Bill Largess has a great memory. No, strike that: Elephants have great memories. Bill Largess has a hard drive in his head.
Ask this founding member of the Washington Stage Guild what he was doing on February 27, say, 20 years ago, and in about three seconds it’s all there: His breakfast that morning (a banana and coffee). The show he was in (a satirical political revue called Bleeding Hearts of 1983). And the person who spilled wine on his new sweater at the post-show party that nightan incident that still burns him up. “I kept a diary for a while, but then I stopped, because I found it superfluous,” Largess says.
Total recall isn’t just a party trick for Largess: His eidetic memory and his command of the arcane have made him a celebrated resource in D.C. theater. He learns lines so quickly that, when the Stage Guild mounted George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman in 1998, he was a natural for Jack Tannera role that requires roughly four hours of wordiness.
That feat landed him a gig as Athol Fugard’s understudy in that year’s D.C. and New York runs of The Captain’s Tiger. In that job, he absorbed the playwright’s distinctive South African accent so thoroughly that he was able to serve as dialect coach for Fugard’s Blood Knot when the African Continuum Theatre Company staged it last year.
As the Stage Guild’s principal dramaturge, Largess generally doesn’t have to research the finer points of Shaw and other rarefied farehe often knows them offhand. Rehearsing Michael MacLiammoir’s Ill Met by Moonlight, director Morgan Duncan wondered aloud about a script reference to an obscure Gaelic song; Largess immediately launched into a chorus. Even the Library of Congress’ Talking Books program consults Largess on matters of pronunciation and definition.
“There was a time in my early 20sI should be able to remember exactlywhen I had to struggle with the realization that other people don’t remember all this stuff,” says Largess. But it doesn’t trouble him anymore: “I have a great interest in the minutiae of human existence.”
Not surprisingly, some see him as an eccentric. It cannot help in this regard that he has a pet hedgehog. Named Privet. (“Of course he does,” one local actor reportedly said, hearing of this fact.) Ann Norton, the Stage Guild’s executive director, admits that Privet is an unusual pet. “But naturally,” she adds, “Bill researched it thoroughly.”
Largess, 47, is a Catholic University graduate and lifelong District resident, and one of a relative handful of actors who’ve built careers working primarily in the area. Local commitment comes at a price, of course: Alongside such hefty endeavors as his own one-man adaptation of Dante’s Inferno, Largess’ credits include a stint as a singing bear in the Mazza Gallerie’s Christmas display. (He’s just finished acting in the Stage Guild run of The Unexpected Man and is now in rehearsal for 1776 at Ford’s Theatre.)
He also teaches drama at Catholic and at Howard Community College, helps run Rep Stage’s student summer Shakespeare program, and co-chairs the region’s Actors Equity Liaison Committee. It’s his voice reading the list of upcoming auditions on the Equity hot line, which operates from an answering machine in his basement.
Throw in his directing (the Stage Guild’s upcoming Rose, for instance) and set designing, and Largess begins to look like a man with an exceedingly full life in the theater. What his colleagues remark on, though, is his lack of egoand his cool head in those inevitable moments of onstage crisis.
He’s even easygoing about how you say his name. “You can pronounce it Lar-JESS or LAR-jess,” he says, “but I prefer the latter, because it scans in iambic pentameter.”
Of course it does. Robert Lalasz