Post 21: The Play’s the thing.

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“…the devil hath power t’assume a pleasing shape”

It was a touch-and-go kind of week here in Lake World-be-gone, my new home. On Saturday night, after nearly a year without a single cold, the brutal flu fairy hit me from behind with a pipe, then casually slit my throat. Fortunately, last week’s post was almost entirely written already, because by Sunday morning, I was semi-comatose, my entire respiratory system encased in hard, hot plastic, and everything from my uvula to my lung passage filled with broken glass and steak knives. Every time I coughed—and I coughed incessantly—those blades began to whir and I saw the face of God. He was never happy. I slept a great deal to escape, dreaming of great writers who died of ‘consumption.’

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Then I got better, and we went to see the movie Tolkien at our local theater! It was about the way he used storytelling to navigate and make sense of his bewildering life. Needless to say, all very pointed material for me—speaking directly and emotionally for me, to the very things I am trying to do here.

With that said, shall we get back to what I’m trying to do here?

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George Washington Slept Here was a great success—well before our opening night performance. By the time I spoke my first line on a stage of collapsible wooden platforms in the high school choir room, before a set of painted Masonite board, under lights, in costume and makeup, before a real audience—in yet another virtual ‘dissociation coma,’ my life had already been transformed.

We had spent almost two months in rehearsal, giving that performance—over and over and over—for no one but ourselves—learning our lines so well that we could have said them in our sleep (which is basically what I did during that first scene on that first night). But learning to spit out the words was the least part of our training. The rest was all about becoming more aware of what we were trying to project to others, and of what we actually were projecting, and of how very different those two things might turn out to be—as well as how to better control and close that gap. In other words, how to perform convincingly. Given the history I have already shared with you, it should come as no surprise that I was already better equipped to ‘act’ than many of my peers. But that didn’t mean I was all that good at it yet. The process was a revelation, as I discovered the multitude of small ways I didn’t sound or look to others as I sounded and looked to myself. Things like pacing and body language became more and more conscious and intentional for me. My control of timing and phrasing—especially in comedic terms—was, for the first time ever, being directly critiqued and improved.

One of the best moments in the play comes just as my character, Raymond, is opening his mouth to betray the story’s hero and heroine. Someone prevents this by hitting him over the head—from behind—with a broken-off wooden railing post, knocking him unconscious. That proved difficult—and dangerous—to do convincingly with an actual wooden post. So I (whose head had most at stake in this regard) suggested that we mount a relatively soft, plastic dish soap bottle on the end of an actual carved wooden post, and paint the whole thing to look like ‘wood.’ The idea worked. Now I could be bonked very convincingly. The punch didn’t need to be pulled so noticeably. The plastic bottle was still hard enough to hurt, of course, but not hard enough to actually injure me. And the process of figuring out exactly how hard I could safely be hit with that prop did occasionally leave me face down on the stage, struggling not to ruin my imitation of unconsciousness by grabbing the back of my head and screaming in pain. But eventually, we found the correct threshold.

I’m not sure I could think of a better metaphor for my youth in general—my inventive genius focused on how to make hitting me over the head more manageable—for me and for everyone else. Not that such thoughts ever crossed my mind then. The play required my character to be knocked unconscious. If there was some actual pain involved, that was just the cost of acting, no? The show must go on! What further thought need be wasted on the matter?

Sometimes it does seem as if someone, somewhere else, must be writing our lives. Someone smarter and already in possession of the larger story. So many events seem too perfectly constructed, too omniscient, insightful, and instructive to be coming from just ourselves. Or maybe, deep inside of each of us, there is someone all along who sees further and knows more than the conscious ‘I’ does? If so, I am still left to wonder what on Earth they’re thinking.

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But, for all the training in self-awareness and performance technique I received from that really very good drama teacher, the most important lessons I was learning were about self-conscious fear—and how to hide and/or steer it both more effectively and less visibly. Every time my fear showed in rehearsal, it was noted and called out. Practical suggestions were made about how to get past it, defuse it, set it down, get it out of my way. Somehow, I had never seen the idea of leading with strengths and concealing liabilities so well modeled before. On opening night, I was just as terrified as I’d expected to be. But a few short months of our drama teacher’s training and the repetitive ‘desensitization’ exercises of rehearsal, in alchemical combination with my own developmental history, had equipped me to make that terror effectively invisible to others—and more importantly, more survivable for myself. Terror itself no longer terrified me—as it had always done before. I’d learned what to do with terror: where to ‘put it.’ This new skill was not just the ‘glacial dissociation’ I’d been fleeing to in the locker room showers. This was acting—mechanically intentional and controlled. The last time I remember feeling ‘dissociated’ in high school—about much of anything—was my first scene on opening night. By my second scene that night, I was banishing my terror; it no longer banished me.

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I was employing all these new skills during lunch hour too, of course. I sat every day with my junior and senior friends at ‘their table’ in the cafeteria, laughing and debating and performing my little heart out with the best of them—without any fear at all. Although I didn’t really understand it yet, my new ‘actor’ friends were among the nerds and outcasts of their own peer group—but in an interesting and sometimes ‘popular’ way. Lunching at ‘their table’ resulted in meeting their friends as well, many of whom clearly assumed I must also be some ‘late-blooming’ upperclassman they just hadn’t met before. Being a compulsively honest type, I nearly always admitted, very quickly, that I was actually a freshman. In fact, I developed an entertaining little comedic routine to explain how I had come to be eating at the wrong lunch hour. But by the time I explained this to most of them, the mistake had already been made, and discovering my actual grade level changed nothing much. ‘Category’ only matters to most people until it’s broken by something ‘on the ground.’ Then, it gets discarded in favor of what’s actually happening.

In just a couple months, I had defused and escaped the confines of ‘category’ far more completely than I ever had at Eden Jail—purely by the intervention of two happy accidents: my erroneous lunch assignment and forgetting my books in choir class one day. I was practically un-categorizable—even to my freshman friends and acquaintances. I was not around at lunch while they were ‘bonding’—and assigning each other to categories.  But the ‘somewhere else’ I was seemed both more glamorous and more dangerous in their imaginations—and the fact that I was apparently anything but ‘dead yet’ by Christmas seemed impressive to them. I was still skinny, baby-faced and weird, of course. Absence at lunch couldn’t erase that. We all still shared classes. But, like my new, older friends, I was weird in really interesting ways. I was in a PLAY already. There was a glass case full of my artwork in the art-room hallway. And being absent from their lunch hour removed the actual me just enough to let their imaginations ‘fill in my blanks’ as it suited them to. For a time, that worked more in my favor than I even guessed. This may even have been when that rumor about my secret ‘college-aged’ girlfriend got started.

To be clear, there was no ‘brilliant plan’ on my part at work here. It wasn’t like I understood the potential of my position and cleverly leveraged it. I was just happily, and cluelessly, riding a wave of unanticipated breaks so absent from any of my previous experience that I didn’t even fully recognize them at the time, much less understand and ‘use’ them in any focused way. They say God blesses fools and children. I was both—and apparently had ‘pretty eyes’ to boot.

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That I may have wandered through this improbable and fortuitous confluence like Tony Curtis through a pie fight does not mean it wasn’t tremendously empowering, however. Though I probably couldn’t have told you exactly why, I did feel very conscious of the fact that I had somehow come into my own at last. I was careful to do well in class and keep my grades up. I took art both semesters, and had better and better drawings and paintings put up in the art class showcase. I also tried out for the spring musical, Hello Dolly, and was cast as Barnaby Tucker, a young, clueless, comedic, yet somewhat romantic ‘supporting lead.’ This was no little play on folding platforms in the choir room. This was the year’s BIG production—on twice as many folding platforms in the auditorium—with big elaborate sets—and an orchestra. My star was really rising now—all in my freshman year. I was—at last—somebody.

I went to sleep most nights feeling happier, luckier, and less afraid than I ever had before. Not bad for my first year of living ‘in the wild’ without the aid of weekly therapy, no? Having finally hit my stride, I was getting involved in all sorts of things, and making more and more new friends—pretty much 24/7. I tried out clubs, went to school dances (and actually danced instead of standing in some cluster of Brylcreemed freshman guys acting like they were too tough and cool to care). I liked to dance, I was good at it, and, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I was very comfortable with girls. In the spring semester, I even joined the cross country track team! After three years of walking two miles to school and two miles home again—uphill all the way—I had a stout pair of legs. It seemed time to find some spot for myself in the sports realm besides ‘funniest klutz.’

But stop right there! Hold that bus. Rewind a bit.

I’ve left out a few really important things—on purpose this time. And I won’t capture this transition correctly or usefully without first projecting what I’ve said so far through a few alternative filters.

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As I mentioned in this post’s opening quote from Hamlet, the devil hath power to assume a pleasant shape. Many people who get involved in ‘theater’ are in love right from the start with the idea of becoming ‘someone else’—convincingly. Someone ‘better’—or maybe ‘worse’—but someone ‘more interesting’ in any case. Can I pretend I was not one of these, with a straight face? Probably. My acting abilities are up to it. But fascination with being someone else often speaks volumes about one’s esteem for who they already ‘are.’ It seems no accident to me that performers have such a reputation for failed marriages, debauched addiction, and tragic demise. It’s hard to keep two ‘great performances’ comfortably married for a lifetime—or even a few years. You need two real people—all the way down—for that. It’s hard to live happily even alone in a skin your whole life is about escaping. Dr. Jekyll had a terrible time managing that trick—as do many, many actors. And politicians. And preachers, and teachers, and lovers, and parents…

I do believe you can genuinely outgrow and leave behind an old skin—over time. We all do that. It’s called growing up. I believe there are multiple selves living inside each of us—all of whom we’ve really been over the course of our lives. There is still a young man living inside of me, and a teenage boy, and a child, and a toddler and an infant. None of them are remotely ‘the same person.’ I have certainly been each of them, all the way down, along the way. And none of them are really ‘gone’—or ever will be. They remain layered within me—still needing, thinking, feeling, and sometimes behaving the way they did—regardless of who I ‘am’ now. But I have seen not a single bit of evidence in my life or in any of the lives around me to support the idea that we can just step out of one skin and into another at will, genuinely and permanently—or even very effectively—without growing into one, and genuinely out of the other. Just donning one suit over another—however carefully and brilliantly done—always leaves them both distorted in telling and disruptive ways.

Farther up this page, I made passing reference to being “the honest type.” I had always been, if anything, much too ‘honest’ (here meaning, ‘compelled to tell the truth’) for my own good. ‘Honesty’ was a very important value in our home—despite all the time and effort we spent hiding from ourselves and each other there. There were few crimes I had been more angrily punished for while growing up than lying—about anything, large or small.

But one might reasonably wonder whether I could learn all these things about more convincing and effective performance skills, and truly remain “the honest type.” Wouldn’t a growing ability to hide fear, and other aspects of one’s self, and convincingly project what you want others to see instead make all sorts of useful manipulations seem available and useful? An adolescent enjoying the ability to ‘present himself’ so much more successfully than he ever had before might easily become an increasingly ‘manufactured,’ self-serving, narcissistic dick in very little time, no? There were such people at our school. Most of them were very popular. ‘Leaders,’ with followings. One finds them everywhere. One is often tempted to envy them.

I believe that what kept me from aspiring to that path at such an intrinsically narcissistic age was the nature of my particular ‘story’—so much of which had been formed in churches. Not just the one I attended, but the churches to which so many of the authors I read, whose mythologies I absorbed and digested so hungrily, belonged, or had, at least, been shaped by.

Before your hackles rise, let me rush to acknowledge that the stories told in churches—however goodie-two-shoes, or even genuinely ethically sound and wise—are no more immune to the potential for enshrining and transmitting lies than stories of any other kind. Our whole current experience in this country points this out—glaringly. I am all too aware now that the stories religion had imbued me with were laced with all kinds of toxic lies—some of which still cripple me, even though I’ve long since left any formal participation in ‘organized religion.’ So, I do not mean to suggest here that the religious stories I came into my new performance skills with were inherently ‘more honest’ than other people’s stories. I mean only to say that they happened to contain some very potent hedges against certain kinds of self-serving fakery I might otherwise have been seduced by. At the heart of the story I was using my improved performance skills to move into and inhabit were two core principles:

1.       Honesty—in any and all forms I was aware of—was essential. Any compromise of this discipline led, inevitably, to villainous calamity and failure—no matter what one’s initial intent might be.

2.       Whatever power one had, or might acquire, must be used to help others as well as one’s self, or it would become poisonous and self-destructive, leading, again, only to self-loathing and failure.

So, even as I learned to contain and hide fear, and more effectively project the new, better story I wanted to inhabit, it never crossed my mind to knowingly ‘fake’ anything. If someone at lunch took me for an upperclassman, I corrected that misapprehension right away. If someone seemed to be overestimating my talent, or my potential, I happily nipped that in the bud as well. I did not pretend to like people I didn’t like. I wasn’t unfriendly or unkind to people just to make myself look better, or distance myself from what others thought of them. If I screwed up some task in class, I didn’t lie about why—or blame someone else. I never tried to ‘get things’ I didn’t deserve—or even things I did deserve—from others through manipulation. I didn’t strike poses I didn’t really believe in. Nor did I suppress positions or beliefs I did hold—like religious faith, kindness, honesty, modesty, sobriety and respect for authority—even in situations where I knew it made me seem ridiculous. Girls loved this about me—much more than boys seemed to. Especially real boys.

And yeah. We will be getting further into this ‘real boys’ thing. Eventually. There’s a little ground to cover first, though.

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Because the story I was trying so hard to move into and inhabit was a story about ‘goodness,’ my improving success with performance skills did not turn me into a self-serving exhibitionist. Wrong story; that’s all. But neither did my ‘good’ story render me immune to the costs of trying to wear a better skin—without facing, owning and really resolving the previous skin first. My own story was very clearly warning me about this—even as I tried to move into it. But because I was such an intelligent, talented and profoundly well-intentioned boy, I managed not to recognize those warnings, or the already-germinating consequences of my inattention—for a surprisingly long while. Now…think about the ways I’ve described my father—his fear of ‘shadows,’ and the consequences of that fear…

It’s true, what they say: the apple—however superficially dissimilar—rarely does fall far from the tree.

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Still ahead in our tour of Cirque Du High School, we’ll take a ride on the religion rollercoaster—maybe even venture into the unsettling hall of mirrors with some real boys—or maybe check out the bumper cars of parental paranoia.

Unless, of course, I end up rabbitting off down some other deer trail unexpectedly. I mean, really. Who knows anymore what next week might bring?

Bon chance, cyber-pals. Thanks again for coming along.

See you here again next Sunday.

Mark Ferrari1 Comment