John Benjamin Hickey just wrapped up the Broadway revival of Six Degrees of Separation, in which he starred alongside Allison Janney. In addition to winning a Tony for his 2011 performance in The Normal Heart, Hickey has a long career in stage, film, and television work. You may have seen him on Broadway in Love! Valour! Compassion!, Cabaret, or The Crucible; or on TV in “Alias,” “Law & Order,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Heartland,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” and “Modern Family.”
John signed my playbill at the stage door of Six Degrees and asked why I had a reporter’s notebook flipped open. Replying to my question about how he memorizes dialogue, he exceeded my expectations. Here are the fruits of our exchange.
Brent: What is the most challenging role you've ever tackled in terms of memorization?
John: In all honesty, it’s whatever I am working on at the time. And the older you get, the truer that becomes. But it also depends on the part.
Brent: I hear you—you and I are the same age. They tell us that age is supposed to bring more wisdom and experience, though! What part are you thinking of?
John: A couple of years ago, I played a theoretical nuclear physicist on a wonderful TV show called “Manhattan.” It was about the people who built the first atom bomb, and the stuff I had to learn was very…scientific. And believe me, I did not become an actor because I was a science whiz. That was very difficult material to learn, and I swear sometimes it felt like I was learning it phonetically. Not really, but it is a fact that in some cases if you just learn it, you also begin to learn what it means.
Brent: Don’t sweat it. Rocket science does not come easily to most people!
John: I know they always say you have to understand what you’re saying before you actually learn it, but that’s not always the case.
Brent: It makes sense that the more effort you put into learning the material, the better you come to understand its internal logic. Slow and steady wins the race.
John: It’s interesting, this has me thinking about the difference between film and theater.
Brent: Which is…?
John: Memorization is so different in television than it is in the theater. In television, you often times get the script pages the day BEFORE you film it, and then, of course, you shoot it, go home, and at the end of the day the whole thing starts over again, with brand new pages. So there is a lot of cramming involved.
Brent: And in the theater…?
John: In the theater, you have….time. You have rehearsal, you have repetition. Allison Janney—with whom I co-starred in the recent Broadway revival of Six Degrees of Separation—and I had the luxury of being old friends and very comfortable with each other, so when we discovered we would be in the same town some months before rehearsal began, I would go over to her house every weekend, and we would make screwdrivers and work on our lines. I don’t know if the vodka helped, but the working together to learn John Guare’s amazingly dense and dexterous dialogue sure did. And all we would do is just read it to each other, again and again and again.
Brent: Having seen you both in the show, I can attest to your chemistry. You were certainly believable as a longtime married couple.
John: Lucky for us it’s such a great play, so we never got tired of it.
Brent: In my interview with Kate Wetherhead and Greg Mullavey, they concurred that good, strong writing makes a play easier to memorize. As does sheer repetition.
John: It’s all about repetition. And rehearsal is, of course, everything. Figuring out WHY you’re saying what you’re saying, and how that is manifested physically in the blocking, those are all keys to remembering. Hamlet said it best: “suit the word to the action, the action to the word.”
Brent: It’s hard to argue with Shakespeare. I always like to ask actors if they have a favorite story about getting back on track after a forgotten line or unexpected occurrence. What is yours?
John: in our very first preview of Six Degrees of Separation, we were all so nervous. Allison’s character has a big plate of pasta on stage, and one of the penne noodles fell off the plate and onto the floor. The entire audience saw it fall, and without missing a beat, she reached down, picked it up, said “three second rule!!” and promptly ate it. It was a line worthy of John Guare, which is saying a lot. It’s as good an example as any I can think of as to why she is my hero.
Brent: What a sweet story, and a testament to her ability to stay in character. Thank you so much for talking with me. I look forward to seeing you again, on stage or anywhere.
John: Thank you for coming to the show!