How Stage Actors "Get Drunk" in Theater's Booziest Plays

Be afraid of Virginia Woolf. She's drunk off her ass.

In Edward Albee's epic 1962 drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, main characters George and Martha pour 17 drinks — hard liquor on the rocks — in the first act alone. Nine or 10 more in the second act. Another three rounds in the third. Their late-night guests, Honey and Nick, aren't far behind. When they arrive on the scene at 2 a.m. Albee time, they're already buzzed from an offstage cocktail party. Honey pounds some more brandies, pukes her guts out, revives enough to drink more, pukes again and then carries the bottle with her to the bathroom.

What a night. For most of the three hours of this play, the four characters are either drinking or talking about drinking. "Rubbing alcohol for you?" says George, handing another refill to wife Martha. "Sure!" she answers. "Never mix, never worry!"

The more inebriated, the more Albee's couples spew bitter truths. Tongues loosened by liquor, George and Martha finally let it all out, unleashing decades of unexpressed vitriol. Their marriage disintegrates during the alcohol-fueled afterparty that makes Virginia Woolf American theater's drunkest work of drama.

Of course, real human beings couldn't remain upright, much less speak in long paragraphs after 30 tumblers of hooch. But in the theatah, the secret to acting like a true dipsomaniac is to work at acting sober while drinking nothing stronger than cold tea and colored water. Only bad actors slur their words, stumble over the furniture and gasp after each swallow of fake hard stuff. Real-life drunks try to disguise their condition — and the best pretend-drunks follow suit.

Everyone has a different take on "playing drunk," says top Dallas theater director René Moreno. "Pacing your drunk acting is key. First drink equals feeling relaxed. Second drink equals mild euphoria. Third drink, hilarity ensues. Fourth, paranoia prevails. Fifth, sixth or more, anything from plain old meanness to self-hatred to weepy-weepy to suicidal. You want your actor to bring as much of his or her own experience to the work but not actually be drunk onstage, though I have had that experience. Yikes."

Trying hard not to seem wobbly is one of the secrets to looking plastered, say actors and directors. Former Dallas actress Julie Osburn studied with the great Uta Hagen, who originated the role of Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway. "Acting technique 101 is to consider the alcohol tolerance level of the character," Osburn says. "Martha's alcohol tolerance was higher than God's. To perform Martha, the slur might come in her last three lines, but never neglecting her consonants. Drunk acting means paying attention to the consonants."

Adds Dallas actress Heather Henry, "The struggle to appear sober is more interesting than watching an actor act drunk."

Method actors like Dallas actor and playwright Danny O'Connor reach for real alcohol for a role, but only for research. O'Connor practiced the bar scene in his one-man play Zero by setting aside one night of rehearsal to run the monologue while downing six shots of Jägermeister. "It helped me get a good barometer of the speed in which that much alcohol affected my speech and motion," says O'Connor, who's performed Zero at the Addison Theatre Centre and in New York and Chicago. "When the character nearly pukes on the sixth shot, that was real because I had honestly nearly done that myself and thought it added a touch of realism. I kept tabs on myself through the night, so in a later scene when the character is blotto drunk he would be believable, not just my idea of what it might be like. During the run of the show, I used flat Diet Coke."

Turns out mixing up fake booze is as much of an art as portraying the boozer.

"I have tried all kinds of things to make fake alcohol and I swear by colored water," says Cathy O'Neal, one of the busiest Equity stage managers and props masters in Dallas theaters. "I can mix up just about anything that looks convincing, from scotch and bourbon to white wine. I even make pots of 'coffee' with colored water. I don't have to worry about anyone's food allergies or need for sugar-free anything. The actors get a refreshing drink of water on stage, and it doesn't stain their teeth or lips."

For the constant imbibing in the comedy Valley of the Dolls at Uptown Players a few seasons back, O'Neal set up a "bar" backstage with pitchers of colored water labeled "red wine," "white wine" and "scotch," with appropriately matching glasses. "It worked great," O'Neal recalls. "The actors would say things backstage like, 'Pour me a water and make it a double!'" For Champagne, she substitutes ginger ale.

When Circle Theatre did Guys on Ice, O'Neal ordered cases of Leinenkugel beer (mentioned in the script), punched holes in the top of each can, drained and rinsed them, filled them with water and sealed the holes with tiny pieces of metallic tape and clear nail polish. When the actors popped the tops on 10 cans per show for the five-week run, the audience never knew the difference.

Lots of great plays are built around characters getting blitzed. A crucial plot turn in Macbeth depends on guards passing out after being slipped a Mickey by Lady Macbeth. Stanley's rape of Blanche DuBois in Streetcar happens when he gets violently drunk celebrating the birth of his and Stella's baby. Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof keeps a shot glass in Brick's hand until he's feeling no pain.

Long Day's Journey into Night is four hours of epic breakdowns by three alcoholics and a morphine addict (based on Eugene O'Neill's own family). When O'Neill's Iceman Cometh, it's to a Bowery saloon.

Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County (directed here at WaterTower Theatre by René Moreno) is an alcohol-pills-and-grass marathon, with almost every character ingesting one or more reality-altering substances.

The musicals Company (with its great toast to the three-martini "Ladies Who Lunch"), Guys and Dolls, The Wild Party and Promises, Promises build to pivotal scenes involving alcohol consumption. The Drowsy Chaperone doesn't have narcolepsy — she's blotto.

The Tony-winning play God of Carnage begins with two upscale New York couples soberly discussing their children. It ends with a drunken free-for-all, complete with a volcanic vomit spew. Sally Nystuen-Vahle played the upchucker in last season's production at Dallas Theater Center. Her exquisitely paced evolution from uptight urban matron to leg-sprawling harridan was hilarious.

Just the kind of great drunk performance the audience remembers the morning after.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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