Thick, pink, sort of lumpy paste; that’s not quite how I imagined it looking. The smell is strong and getting stronger as I sit there, grocery bag on my head preparing for the worst, anxiety growing with every sound and second.
Rewind three weeks. I arrived at the audition for The Elephant Man refusing to admit how badly I wanted to be cast in it. I went in armed with not one, but my two monologues, my resilience, and a crayon drawing of a creature; half elephant, half man hoping it would at least make me sort of memorable (or mildly amusing) in the face of those who look down upon me stern in judgment.
I picked my spot on the wall and spoke to it more intently than I would a person, hoping to sell my craft and capture an impressive moment at least enough to get called back. Though I was supposed to be totally engrossed in my performance, some part of my mind noticed and appreciated this particular director and the way he runs an audition. I often feel as I walk in to an audition that the director makes it clear that I am not what they want or as they take in your pieces, their eyes pierce you, trying to cram what you’re giving them now into some preconceived notion of how their show is going to feel and look. And you feel the tension of the pieces of you that aren’t jiving with their vision, and you walk away knowing that you won’t be back.
But this director somehow manages to be your friend. He creates a space that somehow seems safe to give in, to be vulnerable in, to perform in. He seems to watch as though he is committing wholly to the world you’ve created and brought to him, and rather than trying to chip away at it to fit it into his preconceived notion, he watches with eyes open to your contribution and decides if its something he can use. I walked out not really knowing where I stood, but feeling grateful that he gave me that kind of a chance.
On my way out, I arm-wrestled the little girl that leant me a crayon for my aforementioned audition drawing (and lost…) and was told that I would need to be at callbacks the following Saturday morning at 9am. Small victory. Not many people auditioned, but I still counted it a sort of victory.
This play is already one of my favorites because I am so fascinated by deformity and how appearance affects the course of a life. Joseph Merrick (the elephant man) shocked people with his intelligence and his romanticism and became noted for those traits, but it wasn’t noteworthy because he would’ve been a John Keats under alternate circumstances, it was noteworthy because he was so terrifying and repugnant to look upon, but nonetheless possessed that sensitivity. There’s something almost pitiful about his honest desire for the love of woman, when so few men or women could stand to be in the same room with him. Most of all, I am captivated by the idea of someone who had to go through life wearing the warped and frustrated and horrifying parts of his being (that everyone has) in a place of visibility and spectacle, presented for the world’s scrutiny.
The show is being done with nearly everyone in character mask, which emphasizes the physicality of a character and complete transformation of the actor as opposed to a sort of method of playing yourself on stage. At the first callback, we were asked to try that kind of transformation by choosing a mask, walking to the mirror and adjusting our body and our clothes and our hair to fit this person that we temporarily resembled. Mine was a face, contorted, and when we were asked to live in this world and explore this new person that we were, I naturally recoiled from every human interaction (and I began to understand why Joseph Merrick’s poetry and eagerness to share his thoughts with people was an anomaly.)
Two more sets of callbacks followed, and in the end, only eight people were cast. And I was surprised and excited to see that my name was one of those lucky remaining. It’s funny that the anticipation of a thing you want more than anything else culminates in an almost out-of-body and dazed refusal to take things in.
The anticipation of things that you dread is another matter. Which brings us back to that pink, thick, sort of lumpy paste that didn’t look quite how I imagined. To make the masks for our characters they needed to make life masks or plaster recreations of our faces, and to do that, they had to engulf our entire faces in goop with only the nostrils left open for breathing. I am not claustrophobic nor do I tend towards indulging irrational fears, but when you’re caked in the thick stuff, not being able to breathe and ultimately meeting a suffocated, untimely demise, doesn’t really seem like irrational fear. The build-up to that moment where airflow would no longer be free felt like the build up to some tribe’s choice of who next to sacrifice, and as the lot falls on a particular person, they die right there of heart failure.
The pink dough (recipe for a face) was icy cold and smelled of mint, which immediately put me in some never-before-seen vision of a snow hotel in Finland with truffles on the pillows. It was the loss of my eyes and not my mouth or nose that made my anxiety threaten to explode. Unlike the numb pleasure of finding out I was cast in this production, my most keen feelings of disgust and panic were as present as they’ve ever been in the moment when they buried my face and told me I was not to see or speak or even move. 20 minutes seemed like an eternity to wait for the hardening of a false face and the familiarity of new freedom, but as all trials eventually do, it ended.
My part in this show boasts character names like ‘Sandwich’ and ‘Pinhead’ and somehow it feels exactly suited. Funny that it isn’t going up for months, and yet I can think of little else. Odd that little dreamer Mariah who had thoughts of becoming a painter or an astronaut could never have guessed that such a chance little production would bring so much satisfaction and pleasure. Never knew I’d feel so connected to a 200 year old tragic hero or that wearing a mask to tell his story would be the way I’d most love to tell of him. When I went in to get updated measurements for the costumes for this show, I found out I’ve lost two inches off of my waist since last time they measured me. Oh yea, this is going to be a good show.