By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.
Plenty of actors talk about the “journey” they take with a character, but Bill Heck’s voyage is especially epic. For seven installments of Horton Foote’s nine-play opus The Orphans’ Home Cycle, now playing at Signature Theatre, he stars as Horace Robedeaux, a rural Texan searching for a place to belong.
Child actors play Horace in the cycle’s first two plays, but Heck tackles the character from young adulthood to ripe old age. That gives him a remarkable opportunity to burrow inside another person, to spend seven hours exploring everything from Horace’s first kisses to the end of his long relationships. (Signature is presenting the cycle in three segments of three plays each.)
But Heck’s role also creates enormous pressure. He has to give seven coherent performances in seven individual plays---eight if you count his turn as Horace’s father in the first installment---but he also needs to be consistent across the cycle. If his work in the ninth play seems unrelated to his work in the third or the fifth, then the cumulative effect of Foote’s writing could be lost. “Sometimes the challenges seem overwhelming, and it feels like you’re Sisyphus,” Heck says.
At first, of course, his job was just to learn thousands of lines and remember all his blocking. But now that he’s been with The Orphans’ Home Cycle for almost a year—the production premiered at Hartford Stage in Connecticut before moving to the Signature last November—he’s mastered the basics. Now he’s on to the subtler challenge of refining his work in the individual pieces and expanding his sense of the entire cycle. “The longer you spend with the plays, the more the larger things get taken care of,” he says. “You can start examining smaller things. It’s nice to have time.”
Recently, Heck has been thinking about Horace’s offstage relationships. For instance, Horace almost never appears on stage with his Aunt Inez, who raises him after his mother abandons him to live with her new husband, but we hear constant stories about her. Heck says he’s finally at a place where he can really consider those stories and let them affect his work.
He explains, “In ‘Lily Dale, [the third play in part one,] I get sick, and then I determine to leave before I fully recover. My mom asks me where I’m going, and I say I’m going to Aunt Inez’s. As we were doing it, that moment developed from a piece of exposition or information into me knowing that I have a safer place to go and I need to go there. That certainly enriches my experience of the scene, and hopefully, it communicates more about my situation to people watching.”
But Heck doesn’t need a full-blown story about another character to refine his performance. Single words have been affecting him, too. During a recent show, for instance, he made a small mistake in a scene with Horace’s mother. He says, “My line was ‘I thought it might be nice to live near you and sister for a change,’ but for whatever reason, I said, ‘live near you and sister for a while.’ Those two words are different. ‘I’m looking to change my situation drastically’ is a lot more loaded than ‘I’d like to hang around you for a while.’ That taught me something about what I want.”
He adds that mistakes also force him to notice parts of the script he may have glossed over. “Over nine hours, there’s stuff that you just don’t have time to examine,” he says. “You have to keep going. You have to keep the flow of the show going. But if you’re being lazy or lacking specificity, you will screw up a word or two, and that’s a kick in the pants to remind you to come back to the words and what they’re really saying.”
Ultimately, then, the key to a cycle-spanning series of performances may be hiding in tiny details. The Orphans’ Home Cycle runs through late March, and Heck plans to keep searching for small revelations. “I’m still playing with everything,” he says. “There’s always more to find.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor