Self-Inflicted


I have, at present, one of those marks on my body that begs to be explained as a violent wound. There is a large purple welt on the inside of my left bicep, and it could easily be believed to be the result of one or more of the following:


  • This guy grabbed me with his right hand so hard, I had to punch him in the nose to get him to let go.

  • I'm studying Filipino stick fighting.

  • Paintball, dude. Paintball.

Sadly, none are the case. No, my manly disfigurement arose from carrying an air conditioner home from the store. In other words, from my obstinacy. I could have taken a cab and been home in a jiffy, bruiseless, but I hate cabs and had assured myself that the air conditioner, to quote my own thoughts, "isn't that heavy and hey--useful plastic straps on the outside. I'll be fine." Of course, what probably exacerbated the hematoma (SOMEbody's suffering from SAT score envy) was the prompt application of push-ups after the air conditioner was actually installed.


I'm not trying to seem like a tough guy here. Wait. Well, actually, that's entirely the point. I am trying to seem like a tough guy. In August, unCommon Cause will at long last mount a finalized (somewhat) production of As Far As We Know as a part of the NYC Fringe Festival, and in said production I will be playing a captured soldier. The gentleman my role is based off of is a large, fit guy, and though I'm making no claims to be imitating him, one could definitely get a better impression of me as a soldier if I actually had pectoral muscles. So over the next few weeks I will be eating big breakfasts and making my arms very, very sore.


An actor's relationship to his or her body is an interesting one. We're probably second to models in our interest in keeping our physique attractive (with possibly a greater emphasis on functionality--definitely, when it comes to our voices) and are eligible for all the same benefits and foibles of behavior that can arise from that interest. There are some things that just can't be helped (apart from significant surgery), such as height, body type and facial features. The better among us learn to use such features to their advantages. Most dedicated actors, however, also feel a certain sense of responsibility (or just plain ol' fun) in modifying their appearance in ways appropriate to a given role. There are some very extreme examples of this from film (such as Christian Bale betwixt The Machinist and Batman Begins), but it applies to the stage as well. The difference is that the stage at once hides more details (such as wrinkles) and demands more drastic effects to succeed in modifying appearance (such as Antony Sher's ordeals in transforming himself into Richard III).


(A) An (hopefully) interesting observation:

Not much has changed over the years (and years [and years]) of theatre history. Actors with a reputation for altering their appearances for roles are commonly known as "character actors," unless they've achieved celebrity status, in which case they're often known as "bold," or "crazy." (Gary Oldman is a fascinating hybrid in that he's internationally known, and rarely looks at all the same between roles.) Lead actors, particularly in film, actually have a vested interest in maintaining similar looks between movies. It makes them more recognizable and type-able, and very often is rooted in their best, or most attractive, look. Apart from the tastes of the general public (or rather, because of those tastes), this consideration arises out of lead roles almost invariably being involved in some romantic plot or other. Take this back to the commedia dell'arte tradition, and one finds it awfully familiar. In classic commedia dell'arte, the innamorati, or lovers, never wore masks, whereas almost all of the other characters did. The exceptions to this rule were some of the female "servant" characters, presumably because they were meant to also be seen as attractive, though perhaps in a less romantic sense.


Anyway, I'm not in terrible shape. My doctor (when I actually have the insurance to be able to afford her) tells me that I'm keeping myself in good exercise, at least internally speaking, and simply as a matter of course I tend to get in a little stretching and exercise every day. That habit suffered the most it has in years over this last winter-into-spring, what with my injury and the uncertainty surrounding it, but I now feel well-returned to the habit of regular exercise. (Of particular help in this was teaching "physical acting" to high schoolers last week.) Of course, I would be in better shape if I still had my weekly Kirkos session to look forward to, but in many ways the circus skills I've been learning the past few years are what got me in good shape to begin with, and I return to them on my own. It's just easier to push oneself when one isn't . . . er . . . just one. So: I'm a reasonably healthy thirty-year-old man with several extracurricular skills to apply to the pursuit of the desired effect.


That effect being HUGENESS.


It ain't gonna happen. At least not in time for this incarnation of As Far As We Know. It's just too basic a change to affect in such a short time and, unless the show goes far, it's not a body state I'm enthusiastic to be in. When I was a kid, I would have eaten it up. My body ideals were formed by superheroes, and in large part that means no chest can be too huge, no abdomen too rippled. Now, however, having worked on circus skills and developed a better-informed interest in things like martial arts and le parkour, dexterity and speed are more important to me. Perhaps, too, age is a factor. The past year has taught me a lot about what it means to age in the physical sense, and as I grow older, I want to be more agile, not necessarily stronger. Nevertheless, I'm curious to see how effectively I can emulate an all-American soldier in just a month.


I had to come to a certain peace about my body image a while ago. As a kid, I was overweight until I was about 16, whereupon I grew no taller, but over a period of about two-to-three months I lost 40 pounds. No lie. I went from weighing 160 pounds (at 5'8'', very little of it muscle) to 120 (still rather lacking in muscle), which also directly led to my getting some for the very first time ever. And by "some," I of course mean "anything, at all." That detail may seem tangential, but I'll come back to it. I never really understood why the change happened then, or so suddenly. Looking back, it's easy to file it under teenage hormones. It was hard to say at the time, though, because I had wished for it for so long, silently, and it happened so suddenly I wasn't even aware of it until people started commenting on it. Still, I hesitated to do anything with my transformation, not really getting around to it until college, when I was quite unexpectedly cast as d'Artagnon in my school's production of The Three Musketeers. I had never known what it was like to really work on something so intensely physical until I had to train for the fencing in that show, and I ended up loving it. I love having to sweat for my craft.


Some few years ago, I had a little sit-down with myself. "Self," said I, "Let's me and I get together on this body-image thing." It was prompted by an observation from a friend, who wondered aloud if what drove me to be so disciplined about pushing myself in exercise (said friend caught me on a good stretch) was the subconscious worry that someday I would mysteriously revert and regain that extra 40 pounds of baggage. Fear is a powerful motivator in drama, but I try to avoid it in the rest of my life . . . whenever possible. I realized that I was associating being loved, even being worthy of love, with something impermanent and mysterious to me. So I made an agreement with myself that I would try to judge my body more by what it could do than what it looked like. Friend Kate and others were pivotal in helping me come to this conclusion by introducing me to circus--something concrete I enjoyed and could aim for--and since then I have made every go of it.


Of course, one can't always avoid an exterior analysis, particularly in a profession as image-conscious as my own. The important thing for me is to keep that interior (though now, shared with all seven of my 'blog subscribers) priority, even in the face of others' stunning physiques, or casting directors who look at me like I'm a Hot Pocket that didn't get enough time in the microwave. In those instances--as when I'm working to create HUGE pectoral protrusions--I just keep thinking, "I can hold a handstand 0.7 seconds longer than I could last year, and climb things like a spider-monkey." This makes my willingness to literally cause myself pain, inside and out, in order to create some unkown version of myself a bit weaker. But it also makes my journey to whatever I'll achieve far more rewarding, and spontaneous.


Now I have to go do some push-ups. And post an ad on Craigslist to pimp myself out as an air conditioner mover.

 
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