When I got my first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, I cried. The pent-up stress, anxiety, and general discomfort of the pandemic felt like it was beginning to wane. As I navigated back home, praising the modern marvels of science and medicine to myself, I couldn’t help but think about the eventual unclenching of society and its routines. This wasn’t necessarily an exciting thought for me; I have, as many have, turned inward during this hellscape of a year, crystallizing some traits that I don’t care much for, but didn’t exactly go out of my way to fix due to the fact that I see essentially only the people I live with. My first thought on the matter was blunt: am I expected to be the bubbly, happy-go-lucky person I was before? I DON’T REMEMBER HOW TO BE ANYTHING BUT A BALL OF ANXIOUS CHOWDER!
This thought encompasses the person that I am when I work in an office or have a passing conversation with someone in the supermarket. I was the person who would always have a “I’m doing just peachy” or “just another day in paradise” for anyone who asked. But since I’ve locked myself away from the world for the last year, I’ve felt myself close up, the parts of me that are capable of functioning in our society slowly drained of their strength. How soon until I am expected to be a denizen who contributes to the world? If I knew the answer to that question, I would have enough time to chip away the pandemic habits that I have acquired and be the shiny, gorgeous Anthony that everyone remembers me being!
This all demanded some time to think, but between the gnats that had gathered, the sunburn I felt myself developing and the mischievous dog named Fig Newton, who kept wandering around in my peripheral vision, I was having some trouble giving it the time it required. How does one answer that? It’s not something on the syllabus in any of the schools I attended. I imagined my time inside during the various crises of the last year to be transformative, that there’d be hundreds, no, thousands of epiphanies by the time I’d be thankfully receiving a vaccine.
To my shock, dismay, and relative disgust, I have watched myself curl up into the personalities that I long thought left behind. Things did change around me: I moved to a different home; I lost, applied for, got, and lost again a series of jobs; and I bought myself a car, the American Dream coming out its exhaust pipe whenever I turned the key. But where were my revelations? Where was the key that unlocked a higher level of consciousness?
How does one completely reinvent an identity?
When I think of where I was before, I am unsure of if I’m seeing my high school self or post-grad self. In both instances, I was a disgruntled son living in his parents’ house, getting into arguments, and needing to go on long walks to get time to himself. If I stayed honest, I would have to acknowledge that I still possessed all of those traits, now with some compounded extras — headline fatigue, some understanding of how the world works, some coping strategies for new and old anxiety and terror, and a newfound love for birding. It has been jarring and disappointing to feel these old selves reemerge from what I considered to be a closed door. Evolution has taught me that I shouldn’t look back as I evolve, but from what I’ve seen of the world, how can I shed my inner selves?
Feeling as if my brain has partially melted, I sit in the backyard of my parents’ gorgeous, one-story Los Angeles home in a gorgeous, one-story jacuzzi, absolutely crying my eyes out. I cannot believe that my world has been so aggressively thrashed with changes in such a short period of time. I can’t help but think, as I gaze up toward the heavens, is this what people meant when they say life is suffering? The tears roll too quickly out of my eyes for me to even fathom how good I am at wallowing in what is happening to me. I have done myself the great service of bringing a bowl of potato chips with me, so I take a small handful and enjoy a hearty crunch, the salt from the Lay’s mixing with the salt from my tears. It’s 2015, and I, a high school senior, have just been told that my character choices for the role I’m playing aren’t working.
The charmed life that I had led up until that point had some struggles woven through my existence; there was nary a book report during my tenure in grades 3 through 6 that I couldn’t complete without an absolute breakdown when I realized that I had waited too long to start it. I, in my immense strength, beauty, and grace, found a way to persevere. But the director of my high school theatre (for his privacy, I will call him Gerald Goose) had just informed me only four weeks before a show that I was not playing the character properly. How dare Mr. Goose question my acting choices! I approached this character — Cookie, from the acclaimed British jukebox nightmare Return to the Forbidden Planet — with the sensitivity and high-mindedness of the knighted Ian McKellen: by basically taking a version of my own personality and slapping it onto the character without so much as a second thought.
Return To The Forbidden Planet Trailer | Source: curvetheatre/YouTube
How does one completely reinvent an identity? Plenty of sitcoms, movies, and plays — dating back to Willy Shakes’ Twelfth Night — have explored the demanding-yet-hilarious task of pretending to be someone else. This question was tragically poignant for me during the rehearsals for Return to the Forbidden Planet and, I would argue, more important right now. As I start becoming more optimistic about the end of the pandemic, I pivot to the daunting task we all face: returning to our normal routines as society jerks and twitches its way towards reopening. I remember the times before the pandemic (I sound like a ninety-year-old reminiscing, and that’s true, I turned 90 this past November) but I don’t remember how to return to the person I was.
The new schedules and habits that I developed in the pandemic feel like a quick-drying cement pool that I’ve fallen into just as the workday is over at the construction site: I’m crabby, anxious, and more prone to be stuck in looped thinking. If you imagine a goblin who lives in the foothills of Los Angeles, you have a pretty good sense of who I am and what I look like. Is this it? Am I doomed to be this goblin forever?
Evolution has taught me that I shouldn’t look back as I evolve, but from what I’ve seen of the world, how can I shed my inner selves?
I suppose before getting too far into my complex, teenaged emotions about the matter, I should explain the role and the show for those of you that aren’t acclimated to what British people like as far as the theatre goes. Return to the Forbidden Planet is an unhinged romp through a series of Shakespeare quotes and references that generally (yet with extreme liberties taken) follows the plot of The Tempest — if The Tempest was set in space. Prospero becomes a mad scientist; Caliban becomes Cookie the chef (unclear as to why); and Ariel was written as a robot. If that wasn’t enough, the Brits made this show into a 1960s jukebox musical. As the character Cookie, I sang “The Shoop Shoop Song,” “She’s Not There,” “Only The Lonely,” and others. Sure, the show is odd. Sure, it feels like a fever dream. One, however, cannot deny that it is a ripe opportunity for one to run around and pretend to be William Shatner in the peak of his career.
Roy Orbison – Only the Lonely (Black & White Night 30) | Source: © Roy Orbison/YouTube
From the table read forward, I saw Cookie to be a lovestruck and tragic figure. He falls in love with Miranda immediately upon seeing her and thinks that she loves him back due to a misunderstanding of a kiss on the cheek. In my novice acting knowledge, I immediately thought: Oh, he’s just like me! And therefore, I will imbue this character with what is essentially my entire identity because he’s Just Like Me! (Stanislavski’s concept of emotion memory was a favorite of mine, if you can’t tell.) Thus, my journey of playing Cookie as essentially myself was born! Choices were made deliberately still, but not from a distinct character. I was mostly reacting as myself, as opposed to grounded in myself and reacting from the character. I don’t want to be mired in the mechanical language of acting, so I shall put it like this: it wasn’t very good even though I was trying my best.
This struggle went unnoticed for the majority of the rehearsals, to the detriment of my confirmation bias. When Mr. Goose told me that it wasn’t working, that made it all the more devastating. But through the primordial fog of adolescent emotion, I could see that he was indeed right. Many of my lines were not landing right, regardless of the different choices I would try. The dynamics between Cookie and certain characters were off as well: the hatred for the Captain that Cookie needed to possess wasn’t fully there. Only Cookie’s infatuation with Miranda was present. Now knowing this, I extricated myself from my parents’ jacuzzi — my wallowing grounds no longer needed—and began the research needed to rebuild the smoldering remains of Cookie.
I became accustomed to repeating “I’m tired of living through historical events” during the last year. It felt like a convenient way to forgive any changes in my character, for you cannot blame a person for being the way that they are for just trying to survive in a situation of extended stress. As I became good at staving off the feeling of stir-craziness and impending doom by taking drives or long walks by myself, I also felt the negative traits find their niches. Despite feeling them, I didn’t do anything to stave them off. I’m only seeing friends on Zoom, so that works out to acting right for one or two hours in a day; who else was going to hold me accountable? My phone?
To invoke Kafka, the enormous bug that I have turned into is not a permanent change. The good and the bad will have to co-mingle and be friendly with each other.
I don’t want it to seem that I have become a truly terrible person without any recourse or remorse. The man who loves small talk and sitting at coffee shops with no real plan is still there, behind the man who grimaces when presented with the idea of strangers and sitting near them. I’m just not champing at the bit to go on the excavation required to find him. The change into pandemic Anthony was jarring and difficult. Now that I have fallen into those routines, why would I go looking for another change?
A new Cookie was somewhere just outside my grasp, so I went looking in the place that I love most: animated movies. Animation is a boundless place, ripe with opportunity since it’s not limited by what the human body can do. Characters, even if they don’t have superpowers or enhanced abilities, can even just be shaped in ways that we humans cannot be. In some scenarios, this means a way to present unachievable, overly idealized body types. But in the best movies, this means aligning the shape of a character’s body with who they are, underscoring their motives and wishes through the fiber of their being. Jumba and Pleakley from Lilo & Stitch come to mind: Jumba, the big, bombastic mad scientist who doesn’t feel remorse for his experiments, and Pleakly, a mostly powerless bureaucrat who can easily be thrown around by Jumba.
Unfortunately, I still lack the capacity to make my body into that of a cartoon’s, so I looked to Treasure Planet, a spaceworthy adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This movie was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, with its swashbuckling, space-faring characters in search of a lost treasure on a forgotten planet. My favorite part of the movie has always been the parts that show Jim and the crew traveling through space; the sweeping views of the stars and nebulae combined with the workings of a veteran crew were mesmerizing to me then and now. The reason why is simple: this is John Silver’s domain.
Treasure Planet – Jim Meets Silver & Morph (Blu-Ray) | Source: rattlethestarsYouTube
John Silver is a gruff cyborg on Treasure Planet, humorous and kind to a point. His plans to mutiny to take over the ship reveals that his villainy coexists with the fatherly love he feels for Jim. Seeing John Silver’s conflict showed me how complex Cookie could be. Immediately, I did what any high school actor would: I watched exactly how he did things and tried to mimic them to the best of my ability. I won’t lie to you — I set out to copy, but then I found that I couldn’t actually do what Silver did exactly (fortunately, because even the laziest lawyer could bring a ruinous lawsuit against my high school self.) Regardless of intellectual property, Cookie was taking on a whole new life. Instead of my — admittedly — goofy voice and saunter, Cookie developed a gravelly voice and a limp that Mr. Goose called “so realistic it looks like you’re in pain, Anthony.” Regardless, Cookie was finally coming into himself.
Over the course of the last two weeks of rehearsal, I followed this new Cookie’s impulses, finding comedic beats of hatred (usually whenever Captain Tempest spoke,) and becoming a tragic character in his own right. John Silver the cyborg had demonstrated how to balance the villain and lovestruck child for me. I hadn’t previously known how complex the characters I play onstage could be until I had seen what I could do with Cookie. It was something that I had only seen glimpses of before finally solidified with that reinvention: no character is completely evil or completely good. Realistically, no one is completely anything. People and characters are too complex to be boiled down to one trait.
Now that I am trying to be optimistic about the pandemic coming to some sort of close, I look to the work that I did while I was playing Cookie. I assumed that, in a Taylor Swift-esque manner, the old Anthony wouldn’t be able to come to the phone anymore after the pandemic. To invoke Kafka, the enormous bug that I have turned into is not a permanent change. The good and the bad will have to co-mingle and be friendly with each other. There will be halts and false starts as I attempt to restart the neurons that control my small talk habits and my want to host dinner parties. But as the errant Cookie became a complex world with a little time, I can now see that I will figure out my divergent identities as they begin to butt heads. I will be a goblin, a shiny Anthony of the past, and something else entirely new that will combine the two. Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis model is proven right again.
I look to my friend Danielle, who has just broken Cookie’s heart as Miranda. It’s opening night, and my nervous energy fills me with daring. The joy of seeing Miranda mingles with the bitterness of being rejected by someone you thought shared your feelings. As hatred and dismay poison things further, I feel my mouth turn up at the corners. Of course this happened, I hear Cookie think. Of course she’s fallen in love with that pretentious meathead, Captain Tempest. A bitter laugh escapes my mouth as I turn toward the audience, who can only watch as scorn and cynicism close in around me. I walk to the captain’s chair and grip the back of it; Cookie is alone on the bridge. The music for “She’s Not There” by The Zombies starts, and I get to unleash my sadness, rage, and hatred finally. I tried to show Cookie’s softer side to Miranda before, but now it’s time to for Cookie to close off his loving, happy side. I clamber up to stand on the captain’s chair and begin. By the end of this song, Cookie and I will have the audience on his side, even though he’s a villain. I hear the applause at the end of the song; the audience loves the layered Cookie. He’s a lover-turned-villain, a character that the audience can see themselves potentially turning into if they were in the situation he is. The lights go out, and I realize as I’m hustling offstage that the reinvention is finally over.