When I was twenty-one, I was cast in a community theater production of Death of a Salesman. I played Hap, Willy Loman’s shallow and somewhat clueless youngest son. An actor who had recently elevated himself to The Leading Man amongst the small collection of local theaters in Providence played the critical role of Biff. He was about fifteen years older than I, and I had enjoyed his performances in the other shows I’d seen him in. He was a very solid actor. It seemed entirely possible that if he wanted to he could actually start getting paid to act. The pivotal scene in Salesman is a flashback. In it, Biff discovers Willy, his father and hero, is having an affair. As it happens, this same year a version of the play starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malcovich aired on television. I remembered the flashback scene most vividly because of how Malcovich had played it, how he’d cried when he called Hoffman a fake, how he had to say the word but hated to say the word, and how red his face got and how mucous ran out of his nose.
The actor in our version did an admirable job. I remember standing backstage watching him during the flashback scene. Like me, he was an ex-athlete, having moved from a world where performance is treasured but tears are not. But there he was, crying while he called our Willy Loman a fake.
The scene ends with Biff running offstage in tears. I can still remember the actor standing next to me, moments after he arrived backstage. He was upset. “I hate that,” he whispered. “I faked it. I hate when I fake it.” He said this while this wiping his fake tears off his face.
I would never have known he was faking it, but I understood why he was upset. Though he wasn’t getting paid, he was a professional, and he was going to do the scene however he could. But in the end, he wasn’t doing the scene for the audience but for himself. Writing and acting are so close sometimes they could kiss, and just as in acting you must forget anyone is watching, forget anyone can see you cry or laugh, forget there is anyone out there in the darkness at all. You put yourself on stage for the chance to disappear, to discover that part of you that cannot be faked.
Editor’s Note: Something recently came across my desk that I thought worth sharing. The Montreal International Poetry Prize will award $50,000 for a single poem of any style in English. I found this incredible and almost improbable, but it appears quite genuine. The early deadline is April 22. Here is the link: http://montrealprize.com/
So if you’re poet – go for it. What do you have to lose?
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