BWW Interviews: DEBUT OF THE MONTH: WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF's Madison Dirks
Madison Dirks is making his Broadway debut in the critically acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Edward Albee'S WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf? Directed by Tony Award® nominee Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park), the show opened on Broadway on October 13, 2012, exactly 50 years to the day of the play's 1962 original Broadway opening. Dirks portrays Nick, half of an unwitting young couple invited for an unforgettable night of cocktails and crossfire at the home of George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton), one of theatre's most notoriously dysfunctional couples.
Dirks previous stage credits include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Steppenwolf Theatre/Arena Stage), The Chosen and Gary (Steppenwolf Theatre); Girl, 20 (Serendipity Theatre-L.A. remount); A Man For All Seasons (TimeLine Theatre); The Last Supper (Infusion Theatre); Hillbilly Antigone (Lookingglass Theatre-u/s). Film and TV credits include Chicago Fire(NBC), According to Jim (ABC), The Chicago Code (FOX), Public Enemies and The Dilemma.
The talented actor chatted with BWW about making his Broadway debut in Albee's hilarious and provocative masterpiece.
Watching the show the other night, I was struck by how physically and emotionally demanding it must be for the four of you every night. How do you keep up that level of energy?
You know we were talking about it. We did the run in Chicago and DC for five months, so we had kind of gotten into a pattern of learning how to pace yourself during the day. And you kind of have to figure out when your meal breaks are going to be and when you're going to have your quiet time. I personally need like an hour before the show that I kind of have to read or just settle down before I do the show. And I'm still trying to figure out what that rhythm is. We had the previews and now we're in performances, so the hours are kind of shifting around, and we're not rehearsing anymore, so it's still kind of a guessing game. But I eat, and then I sit quiet for 45 minutes to an hour before I go to the theater, because it's exhausting, it's incredibly rewarding, but it takes its toll.
You can see that. Even at the curtain call, the four of you just looked wiped!
(laughing) Yes, especially the way it ends. When Carrie (Coon) and I walk out that door, and we get off the set, it's just kind of like, 'Oh God O'Mighty!'
And you feel that way after each performance?
Oh yeah. We use the metaphor that the play is like pushing a boulder up a hill and when that starts, when George and Martha walk in that door with their 'Jesus H Christ' and by the time we get into the house, it's going, like that thing is just gonna roll and it's going to roll over you. Beause you can't chose to not do it. That plays moves itself and the production moves, and you're in with it, no matter what. So every single time, when we get to the end of it, it's just happened to us. You can't phone it in, you can't fake it. You gotta just do it.
Your character really undergoes an emotional transformation throughout the course of the play. Of course some of it is due to all the alcohol he consumes, but he also seems to open up and become more daring in his exchanges with George.
Pam (MacKinnon) always talks about the fact that there's a chemistry, a chemical reaction that takes place because it's these four specific people in the house. If it were someone different, if there was a different married couple who came over, if anybody was different, the end result would have been different. And so for Nick, he comes in with a bit of respect for Martha, because she's the daughter of the President of the college you know, the bosses daughter, who he wants to impress a little bit. And as the evening goes on and George keeps pressing Nick to be specific about his language and his intentions, then Nick starts to activate more, he tries to play more, he tries to dance toe-to-toe with George. And he thinks he can. He thinks he can kind of keep up with him. But eventually, this young couple is going to get hit over the head by the depths by which George and Martha go. So he does open up. He thinks he can play along, he thinks he can challenge. And in a way, he can, but at the end of the day, I think George is just too smart, too quick on his feet for him.
I know that Edward Albee attended opening night. Was he involved in the rehearsal process?
He was. He came up in Chicago in our third week of rehearsal and he spent the weekend with us and he watched us run through the acts, saw the play. And then because of his close relationship with Pam, was able to talk with her and give her some notes, some things he thought we should look at, when to heat things up, when to cool things down. And then she'd incorporate that into the notes. And then he came to watch in DC when we were at the Arena Stage and he watched the performance there and was wonderful and very complimentary to us. And then he was in during our previews in New York and then or course was at opening might. So he has been a part of the production.
Does it put extra pressure on the cast, knowing that he's in the audience?
It certainly did in Chicago! I remember when he got there. We were all just, terrified, terrified. Tracy (Letts) was nervous, kind of wringing his hands a little bit. Albee is our American theater, just a legend and just adored by everyone. And to watch you perform his most popular play, one of the most popular plays in the American canon, is scary. But he was wonderfully kind, and likes actors and likes rehearsal rooms. I think his stature is overwhelming, but he personally is a lot warmer than the legend would make him out to be.
The play was written over 50 years ago yet still has relevance to modern-day audiences. Why do you think that is?
I think at it's core, it's a love story about these two people and how terrible and punishing they are to each other and yet something compassionate exists there. In a marriage, you spend a life with someone and there are inevitable disappointments that happen, and what we put on each other, you know the baggage we take on from our partners. Disappointments in ourselves, disappointments in the other person, and how they all get tangled up. And there's a universality to that love story and to those relationships that does not change with time. The way Edward wrote that play, with that language, with such a strong female like Martha, which was a little more rare in the early '60's, that is very much who we are today. I think people recognize that, and they see that in their own homes and their parents homes and their children's homes, it's part of our American culture, for better or for worse. And it still breathes.
Were you familiar with Mike Nichol's film version?
I was. There was a production of the play I saw in college. My college girlfriend played Martha, and the production traveled a lot, it went to competitions, so I had seen it a bunch. And after that production had ended and in the subsequent years, I've probably watched the film 20, 25 times. So I'm very familiar with it. It's just different, it's a piece unto itself. It's really dark, there's a lot of cruelty in it. And because it's a film, they move around locations, they leave the house and that gives it some air.
Did it inspire your performance at all?
No no, you kind of put that in the back of your mind a little bit, which is really easy to do. You known Steppenwolf has a really great modus operandi when they approach a play. No matter how old the play is, they approach it like it's being done for the first time. So you start at square one with, 'Who are these people?' 'Why am I saying this?' 'Why does this happen?' And that's how Pam works too. We figure out what this play is. And so you kind of leave all those other influences out of your head. And by virtue of the fact that Tracy, Amy and Carrie are doing their own thing, that leads you to do your own thing. So it really didn't come in to play, as familiar as I am with the film, it was clear that it was it's own thing that stands apart.
I wanted to ask about your personal journey as an actor. When did you first know that you wanted to go into theater?
I remember in college, I had taken an intro to acting class and I certainly liked it but I didn't know if that was something I wanted to do or pursue. Even at 18 I knew it wasn't the wisest career choice, to go into show business, so I was debating about it. And then over the summer I went to New York and my dad bought me a ticket to go see Steppenwolf 's production of 'Buried Child' on Broadway that Gary Sinise had directed. And I sat in the theater and I saw that production and when I walked out, that was it. I was like, 'yep, I've got to do this.' Ever since, that's the only thing I've done. You couldn't drag me away from the theater building. That was the moment that I knew I had to keep trying.
What was it like to make your Broadway debut?
It was surreal. Certainly there was the hugeness of the event itself, for any actor to finally be on Broadway is a tremendous moment. And then the fact that it was this play, and it was the 50th anniversary of the play, that Edward was on stage with us at the opening night curtain call, Amy was crying, it was a really emotional moment. I mean literally, too much to process. There were just too many things that even when I'm thinking about it right now, I can't really grasp every element of it. It was beautiful. It was a truly beautiful moment.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Edward Albee'S WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf? is now playing at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. Tickets can be purchased at Telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow