A week ago I was a pot selling, chain smoking, leather jacket wearing bad-ass who had applied far too much guyliner and enjoyed dumping nerds into garbage cans. Today, I’m back to my old self; the normal me that is everything opposite of what I just described. I’ve often wondered how far down the rabbit hole an actor can descend in pursuit of discovering their character. I can now honestly say that this actor has had a taste of that process and it’s both a scary and exciting ride.
This is the second year I’ve had the pleasure of being in a dinner theater to hep raise money for Waypoints – a local non profit that provides services for those affected by family violence. Last year I got to play one of the central characters in Fanny and Manny Tie the Knot – I played the part of Manny and it was an experience unlike any other. My character didn’t have that many official lines in the script and even though the plot was about his and Fanny’s wedding, the story was more about both of their crazy families coming together. Still, the challenge of staying in character for nearly five consecutive hours for two nights was a fun workout. So much so, that when I was given the opportunity to audition again this year, I jumped at the chance to join the cast of the Awesome 80’s Prom and was offered the role of Nick Fender – a role I happily accepted.
One of the fun things about theater is trying to figure out your character. I soon found myself repeating the same process I had last year discussing backgrounds, quirks, relationships and nicknames in an attempt to flesh out my characters – all of our characters really. The script itself is fairly bare and only has brief descriptions of the characters so it is really up to the actors themselves to flesh them out. This is especially important since the script is so bare that a good portion of it is left to improvised scenes and interactions that we had to make ourselves. I followed the process in the same way I had last year and, while it helped me flesh Nick Fender out, I still wasn’t sure who he was. I will admit, I found the first few weeks of rehearsal awkward, challenging and, at times, depressing. I was struggling to figure out how to be Fender. I thought maybe this role was beyond me. Clearly they had made a mistake giving me this character. However, my outlook would change rapidly after the Christmas break in a way I hadn’t expected.
Soon after our return to rehearsal, we started talking about what props our characters would have and need. With the help of one of my cast mates, we decided that during some of the improvised scenes Fender would attempt to sell fake concert tickets in addition to bags of oregano (pot) to those attending prom. Something clicked in my head and while I still hadn’t figured out who Fender was, I began getting ideas. The next week I brought a flask to rehearsal and used it gratuitously in front of the school principal, Mr. Snellgrove. I offered my class mates a hit from it and they responded in character. I got a taste of who this character really was – a man-teen who acted tough and loved both causing and getting into trouble. He thrived off it. I needed more. The next week, I dumped a friend, playing the role of the nerd, into a garbage can and watched him thrash around helplessly with a look of glee on my face. More and more, I was getting closer to finding out just who Fender was; who he could be really. It was exciting and I resolved myself to see just how far this could go.
The following week before a rehearsal, I asked my wife to stop at the convenience store and for the first time in my life, I bought a pack of smokes. Those that know me will tell you I am not a smoker. I do enjoy the occasional cigar here and there, but I’ve never been able to figure out the attraction to cigarettes, personally. However, I had no doubt in my mind that Fender was a smoker and did not hide the fact. So I hopped out of the car, walked into the store and did what I had to do……..while in character. It was probably one of the most awkward conversations ever since I was not well versed in the brands or sizes available. In addition to that, the guy behind the counter had a look on his face that said even though I didn’t look like I was under the age of 18, he should probably ID me anyway. I’m certain he thought I was nuts. But I……Fender…..emerged victorious from the store, pack of smokes in hand and into his wife’s ……. my wife’s…. Toyota Corolla. Bad-ass!
The pieces had all come together, but I feel like I finally transformed the moment I got into costume and makeup the night of the first show. The second I finished putting on my thick eyeliner and leather jacket, I ceased to be Chris and became Fender. That night I sold tickets to rock concerts 30 years gone. In one evening, I had dispersed my whole stash of drugs (also known as bulk quality oregano). I had alienated and bullied class mates. I hit on women with some of the cheesiest and worst pickup lines mankind could ever use and been rejected with a grin on my face that said, “whatever!” I was constantly taking hits from my flask and cigarettes were littered all over the floor. I was even confronted by a cop in the audience – my crowning achievement. That first night flew by and by the time it was over (nearly 5 hours later) I had held a cigarette in the corner of my mouth for so long that my lips began to crack and left blood on the filter tip. I took of my shoes to find blisters I didn’t even know were there. The leather jacket I was wearing was insulated for winter conditions; my shirt was soaked with sweat, my eyeliner was streaking and I was a exhausted. The best part was realizing that I would get to do it all over again the next day.
Here I am a week later. The eyeliner is gone. The leather jacket is hung up. The cigarettes are in the trash. Nick Fender is gone. Now there’s only me and Nick is nothing but a memory. My social media and e-mail is rapidly filing with pictures and video of someone I have a hard time recognizing.
I have done a fair amount of theater over the last few years and I am proud of the job that did in acting with those roles and what I was able to accomplish with them. This time felt different. In the past, I feel like I tried to act the way I thought my character should be. This time that approach did not work. I found my character so elusive and challenging – I knew I would have to go further. I couldn’t just act the character. It wasn’t enough to simply rehearse the character. I actually had to get inside the mind of the character; to step out of who I was and into the person I had slowly discovered over the course of two months. Looking back now, my exchanges with the character have taken a toll on me both emotionally and physically. I have gone further with a character than I have ever done before. Now I find myself exhausted, bloodied and worn out…..but extremely happy.
I will always remember my time with Nick Fender……and his magical night at prom.