Cookie Monster was on Top Chef last night. I know how that sounds, but I’m going to leave it as is. He was there. In the kitchen. Talking to Padma and demanding that they start the cookie challenge, now! Of course it was a guy operating a puppet, but to my five year old self, and seemingly to some of the chefs, he was real.
Cookie Monster. I found myself laughing so hard I couldn’t stop crying. It was such a brilliant premise, to have him there to judge the cookie challenge. My five year old self was jumping on the couch, outrageously happy. Cookie Monster was my favorite. I’d almost forgotten until I saw him there last night.
What that did to me I could hardly believe. I’m a grown up. I’m an actor. I know all about the magic of theatre. Still, hearing childhood in the form of a blue puppet brought me right back to where I used to dream about the honest to gosh real Sesame Street. I knew it had to be an actual place. I’d imagined what I would find if I wandered off into what I would now call backstage. I’d drawn diagrams of Oscar’s home beneath the garbage can. (He didn’t live in the can, it was just the entrance to his subterranean bachelor pad…)
More powerfully, it reminded me of who I was. At five. Happy. Open. Unreserved. As tempting as it is to wonder where that boy has gone, it would be a dishonest cliche. That boy hasn’t gone anywhere, exactly. He became an actor and makes a living by playing pretend and pulling the audience into his make believe. Where that boy is, is clear. It’s my location that’s vague.
Cookie Monster was now eating the table cloth. Unable to contain his anticipation as the chefs frantically raced to finish baking before the clock ran out.
Some performers are always the center of attention. They can’t help themselves. They have bigger than life personalities and never tire of entertaining whoever happens to be in front of them. I am not one of those. When I am not onstage, not being paid to be funny, I am not. Funny. My “off” button works just fine. In fact, it’s more of a motion sensor. The moment I step into the wings, the spotlight automatically goes out.
Years ago, I believed myself to be the next Redford or Tracy. A non-actor. Underplaying everything. So real. So natural. One of my teachers said that I should try instead to be as colorful and spontaneous onstage as I was in life. It took some time, but eventually I evolved into a more vibrant and dynamic actor. It was life that I began to underplay.
So who exactly am I when I put down my own blue puppet? That answer keeps changing, it seems, although I am not aware of it until confronted with a version from my past. Last night, I watched a movie that I hadn’t seen in years, and only once then. It’s called Powder, and although I had no strong desire to see it again, I am glad I did. It was not as moving an experience as the Cookie Monster cookie challenge a couple of hours earlier, but it did give me a welcome chance to measure the progress I’ve made. As a human.
Whereas Cookie Monster made me long to be as outrageously happy and free as my five year old self, Powder left me grateful that some of my most painful insecurities have fallen by the wayside. Maybe I’ve successfully worked through them, or maybe I’ve merely outgrown them. Either way, I cannot deny that they are gone.
When I saw the film in the theatre, I identified strongly with the main character, an Albino who was isolated for his entire childhood. As a teenager, he is forced through circumstance to deal with the world and the cruel people in it. The scenes where he is bullied and ridiculed hit way too close to home, and I did not enjoy the film.
At the time, people used to tell me that I looked like the actor playing Powder, which I did not take as a compliment. I agreed with the bullies in the movie who thought he was a freak. Not so much that I agreed with them, not really. It was more that I accepted their interpretation without question, just as I had done as a teenager in real life.
Now, watching that actor, I no longer identified with him. I also no longer found him freakish. In fact, I thought he was beautiful. How was it possible the other characters couldn’t see that? I suppose I could ask the same thing of myself. It’s easy to look back at your inner five year old and embrace his outrageously happy and carefree reality. It’s much more difficult to look back at your inner teenager and embrace what he was going through. To get him to understand what you can see so clearly now.
My five year old became who I am onstage. He’s never far away. What of that angst ridden self doubting teenager I used to be? Is it any less of a cliche to wonder where he is now? I’m sure that although I have grown past the insecurities, that teenager has not ceased to exist. He is probably standing in the wings, waiting for a cue from me. It is most likely in his lines where I will discover why I have been underplaying so much of my life.