Monthly Archives: November 2013

Performance anxiety

In 1998, when The X-Files was at the height of its popularity, I read an interview in Entertainment Weekly given by its star, David Duchovny. Talking about the fans who revered him as his character “Fox Mulder,” he took pains to point out:

It’s pretty workaday, people don’t seem to realize: You get up, you take a shower, you read the paper, you play Mulder.

I understand the impulse to demystify one’s profession, really. It’s embarrassing to be venerated by awestruck laymen. Modesty compels the likes of Duchovny and me to draw back the curtain and expose the workings of the machine — to prove that anyone could do what we do, it’s simply a matter of electing to.

Even though I have the impulse to demonstrate that to others, it turns out I don’t actually believe it myself. Not when it comes to acting, anyway. I find good acting to be mystifying, and actors themselves intimidating, be they never so humble.

There was a time when I thought I wanted to be an actor. In high school my new classmate Cynthia was one. She appeared in Afterschool Specials on TV, and in the 1980 movie Little Darlings (among much else later on). Although I wouldn’t have admitted it then, I was awestruck. I cluelessly pestered her for her agent’s name and contact info, so I could send a head shot and be discovered. When a talent scout visited our school once, hunting for someone to be the lead in My Bodyguard, I managed to insert myself in the interview schedule, and was peeved when they showed more interest in my best friend Chuck than in me.

Years later I realized it wasn’t acting I wanted to do. I simply wanted others to be as impressed with me as I was with Cynthia. I was jealous of my own feelings about her!

I should have known that my supposed desire to act was misguided when my close friend Andrew began showing signs of being a talented actor himself. Although I was his performing cohort on a few memorable occasions — we co-founded our school’s repertory group together with a few other friends and had a popular comedy act on the side — none of what I was doing was real acting (it was reading lines and playing for laughs), whereas when Andrew performed, he disappeared into his role, and it pretty well freaked me out. When he became a country bumpkin, or a Victorian gentleman, or a brash uncle, or an elderly Jew, it seemed to me there was no trace left of my friend. When we hung out together he would sometimes switch personalities and become someone I didn’t know how to relate to, exhibiting behaviors and emotions I knew weren’t Andrew’s. I was exactly as uncomfortable around him at such times as if a total stranger began emoting at me. In college I had another friend, Amy, a drama major, who had the same unsettling ability to abandon her usual demeanor on a whim and adopt an alternate one, fully realized.

I’ve often wondered why I’m so disconcerted by the abilities of actors. I think it must have to do with the fact that emotions are the raw materials of their craft. When I was young I was never especially comfortable with emotions, mine or others’. I was raised on 60’s cool; I identified with Mr. Spock. I suspect that for much of my youth I would have denied having very many emotions at all (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), and would have considered that laudable. I became a computer programmer, and not without reason. Computers can be instructed with precision and always respond predictably — exactly the opposite experience of dealing with people and their emotions.

From time to time my emotions would get the better of me. An unrequited crush could send me into a tailspin for weeks. Feelings were to be feared and kept under control. But actors! Actors are so at ease in the world of feelings that they put theirs on display. They change them on demand, and make sport with them! Confronted with such mastery of such dangerous stuff, I felt like the caveman who peers into a rival cave and is terrified to discover fearless tribesmen putting food into fire and then eating it!

Of course I’ve enjoyed good acting all my life; it’s only when the actor is known to me, and the alchemical transformation happens before my eyes, that I’m flustered. It’s less true today than in the past. I’m older now and, like Old Spock, have come to grips a little better with my own emotional life. But I’m still mistrustful of feelings, which control me more than I control them, so my inclination still is to keep them submerged. I therefore continue to be mystified and impressed and, yes, a little frightened by those who are not only able but willing to surface their feelings, to shape them and amplify them to create performances — that can, in turn, affect my own.

A Chanukah miracle

The following is completely true.

Chanukah begins later this week. Yesterday Andrea and I realized that we don’t know where our Chanukah menorah is. This has happened a few times over the years, and on a couple of those occasions we simply went and bought a new one. Sooner or later of course the old one always turned up, with the result that we now have a small collection of menorahs. We suspected that our menorahs were in a box in our recently rearranged storage space, but the prospects for getting there and searching through the boxes before Chanukah begins were nil. So we decided to task the kids with building one out of Lego or something.

That was in the afternoon. Soon after that conversation we all went out for dinner. When we returned, not yet having given the kids their menorah-making assignment, we discovered the doors of the kitchen pantry were open, and the contents of one shelf spilled out, as if someone had been rummaging through it in a hurry. But no one had. Standing upright on the floor, in the center of the spilled shelf contents, was our menorah.

For someone who doesn’t exist, God sure does want me to light Chanukah candles.

Kings of old

We all live like kings of old
With running water, hot and cold
By armed defenders towns patrolled
When we command it, stories told
At night, soft beds do us enfold
No need to wear a crown of gold
Or prove oneself with exploits bold
We all now live like kings of old