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Who Am I This Time?

Some years ago, I read a short story by this name by my fellow Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut. You can find it in his collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.”

In it, Harry Nash is a bland, introverted and nervous hardware man. But he becomes miraculously, brilliantly alive when he is on a stage, inhabiting the soul and heart of every character he plays. “Who am I this time?” he asks when any director of the local amateur theater company approaches.



He is given the part of Stanly Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’  “Streetcar Named Desire.” The director gives the part of his Kowalski’s wife, Stella, do a beautiful woman named Helene Shaw.

But Helene can’t act.

She writes off her inability to the fact she has never been in love. But she is so overcome by Harry’s performance that she becomes amazing, herself, and falls madly in love with Harry, having no idea what a metaphorical lump he is when he has no character to become.

After each show he scurries quietly away, much to her star-struck annoyance. She is only able to find the actor she’d fallen in love with when she hands him scripts, such as her favorite scene from Romeo and Juliet, to read with her.

I’ve already given away too much of the plot, but the ending of the story is subtle and quietly disturbing. It’s a story every theater fan and actor ought to read.

Perhaps this story means so much to me because I see a little bit of myself in Harry. I am actually a poster child for introvertism—at a party I’m the guy spending time with the bookshelf or the dog; in a group discussion I’m the one who may or may not have a lot to say – but is saying none of it. At least a couple of my acquaintances have wondered aloud if I have any emotions at all or if I’m even capable of feeling joy.

I do. I have intense emotions at times. But, by genetics or upbringing or who knows what, I keep it all locked away, inside.

I was always interested in theater but too shy and terrified to audition for parts. But I had the good luck of being handed a part or two when a production needed more actors and, seeing that I was competent on stage, some directors began simply handing me bigger and bigger parts.

I discovered something special about playing a character: that character was a mask that freed me to express so many emotions and traits without exposing the fact they actually came from me: to the audience, that guy on the stage wasn’t me. It was Finian, or Fagin, or Willy Loman simply borrowing my body for a time.

I’ve come to realize over the years that the opposite is true: that isn’t Fagin on stage. That’s me, occupying a fictional character, so I could escape my inhibitions and be some element or shading of myself for awhile.

And that’s what real acting is: finding the parts of a character that reflects some element of yourself, taking the anonymity the character allows, and letting yourself go.

There’s a crazy freedom in this.

I realize there are dangers, too. You have to realize how to let the character go when the show is done—like Harry did, as dull as the non-character Harry was. There are those who become so absorbed in their characters and the stage, however, that instead of taking what they learn on stage and applying it to their life, they instead lose touch with life and dedicate themselves to occupying only the fantasy of theatrical roles. The legendary Jonathan Winters spent time in a mental hospital in part because he was too engulfed in his zany characters. I knew of an actress in a community theater in Pennsylvania who had become so obsessed with being in every show that it destroyed her marriage. When her husband, tired of never seeing her, told her she had to back down on the plays or leave him, she walked out the door.

But that’s the rarity.

Acting is a beautiful thing, and a good actor can disappear into a wonderful world by possessing the character he or she plays – from the lead to a supporting character to the Second Servant in a Shakespeare play whose biggest line is, “Yes, m’lord.”

Are you struggling with a part you’ve been given? Are you stiff as a board while treading the boards? Don’t memorize lines then stand around listening for your cue to deliver them. Become the lines. Occupy them like Sherman did Atlanta. Occupy that stage, forget it is a stage and believe that it’s real.



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