Goodbye, for Now: A Kind-of Actor Exits Stage Left
When I stand off-stage just before I’m about make an entrance, the last thing I do is bend down and pull up my socks — right foot first, because I’m right-footed, you see. Left-brained, half-cocked, slightly soiled, full of grace, bereft of sense; on my way.
It’s a habit. A compulsion, actually, if I’m honest. But “habit” sounds less pathological.
There is no actual reason to pull up my socks, because I’m comfortably well-off enough to afford socks with above-average elastic properties, bourgeois enough to throw away socks that have lost their ability to cling to the upper part of my lower leg. My sock drawer chokes with overabundance. My sock drawer runneth over, thou annointest my calves with cotton blend.
I got my first lead role in middle school — a 7th grade Captain Hook who was shorter than most of his subordinate pirates, and, for that matter, most of the Lost Boys. I was thirteen, and I was, well, hooked. Through a wonderful series of events, I got to play Captain Hook again, directed by the same wonderful woman, at age thirty — a married man, traipsing across the stage, rolling my R’s, dancing the tarantella, having a ball.
I won’t grow up. Not me. Not I.
I don’t know why I started acting, why I auditioned for “Peter Pan” back in 1993. I don’t know where that audition came from, that voice, that energy, that inhibition. I was totally restrained as a child — with my emotions, with my play, with my thoughts. I preferred to live as if I were an only child, in spite of having two older sisters, playing by myself in my room, trying out new voices in a mini-cassette recorder my father bought me from the office supply store; before there was Staples. Before Target. But not before Dairy Queen. Not before love.
I tried out new faces in the wall-to-wall mirror in my bedroom, even though I despised the face that looked back at me. I practiced Peter Sellers prat-falls off my bed, disappearing below the mirror, just like Sellers would disappear out of the camera shot. Later in my life, I learned that comedic filmmakers realized that actors falling out-of-shot was funnier than if the camera followed the actor down to the floor. “I don’t know why,” says Father Ted co-creator Graham Linehan, it’s just funnier.
When I was younger, applause and laughter was like a drug. So was getting cast. Getting the phone call or the email. We want you. To play this part. Get in these clothes. Get in this skin. These shoes. These eyes and teeth. After a performance of HMS Pinafore, an elderly lady asked me if I was wearing joke teeth.
“No,” I said, “they’re all mine.”
“Well,” she said, “they’re very funny.”
The drug, I think, has worn off over the years. I’m getting tired. Or depressed. Or ambivalent. I don’t know.
When I tell people I’m taking a break from theater, I usually lie and say that it’s because “I need to be at home more.”
For my children.
For my wife.
But the truth is that I don’t even know what the truth is. I just don’t want to do it anymore. Sometimes you just do something so often and for so long that you just do it because you’ve always done it, since you were this high, since your voice was this high, since before Staples and you do it because people say you should do it and you do it because you went to school for it and you do it because there’s this part in this town in our town and these people and, oh, these people, these beautiful people. I can’t.
The say “the play’s the thing”, but it isn’t really. The people are the thing. La Cosa Nostra: Our Thing. Our town. Our earth and our sky and our lights and our socks.
I have a song to sing, O.
I’ve lived so much of my life on a stage, in a costume, in a voice that wasn’t mine — graying my hair, learning my lines, falling off couches and falling in love, singing patter songs until my teeth ached — those funny, fucking teeth.
The wonderful thing, I tell people, about being an amateur performer, is that you can walk away from it whenever you want, for however long you want, and it’ll still be there in the morning, in a year, in ten, if you decide you want it back. I’m not hoofing, gigging, scraping, and I’m lucky to be able to say that, and do that. I’m lucky to be able to pull up my socks and walk away.