“When I leave here, I will try not to talk for the rest of the day.”
It was 9:30am when I met Holly Twyford for a chat about the rigors of playing Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, her current role and one of the most demanding in the American theatre. The production runs through February 19th at Ford’s Theatre.
I mentioned that my memory of reading about the play’s original 1962 production was that Uta Hagen et al had a “matinee cast” to avoid the actors being put through the ringer twice in a day.
“Did they really? RE-ally? I can understand. It’s a vocal workout. I mean, you can hear it. I’ll go and do a bunch of magic things to my voice. Hopefully.”
I asked if she had yet to do the show twice in one day. “No. Tomorrow. We are not, however, having Sunday nights, so Saturday’s going to be the only tough day. Although there is one week where we have a noon matinee, so that’ll be a workout.”
Spoiler alert: actors exist outside of the theatre. They don’t reside in a protective bubble, no matter how vigorous the role. “I’ll have to pick-up Helena at school. (She’s nine. She’s almost ten, in March.) And she does not like the schedule, because it’s such a long show. I’m not home until 11:30.
“I’ve done one-person shows before, and those are workouts, but this one is in a different way, and certainly a workout vocally. I’d have to think really hard about what has been more difficult than this vocally. Just the yelling…”
Are the actors mic’d? “Oh, no, no, no.” And the late-night, liquor-fueled after-party during which the play takes place does get a bit…raucous.
Danny Gavigan and Maggie Wilder play the unsuspecting younger couple who stop by after a faculty party for a drink with Martha and husband George, played by Gregory Linington. “He’s a newish actor in town. He did years and years and years at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. He and I would joke in rehearsal, ‘Well, that’s in all capitals, it has to be [yelled]!’
“I was saying to Aaron [Posner, the director] the other day, the problem with our schedules: we rehearse; and then we go into tech, which is rehearsal, but it’s longer hours; then we go into rehearsal with actual performances; and then it’s opening night. And so you don’t have time — your voice doesn’t have time to repair. You’re just going, going, going, going, going. And now we’re in regular performances, so you just gotta do the best you can, and try to prepare when you can, so I’m still sort of figuring out my regimen.”
I hadn’t realized that the production had already opened for press. “Wednesday night. So, presumably something’s out there.”
Hmm. Does that mean that Twyford avoids reading the reviews? “I don’t read them, no. That’s not helpful. The good, bad, or indifferent; I have enough to think about.
“You know, it’s funny. I was sitting with Aaron and a few people the other night, and somebody said to me, ‘Oh my Gosh, I have to tell you this one part that makes me laugh so much,’ and I said, ‘Could you not? Don’t.’ And Aaron said, ‘Yeah, don’t tell her that.’ And she was, like, ‘I’m so sorry!’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not a huge deal. It’s just, I have things to think about and I can’t take that in. And if I do take it in, then I’ll — that will be that moment.’ And Aaron totally understands that, and he turned to me and said, ‘Yeah, I have a ton of good notes for you which I’m not giving you.’”
If critical reaction is not helpful, audience reaction is critical. “They’ve been with us. I mean, that’s my gauge. My gauge is, ‘We’re in minute 2:45 and you’re still responding in that way, so you came with us.’”
[This is the point during the write-up of an interview where I usually will quote from a couple of reviews. In this case, in deference, I will not quote from, but will instead hyper-link to, Tim Treanor’s beautifully-written notice on DCTS, for those who would like a sense of the performance’s reception.]
The play is certainly one of the half dozen most-produced American plays. In the 21st Century alone, DC has seen tours of two Broadway revivals, plus Keegan Theatre did a version. Why again; why now?
“I think that maybe is a question for Paul [Tetreault, Director of Ford’s.] I think it’s interesting that Paul did choose to do this now, and then we lost Edward Albee. Paul will say that, years and years ago, he said to Albee, ‘I wanna do, at Ford’s, classic American plays, and I want to do your plays,’ and this was, I think, the top of his list. And in fact, he was saying the other day, ‘I was waiting for all of the elements to come together.’
…our very first audience was in hysterics, and we’re like, ‘What the…?’
“And I was joking about some people being depressed after the election, and we were saying, ‘Well, maybe they’ll want to come see Virginia Woolf. It might cheer them up.’
“It’s a powerful piece. It’s quite a ride that we ask people to go on. But I think it really does what the theatre is supposed to do; there’s a reason why it’s great American theatre. I think it does sort of embody a classic play.
“I think it is cathartic. I think it moves people. It’s funny as hell. And it is just an amazing, amazing snapshot of humanity. And I feel like you can’t help but being sucked in. All the characters are so fully-formed. It’s something to experience, I think. So, why now? Why not now? Ya know?”
Is Martha a part that Twyford has always aspired to play, one on the proverbial bucket list? “Not at all. I have seen it once, and I don’t remember the production that well. I didn’t see it with Tracy Letts or Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin.” (Those being the afore-mentioned Broadway revivals that played here in 2011 and 2007, respectively.)
“And I haven’t seen the movie in years. And I’m glad, because, number one, there are a lot of things that are different about the movie, according to Gregory. There’s a bunch of things that have been completely excised from the text for — I guess it was the Kathleen Turner version. And a lot of it is, I think, great cuts. But some of it, in my brain, I’m kind of holding on to it, and thinking, ‘Huh, well, that kind of helps me make sense of this other moment.’ But I understand why he cut it.”
And the Ford’s production has incorporated those recent cuts? “There’s no choice. Yeah, you do that version, or you don’t — it literally says on the front of the script, ‘Definitive Version.’ [Laughs.] So there’s no getting around it.”
I then recounted my story (presented in more detail during my tribute to Albee ) when Albee told me that certain changes involving four-letter words were actually restorations of his original text that had been considered inappropriate in 1962. “You’re kidding me. Oh my God, that’s a revelation for me. That’s a revelation. That was what was his original text? Oh my God. Gregory is going to die when I tell him that.”
Albee was apparently “very good friends with Paul Tetreault. It’s funny, because when you hear these stories about him, he’s either just a raging prick, or the sweetest, most gentle person. And I guess he was both. Paul’s stories are how great he was and you can see, I think, in the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the two sides. I mean, he has written these characters that are filled with such bile and vitriol, but who feel and love very, very deeply. And that’s, I think, who he was, you know? Maybe the bile and vitriol came from the family life.”
I asked if this was Twyford’s first experience playing Albee. “Yes. When we decided we were going to do this, I did do a sort of massive Albee retrospective, on my own, and it’s interesting: all of his writing has, in some ways, similar themes, and that was interesting to see. But I don’t think I was very knowledgeable in terms of his writing style or anything like that, except to hear people say, ‘Oh, Albee!’ And now I understand what they were talking about. I mean, he is — there’s just layer upon layer upon layer in there that he has done in just a few words. It’s — it’s full. It’s full.”
We talked about the specific challenge of playing the characteristic intelligence and articulateness of Albee’s characters. “And they know it. This is when you have to operate the standard acting idea of ‘act on the line and think faster,’ because they think fast. George has a line to Nick at one point where Nick says, ‘I don’t know what you and your wife are doing.’ George says, ‘Exercising what’s left of our wits.’ That’s putting it really lightly because they are so [snaps fingers repeatedly] fast.
“In some ways, that’s what makes the play so funny, is how smart they are, and how quick they are. And thank God Aaron Posner is there in the room with us. And Gregory and Maggie and Danny also are no slouches in the smarts department. We would go home exhausted, after rehearsal, just from trying to think faster and put it together faster.”
Twyford and Posner have worked together frequently. “He said, the other day, that we’ve done fifteen shows together. That can’t be possible. Is that possible? My first play that I did with him ever was Private Lives in Philadelphia, at his theatre, when he was Artistic Director of the Arden Theatre Company, and since then we did As You Like It, Othello, Twelfth Night, Arcadia, Two Gents, Taming of the Shrew — I’d have to think. I know there are more. And there’re some that I’ve assisted, assistant directed. But we’ve done a bunch.
“But it’s great. We have kind of a short-hand, and there are weird things sometimes that happen where we’ll do — like, for instance, just the past few days, we’d do a preview, and the next day we’ll do notes, and he would give me a note, and I’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s funny, I was thinking about that last night,’ and probably what had happened, and what’s happened a few times, is that I would be conscious of some particular new color that I found, and he would pick up on that watching it, and then he’d give me the note, and I’d say, ‘I was thinking about that. I was thinking X-Y-Z,’ and he’d say, ‘Exactly.’ We’re on this sort of other level of communication which just allows us to go deeper into the story and the story-telling.”
Does that make it difficult for the newbies they work with, who don’t have that history? “I think it might be a little off-putting at first, but I think they ultimately got used to it. And, you know, it’s helpful. It moves things along. And, frankly, by the end of the process, we were sort of all doing it. It wasn’t just me. And Gregory, Aaron, and I, and Erin Weaver, are going to be doing Or, at Round House together in the Spring, so that’s coming up in the next couple months.”
I asked if she likes Martha, bile and vitriol and all. “Oh, of course. I love her. Absolutely.” If they met at a cocktail party, would she engage her or avoid her? “If I met her at a cocktail party, and I knew her, she probably wouldn’t give me the time of day, actually, but I would sure have my eyes on her. I mean, she’s got a lot going on, and there’s a reason why she is as charismatic as she is. And part of it, I’m sure, is from all of the wounds, some of which are still open. Those people can be attractive.”
Is Martha frustrated because she doesn’t have an outlet for her own talents and ambitions during that post-Eisenhower era? “Really, for her, it is that very traditional female role of standing behind your man, and he’s gonna be the successful one. He’s going to go somewhere and be somebody you can be proud of, somebody she can be proud of. But the bigger part is that he failed himself, and she knew that he was better than that. And because he let himself down, he let her down. So there isn’t really an aspect of her own very personal ambition, of business, or career, or anything like that. It really does, I think, have more to do with him, and what he was or was not capable of, in her eyes. And I love that Albee really sticks these little things in there, like the speech where she says, ‘Anybody who doesn’t have the guts to make somebody proud of them —’; he’s singing over her lines, so it might be something that you miss. But it’s in there. It’s very interesting.”
We talked about how liquor plays such an important part in so many mid-century American plays. “Absolutely. It does, doesn’t it? It really does. And he talks about it in the script. Nick says, ‘You drink a lot here in the East,’ and George says something like, ‘Well, you drink a lot in the Midwest as well.’”
Is Martha an alcoholic? “Yes, but it was such a new thing, being an alcoholic, having that term, wasn’t it? Just…somebody who drank a lot. I’ve thought a lot about The Days of Wine and Roses. I don’t know what year that came out. Was it about the same time?” (The film version was released the same year Virginia Woolf opened on Broadway.)
“George says ‘liquor-ridden’ and ‘has a problem with spiritous liquors,’ but it was a different sort of thing, back then, wasn’t it? I remember my Grandparents: cocktail hour was everyday. Bam. ‘What time is it?’ ‘Oh, it’s time for it.’ But, yes, she is.”
Are audiences finding the play funnier than she expected them to? “Oh my God, there are so many more laughs. It’s funny. I mean, our very first audience was in hysterics, and we’re like, ‘What the…?’ Which scared me at first. I thought, ‘Wait, are you gonna go with us the whole way? Because we’re gonna take a turn at a certain point, and you need to stay with us, ‘cause this ain’t a comedy.’ But it works. He knew that. He figured that out: that that’s what we need to get them. Even in the very end of the play, there are things that they laugh at, which is, like, ‘Wow.’ And I guess they need that, right? They need to have that release somehow.”
We talked about how there are some characters who stay with you longer than others. “That linger? No, it’s true, there are. I feel like I sort of walk away with a piece of everybody. And some I can do without. [Laughs.] But, I don’t know, you pull out what you can.
Want to go?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
closes February 19, 2017
Details and tickets
“I was telling some story the other day about a play that I did where the character — she was an angry, angry, angry woman. In the script, she’d give the finger all the time, to her boyfriend and various people, and I didn’t know how to do that. I would sort of do it in, like, an elementary school way. And I taught myself for the play. I taught myself how to do it.
“And I was walking home from the theatre one night, and I was in a crosswalk, and this cab came and cut me off, and I — she went crazy. And for a moment, I was, like, ‘Who was that? Who had that attack?’ And it was totally — it was her. So they do come out, sometimes, or they do seep in, I should say.
“Am I going to miss her, when I leave her? Probably. Yeah, I probably will. I think Martha is a beautiful, wounded person, and there are frankly a lot of things in her to which I can relate, so those things will stick around, I’m sure.
“Plus, I’m still too young to play her, so I can do it again!” And our talk ended with a hearty laugh.