The Drink/Drank/Drunk Issue: Stages of Inebriation

To drink or not to drink – for local thespians, no question

The cast of
The cast of "Final Touches" (1984): (l-r) John Martin, Nan Elkins, Scottie Wilkerson, and Joe York (Courtesy of Ken Johnson)

Want to hear some good drinking stories? Ask theatre people. Between their research for playing soused characters, work with blotto colleagues, and post-show pickling, they're, pardon the pun, loaded with yarns, both hilarious and mortifying, about the stages of inebriation. Here, 15 members of the local theatre scene share some of their favorites.

[Editor's Note: Some of this material appears in edited form in the Arts feature "Acting Tipsy."]

Learning to play drunk

Bill McMillin: During our college days at St. Edward’s University, we rehearsed That Championship Season using real alcohol. It was a blast! We did the same thing for rehearsals of The Boys in the Band. The rehearsals turned out to be quite productive. We discovered how drunk these characters actually get. Nothing bad happened, to my memory, but I do recall moving a large statue of Mary Moody from the lobby into one of the professors’ offices …

David Jones: I’ve always found drunk rehearsals to be very effective - both as an actor and director. During rehearsals for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the cast was having trouble plumbing the depths of the show. One night, a huge bottle of Bushmills appeared on the rehearsal set. By the end of the evening, the bottle was empty, and we had definitely plumbed the depths. But it’s a tool that should be used judiciously - only after the actors know their lines and only once per show.

Mike Sullivan: In rehearsal for a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, we tried to drink as much as George and Martha do. Disaster. We never made it through the rehearsal, and the experience did nothing to help us as actors.

Babs George: Virginia Woolf – lotta drinking goin’ on in Albee’s dark comedy! Now, we weren’t really drinking in [the production at the Mary Northen Theatre] as we were on a university campus. No, really! But, that said, I doggedly believe that if you have just a hint of the real stuff in the bottles, just the smell and flavor will take you to the next level of acting inebriated, or however the liquor is supposed to end up affecting you. Now, the question is, what constitutes a “hint”?

David Jones: My top two drinking roles are Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Jamie in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. For performances [of Long Day’s Journey], I kept a half pint of whiskey on hand. Before the show, I’d take a generous swig and then wet a handkerchief with the whiskey and put it in my coat pocket. Aromatherapy for both me and the audience. One night, the actor playing Edmund had a few margaritas before the show. During the pre-show warm-up for our fight scene, his stage punch turned into a full roundhouse right. I saw stars and could barely move my jaw. Needless to say, I had more than one swig of whiskey that night. For Brick, my pre-show warm-up started with a beer at Oil Can Harry’s, across from Capitol City Playhouse. It seemed appropriate on several levels.

Lowell Bartholomee: In a production of Macbeth at UT in 1997, I played Banquo. One of the murderers showed up one night with that impressive booze-sweat smell, the kind that stings your nostrils from a yard away. All well and good until it comes time for me to be killed and the iron broadswords come out. We had a very serious fight choreographer, and everything had been mapped out carefully. That night, I drew my sword, prepped to swing, and suddenly felt the blade end of his sword slam across the crown of my skull. My knees buckled, I stumbled away, the fight continued, and I died. Later that night, I get a call from the choreographer sounding like Michael Corleone: “Does something need to be done about this?” I may have saved [the drunk actor's] life by saying it was fine and I’d make sure it didn’t happen again. I don’t think he did theatre again after that.

Drinking when you don't expect it

Richard Craig: I played Dodge in Buried Child at Zachary Scott in the early Eighties. He drinks from his hidden bottle quite often during the course of the play. One of the rehearsals where we had begun to use the real props, I took my first swig and found that it was real booze that had been watered down a little. I had to inform the prop person that it would probably be best to use a little watered-down tea instead.

Douglas Taylor: Brigadoon – back in the 1980s Zach Scott days – was, I believe, my third show in Austin, The Grande Dame of Austin theatre had cast me as Jeff Douglas, the drunken sidekick to the lead (Van Johnson’s role in the film). As the last scene unfolds and the fog rolls out on the stage with the good folk of the title starting to appear, “Jeff” pulls out a pint of vodka and begins to drink and drink and drink, so as to empty the pint as the two leads and the townfolk disappear again into the fog for another hundred years. Dramatically, “Jeff” holds the empty bottle upside down, the last drop of vodka hits the stage floor, and he slowly walks out in the opposite direction. Well, I had made many good new friends in the cast and crew of that show, mostly at the Filling Station, the Cedar Door, and Beans on Sixth, over many shots and Shiner Bocks, and these new friends thought that the new kid in town needed to prove his chops under some pressure. With that in mind, they filled my pint bottle with peppermint schnapps. Yuck! Thankfully, it was at the very end of the show, and all I had to do was the curtain call, but I was third to last in a cast of 30 or 35, so by the time I made it backstage and out for my call, the lights had halos, and I was thinking that I had given a Tony Award-winning performance. I took my bow, nearly hit the floor, and had a hangover for days. And yet I still call all of those people friends.

Drinking as a company exercise

Babs George: A few years back, Breaking String Theatre’s production of The Seagull broke a lot of ground in the consumption of alcohol before, during, and after performances. We wanted to feel like real Russians, so we spoke all our names with Russian accents, toasted in Russian, and knocked back shots of vodka … like the Russians? Graham [Schmidt, Breaking String artistic director,] knows, so we faithfully followed his lead and then ate a pickle. Now, as a lightweight among the gifted drinkers, I generally waited until before my last scene of the play, because I mostly played a board game which I now can’t even recall, and that probably had something to do with the vodka…

Cyndi Williams: Can’t think of drinking and the theatre without thinking of The Assumption, Refraction Arts’ hillbilly Hamlet. We drank beer during the show. Lots of beer. I personally drank four beers for every show, and I don’t even like beer, but hey, I’m a trouper. The scariest thing was, we did 8pm and late shows on Fridays and Saturdays, and between shows, everyone – cast and crew – would stand in a circle and pass a bottle of whiskey provided by our fearless director, Sonnet Blanton. And usually we would kill that bottle right then and there, in our insane but loving circle. When the show closed, I said, “I’ll never do that again.” But the show was such a hit, we brought it back the next year, and did the late night shows on Friday and Saturday again, and I still drank four beers per show and participated - perhaps more enthusiastically than I should have - in the whiskey circle. There’s no point in pretending it never happened. There are too many pictures.

Lowell Bartholomee: My current favorite alcohol consumption play is The Lieutenant of Inishmore, because it’s the first time I’ve gotten to play drunk realistically on stage. And it’s introduced me to the supposed wonders of Irish poitín. Due to our traditional tequila (yeah, I don’t know why either, ask Joey Hood) shot before the show and a few handy beers, I haven’t been 100% sober onstage all the time, but never really drunk. There’s a fine line to walk there.

Michael McKelvey: Because the overall strangeness of the Evil Dead auditions, the production team made the bold choice to start drinking beer half way through. To hide our unprofessionalism, we drank out of McDonald’s cups. Trust me, it helped.

Working with actors who aren't acting drunk

Lana Dieterich: My first drunk was Mrs. Upton Asterbilt, who was known as a dypsomaniac in the play Dirty Work at the Crossroads at Austin Cabaret Theatre, formerly Austin Melodrama Theatre. There was a true alkie in that play – the villain – who called me Mrs. Up Your Ass-terbilt and once mooned me from the wings while I was onstage.

Bill McMillin: At St. Edward’s University, circa 1978, Broderick Crawford [was the Equity guest artist and,] as part of his contract, had a sealed bottle of vodka in his dressing room every evening. He drank the whole bottle every night. I was asked to take [him] out to [local media] interviews because he was such an alcoholic and was so mean to Zelma Richardson, the theatre secretary, who was supposed to do it. I picked him up at the hotel about 9am, and he had already had four bloody mary’s. I took him to several interviews: John Bustin, the Statesman, the Cactus Pryor/Barbara Miller TV show, and a radio interview at KUT. All along the way and in between interviews, he insisted I take him to the bars. We drank throughout the day. I dropped him off at the theatre around 5pm for rehearsals. He was fine. He was an alcoholic after all. I went home and promptly passed out. The next morning, I woke up extremely sick. However, I could tell it wasn’t a hangover sick. After hours of being sick, I finally called my mother. After being excited about Broderick Crawford, she immediately instructed me to take my thumb and put it on my naval, and put my little finger on my hip, and press with the middle finger. That was painful. “Go to the hospital,” she said. “You have appendicitis.” By noon, I was in Brackenridge Hospital getting my appendix taken out.

David Jones: Broderick Crawford passed out on the stage one night during a post-show party. He was so large, we couldn’t move him, so we locked the doors and went home.

Unfortunate consequences

Madge Darlington: While working on Dionysus in 69, we often celebrated “the goodness of the grape.” We invited audience members to BYOW and didn’t even charge a corkage fee. It facilitated some good audience participation. (When the Chronicle does its sex issue, we can tell you those stories.) Sadly, we learned the hard way about how vital wine was to our process. When touring the show to a university, we had to abide by a strict ‘no alcohol on campus’ policy. The one time we did the show dry as a bone, one actor sprained her ankle, another broke an audience member’s finger, and a megaphone fell from the top of a 19’ tower and smashed to pieces on the stage. Let’s just say the stage blood was laced with a little bit of wine from that night on. Don’t piss off the god of wine when you are doing a play about him.

Janelle Buchanan: Omnium Gatherum, at Zach a few years ago, was set at an elegant dinner party that ran in real time – we consumed a five-course dinner during the play and several bottles of wine. But the play was long and complicated, and it was out of the question that we could drink that much and still do our doings. So the props department tracked down some non-alcoholic wine that looked like the real thing and didn’t taste bad, either. Unfortunately, it gave the entire cast diarrhea. Like Madge said, don’t piss off the god of wine.

Lowell Bartholomee: In 2003, Robert Fisher directed and constructed this collage of short plays by several playwrights called 300 Plays About Vladimir Putin. He created a bit toward the end where the cast would line up against the back wall of the Off Center and one-by-one run to a table downstage, take a shot of straight vodka, do a short line or bit from a stack of cards on the table, then run back to the back wall. It was a lot of fun to do and it was basically the end of the show, so even if you got hammered (because you never knew how many times you’d have to make the trip), you probably wouldn’t screw anything up too badly. One night I raced to the table, took my shot, and … You know how sometimes a shot just hits your stomach the wrong way? It feels like it never touched the esophagus and landed full pelt in your belly and your stomach basically says, “Oh, dude, you’re on your own here, and I may have to start unloading the ballast.” Well, that happened. I did my card and, I guess, managed to run back to the wall and wait out the rest of the show. I don’t know. All I concentrated on was not hurling dinner onstage. Which, so far, I haven’t ever done.

Kirk Lynn: The Method Gun records one of Stella Burden’s rules as always using real beer in rehearsal, and Rude Mechs sort of lives by this rule. Those that can enjoy a healthy drink or two should, whether performing or not. Beer makes life better, and there is no reason to act like you are having a beer in the same way there is no reason to act like you are happy or sad or passionate. Fucking be happy or sad or passionate.

David Jones: I was watching opening night of a show I directed and could smell the alcohol wafting from the stage. The actors got a stern talking to. Acting like you’re drunk is a craft. Getting drunk is just plain lazy.

Other drinkers remembered

Bill McMillin: While in West Virginia in 2000 doing summer stock, an actor who was one of the leads in The Secret Garden, was out taking the chorus gentlemen to the bars after a performance and was the designated driver. Unfortunately, he had one drink, a tequila shot. Around 3am, I received a call from the Morgantown Police. He was in jail for a DWI and wanted me to come bail him out, which I did. Fortunately, he had my card on him. To this day, when I give my card out to cast members on the first day of rehearsals, I tell them, “This is your 'get out of jail free' card.” In the 13 years since, no one has called me to bail them out of jail. He eventually fought the DWI charge and won.

Lana Dieterich: One of my favorite drunks has to be the woman in "Wandering Through the Night," which was performed for the very first FronteraFest and which won me a B. Iden Payne Award. We rehearsed that show at different bars around town, and the kicker occurred at Deep Eddy Bar. That night, we were rehearsing at a table because all the bar stools were taken. Before long, the bartender came over and told us that we would have to leave because we were being too rowdy. We started to pack up when Doug Dawson, my costar, stopped us and said that the bartender probably didn’t realize that we were rehearsing. He went and told her, and at that point everyone at the bar turned around and started talking and asking us questions. One guy said, “I knew she couldn’t have been that drunk on just one beer!” All my drunk research was done studying my various alcoholic husbands rather than drinking myself into oblivion.

Ken Johnson: I’m sure you remember how important Lone Star Beer was to [Johnson's play] Final Touches. The father, Lester, even had a Lone Star Beer neon sign in the living room that he was proud of. I think Lester must have drank, in the course of the play, a case of Lone Star Beer. Ruby said, “If it wasn’t for you, Lone Star Beer would have gone out of business years ago!” He even used the beer as an excuse, saying, “It was the beer talking.” When Lester calls, “Bring me a cold one!” That line was taken from my Uncle Joe’s mouth, whom I used to visit as a kid in Louisiana and I’d spent the summer bringing him beers.

Robi Polgar: When we did The Road To Wigan Pier at the Off Center a decade ago, we set the show in an environment that mocked a 1930s working men’s club in a dingy mining town, with cheesy decor, a live band, a pair of ladies serving tea, an MC, and so on. The play tried to include as many elements of what you might experience in such a club at the time, including a raffle, which we held, live, at the end of the intermission. Every patron was given a raffle ticket with their admission and the MC – a ladykiller out for a grope – ran the thing, trying to arrange it for a woman to win the prize: Dinner for Two and a Movie. The movie turned out to be an old video of Margaret Thatcher speeches. The “dinner” was a pint of beer: Young’s Double Chocolate Stout (“This ale is so incredibly stout, you could share it with a mate and not have to eat again all day. So that’s your dinner taken care of.”) At that point, the winner was usually escorted to the stage to collect her prize while the cast sat around watching. I was part of the band and when the winning raffle ticket was discovered, it was in the hands of some 11-year-old girl scout. She stood up to claim her prize and I recall David Jones, also in the band, turning to me and saying something under his breath like, “you can’t let her have the beer,” because it was illegal. There was a lot of quick chat among the cast while Paul Norton (the MC) and our tea ladies looked for some sort of direction. Some of us were all for letting her have the beer, the more cautious/sensible prevailed, and we gave the girl something else, I don’t remember what, and didn’t get shut down for providing booze to a minor.

Janelle Buchanan: John Bustin, I believe, never saw a show without having had a couple of cocktails prior. This was (maybe) the cause of more than one occasion when he leaned across several other patrons to ask me, mid-show, “Do you have any idea what this is about?” Also have to mention that his standard post-show comment to an actor whose performance he hadn’t cared for was, “I think I can honestly say that no one in the audience enjoyed it any more than I did.” Loved loved loved him.

Robi Polgar: I remember John coming to one of the first Public Domain Theatre Company efforts and loathing it – panned it in the West Austin News. Some veteran of the theatre scene told me he liked his scotch, so from then on I made sure to have a fifth on hand whenever he came to review our shows. I once wound up hunting him down in the house after he’d taken his seat, because our box office staff hadn’t offered him his drink – Yikes! I took bottle and cup inside and made sure he had a goodly amount. Loved seeing his face light up: I think he liked being tended to personally. Certainly helped with the reviews – even if he didn’t like something, he found a way to be generous.

Kirk Lynn: I’m a recovered alcoholic. I’ve been sober for eight years. I miss the taste of beer, and I miss taking shots of tequila. I like to imagine that when I am 86, I will get one more shot of tequila and a cold, cold Mexican beer and a cigarette, and when I finish all that the barkeep will reveal himself to be Jesus and let me know that I am dead and can drink and smoke all I want. When I went to Rubber Repertory’s Biography of Physical Sensation, I was randomly assigned a set of experiences that would have included being offered a shot of whiskey with no warning about what it was, but some of the performers knew this could be a serious problem for me, so they adapted the experience on the spot, and, as I remember it, poured out the shot and let me smell it, and then one of them took the shot herself and continued with the experience, which had me lay my head on a table and watch part of an old B&W movie through the distorted view of the now empty shot glass. It was lovely. I brought back a lot of memories. I felt like I got to experience something I thought I never would again, a little edge of that hazy gaze at the world in the boozy aftermath of a long bender. And it made be feel included in a performance that was adapted just for me.

Read more stories behind the bar and deep in the jigger at The Austin Chronicle's Drink Drank Drunk issue hit stands Wednesday, July 3.

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