther, who gave me invaluable advice and helped me through a few difficult spots with Martha’s character.
Edwin, as George, laying down the law to Martha
All this turmoil, unfortunately, resulted in the theatre’s decision to delay our opening by one week because we just weren’t ready. Josh had gotten physically ill a couple of nights — we later discovered the water we had been drinking throughout every scene was, um, not good. So he missed a couple of rehearsals due to illness. It’s a miracle the rest of us didn’t become ill. Lines were still rough; the set wasn’t completely built and dressed; our costumes hadn’t been settled; the sound and light design was barely sketched out. We did two previews to accommodate family and friends who were coming from out of town to view the show on its original opening weekend. Those previews went really well and gave us hope for the following weekend and our actual opening.
From left: Josh as Nick; Jamie as Honey; Edwin as George; and me
And then we went on
Opening weekend was almost anti-climactic after all the drama that preceded it. We had very small houses, unfortunately, but we played our heart out every night. You can read a review of our show here.
I’m not ashamed to say I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. My Martha was deeply deeply sad; she hurt people because she was hurt. It was a challenge and a privilege to bring that out and present it to the audience. I gave our patrons two acts that made them hate her, and one act that broke their heart.
The Sunday after our final performance, the cast went to the theatre one last time to strike the set, and then we went out to dinner. I cried when we parted afterward. I don’t usually get misty when a show ends, but this show was different. My life is irrevocably altered; Jamie, Joshua, and Edwin are forever a part of me.
Goodbye, Martha, you poor misunderstood little girl. Playing you was an experience I’ll never forget. Maybe someday I’ll get to be you again. I’m willing if the universe is.