Trying on Other People’s Lives

I’VE LEARNED a great deal about myself from trying on other people’s lives for a living. There is something about—in a very real sense—putting your feet into someone else’s shoes and actively moving around as that person in their world for period of time. 

That’s my favorite thing about the work of being an actor—becoming someone else. I always feel so honored to be able to literally bring someone to life for whatever length of time it takes to tell whatever story is being told.  

I always feel such an honor when I get to work on a brand new piece; one where nobody has ever said these words in this order before. I especially love when the playwright is in on the process, so they can see their creation come to life in you. 

Maybe it’s because I’m also a writer that I love collaborating with the playwright in the room, that I don’t get nervous that I’ll *mess up* somehow. I want to do the best I can to tell the playwright’s story, as it is in their head. The writer has an intention to release out into the world, and I want to do my best in doing my part to make that intention into meaning for those who experience the piece. 

I’ve come to think that way about my own life, lately—A story about who I am and who I am becoming. The Creator and I co-create my life’s story, and we’re always together in the room. 

I like when I get the opportunity to play real people from history. In a way, it’s like creating your very own Frankenstein monster. The person you’re *resurrecting* is not actually alive in this reality, but you re-animate him or her with your body and mind, and they get to do things again. 

For three hours a night (give or take), you get to lend every bit of you to the service of giving life to this creature, this creature who desperately has something to say.

Most of the time, though, I get to play fictional people. People who were made up in someone else’s mind. 

Having the privilege of imagining what it might be like to be someone else is not the same as actually being someone else. Of course, it isn’t. But, how can we have empathy for someone we don’t know if we don’t at least try to imagine what they must be going through.

I’ve played a lot of bad people in my career, people you never see get redeemed. That’s because the story is mainly about someone else, and that’s cool with me. 

What I love about playing bad guys is that you need the bad guy in order for the good guy to be the good guy.

“Ragtime,” for example, is just an interesting short-story about somebody finding a baby in their garden until I come in as Willie Conklin and drop the n-word in front of God and everybody.

“And there it is,” I would often hear the audience whisper. “Here we go!”

You can’t affect change in the theater unless there is truth in a moment. That particular moment in “Ragtime” was so important to the show and had to feel so real. Otherwise, it becomes cheap and trite. The stakes have to be there every single time. I tried my best to throw darkness out so that the light could do its shining business. Most of the time, I think it worked. 

And it exhausted me. 

Summoning up that kind of hate—even the appearance of it—takes a toll, like watching the video of George Floyd being murdered. The more you watch it, the closer you can come to despair. The story may not be finished, but that moment will never go away. 

In the summer of 1998, I was cast as Uncle Ernie in “The Who’s Tommy” at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. The things this man is depicted as doing to a young Tommy were beyond anything I could get my mind around. 

My daughter was three years old, at the time. Who does that to a child? 

“I just can’t relate to that in any way,” I kept saying to myself, to the director. “Those acts make this person unredeemable, unloveable. I can’t get past it.” 

I struggled with that barrier in my performance all through the rehearsal period. I went through the motions as best I could. I really *tried* everything, and nothing worked, nothing convinced.

Then came our first preview. 

At the end of the musical, Tommy (the now hearing, seeing, Pinball Wizard back from far away, played so beautifully by Matthew Magill) sings with the entire cast in the finale. 

In our production, Tommy, during this final musical number, was to “have a personal moment” with a family member. Something not necessarily noticed by the audience. Kind of a “find something to do here” type of thing. 

On this night, Tommy approached Uncle Ernie and stood right in front of me. He looked me in the eyes and then put his arms around me, holding me. He was forgiving his abusive Uncle with a tender hug. 

I burst into tears and could not stop crying. 

You might be tempted to say, “Well, that wasn’t real. That’s not real life.”

I assure you: It might not have been my *real life* but it was absolutely real. If there were a way that Tommy could forgive Ernie (even in the confines of *make believe*) then there would always be hope for me, for all of us.

There is a force at work in the world right now, and She is begging us to seek first to listen and understand. The time for that is right now, and there has never been a more perfect time in history to do it the world over. We’re ready! 

We are beginning to write our story in the type of collaborative way that was never before possible. 

From now on, EVERYONE is included!

What kind of character do you want to be?

Peace to you.

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