In one of the earlier productions at the amateur theater club to which I belong, I had a small walk-on-rapidly, walk-off-quickly sort of part. It was quite an exercise making sure I squeezed as much juice out of these brief, brisk oranges as I could. I was valet to the main character, who was a kind of imagined alter ego for the playwright himself, a certain Mr. Noel Coward. (The play was "Present Laughter.")
David, who played the lead, was on stage 99 percent of the time and was speaking for about 98 percent of it. It was a vast part, and he mastered the fluent verbiage impressively. I didn't envy him, but I did remark, one time, that I might one day like to again play a slightly larger part. David, in a paternalistic tone that amused me, given our relative generational span (I had already been acting for a few years about the time he was learning to talk), said: "Don't worry, your time will come!" But then he had been a member of the theater for a number of years before I joined, and so he felt patriarchal.
I was encouraged, though.
And, lo and behold, David's prophetic observation has proved true - and sooner than might have been expected.
To my surprise, I was cast in the role of Sergeant Rough. This retired policeman is "over 60 - graying, short, wiry, active, brusque, friendly, overbearing. He completely dominates the scene from the beginning." Why would they choose me?
Those who know their 1930s and '40s plays and films may remember this ex-policeman in the Victorian thriller "Gaslight," written in 1938. "Gaslight" has for many years been a standby on the amateur dramatic scene. In its early days, it was a great success in England and America (where it was rebranded "Angel Street"). Two films were made from the play, in 1940 and '44. The policeman (I am told) achieved varying degrees of prominence in these celluloid versions.
But in Patrick Hamilton's play, Rough (and this dawned on me fully only when I started learning the part) is an extremely talkative fellow. In the playbook he is present on 40 of the 76 pages and, when he is "on," he allows the other characters very little opportunity for free speech.
As I write, the dress rehearsal is four days away. Though I believe I have the majority of Rough's words under my belt, last night's "run" did show up some of one's weaker moments, wordwise. Mostly these moments were when Rough carries out unusually clipped, urgent dialogue with Mrs. Manningham, connected to breaking open the drawers of the villainous husband's desk while he is out, and suchlike dramatic goings-on. These exchanges have been difficult to learn without the other actor being present while I am out walking the dogs. This is my chief learning time. (The dogs are notably negligent when it comes to supplying quick, accurate cues, even if they have by now ear-shruggingly resigned themselves to my repetitive recitational flow.)
One of the odd things about learning a part is that it is much more effective if you can do it aloud. If you learn it silently, or in a low whisper, you may arrive at rehearsal and start saying the lines, only to discover that the sound of your own voice is so startling that everything you thought you had learned melts like snow in a heat wave.
That's why a high wind and driving rain are perfect: You can shout to your heart's content, scream (if you have screaming to do), and project as if you are at Covent Garden and the radio mikes are down.
I have not been asked to play King Lear (yet), but I reckon I could learn the whole storm scene ("Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!") in 10 minutes flat by this special method.
One of the things I like about Sergeant Rough is that he refuses to retire. He is trying to solve a case he feels was wrongly closed 20 years earlier. He sets about this with a determination matched only by his verbal excess. I also suspect he lives alone, and so when he encounters others he has so much to say that there is hardly time to say it all. If you met him on a long train journey, he would regale you from beginning to end and right down to the ticket barrier. He's my sort of man! Type-casting, I suppose.
As for Lear, I am not so sure. Could he be played for comedy? I should ask David if he thinks that, Lear-wise, my time will come ... or not, as the case may be.