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I recently reported for jury duty and was almost immediately released by a lawyer wearing an expensive suit with golden cufflinks. The case was about a guy who got hurt in a fender bender. The lawyer asked me if I could be fair to a man who was claiming emotional distress. I responded I could, sure, because I have a lot of feelings about all sorts of things. I am frequently distressed.
I don’t know if this lawyer hated my smugness or attempt at cleverness, but he probably sized me up as a wiseass who’d be too much trouble. It’s not that I couldn’t be manipulated — I am very easily manipulated — but it would be a real jog in a swamp to do so.
Before informing me that I could go, the lawyer scribbled a note on the last page of a tattered yellow legal pad with a cheap black pen that looked like it had been yanked free from its chain at a bank. Why would a lawyer who could afford an expensive suit and gold cufflinks not also be rich with legal pads and fancy writing implements?
Then I realized this was his performance. The cufflinks were a prop. His suit a costume. When he gets home, he sheds his exoskeleton and eats a bowl of Lucky Charms in his boxers. Lawyers are just actors who can pay the rent. Too bad he couldn’t afford a Mont Blanc though. He would have been flawless.
“All the world’s a stage.” I learned that bit of Shakespeare in college. It’s one of those quotes I pull out in polite company to prove my middlebrow bona fides. All the world’s a stage, and that includes Room 486 in the Brooklyn Courthouse.
Lawyers representing conservative radio host Alex Jones in a recent child custody battle defended his controversial on-air antics—racist rants, vulgar threats, paranoid rages — as performance art and, therefore, not a fair measure of his fitness as a parent.
The Alex Jones who screams about the mass murder of children being a government hoax, his lawyers argued, is merely a character played by Alex Jones. The real man is, presumably, an average emotionally stable and loving father, albeit one who is also a white-power icon.
Alex Jones is, of course, a crude and volatile man who makes a living telling people what they want to hear at high decibels. (One of those people being the current leader of the free world.) There are few drugs as potent as being told your every grubby suspicion is right. That people you don’t even know deserve your lazy hate. It’s an ancient and profitable business.
I’m not minimizing Jones’ influence on an increasingly radicalized sect of suburban hate potatoes. But his dark schtick is nothing new. Jones is just an old-school fire-and-brimstone showbiz preacher who also happens to resemble the Fantastic Four’s The Thing if he were made out of bratwursts. The church has always been America’s favorite floor show. And it doesn’t matter if Jones is performing or not, frankly, because he probably has no idea if he is or isn’t.
Alex Jones has eaten Alex Jones, and now there is only Alex Jones. His lawyer begs to differ, but lawyers are paid good money to, among other things, beg on cue.
So I know a little something about performance art, because I have a BFA in theatre. I spell it “theatre” because I spent tens of thousands of dollars to learn to spell it that way. The correct way. I’d say a theatre degree is the most useless undergraduate degree, except for all the others.
But those years did teach me something that is very true today:
You can wear a mask, but sometimes the mask can wear you. This is also social media in a nutshell.
Don’t get me wrong: It was a fun eight semesters of gratuitous drug use, vapid self-expression, and academic underachievement. While my friends took classes with homework, I studied, you know, my feelings. I had vast stockpiles of feelings. I have vast stockpiles of feelings.
My class load was not a lot of work. Instead of having to learn another language, for instance, I studied dialects. I may not know how to speak Italian, but I-a know-a how-a to-a speak-a in-a Italiano accent.
I studied playwriting, which I really loved, because playwrights are allowed to wear scarves anywhere in any weather. My final exam for costume and construction class was the presentation of a shirt I made with my own hands that fell apart once button met buttonhole. I even took an advanced dance class with actual dance majors, who taught me how to keep a straight face if I accidentally farted during a performance.
Oh, and then there were the improv classes. So much improv. Improv always seemed like NASCAR to me — it’s boring to watch until there’s a horrible explosion. But it’s fun as hell to do. In the years since, my school improv has turned into a sort of comedy Scientology, but back then it was just a class where I didn’t have to spend time memorizing any lines and could show up morbidly hungover.
And, of course, I studied acting. Acting is the art of pretending to be someone else. It can be a very simple and very complicated craft to practice. Here is an example of the simple version: Go to the mirror and say, “I am a duck.” Quack. There you go. You’re a duck until you’re not. Other than that, show up to rehearsal on time and memorize your lines, which is hard to do, because that takes time and effort. I said it was simple. The problem, of course, is that theatre school can be expensive, and you need to get your money’s worth.
The complicated version goes like this: There are all kinds of different acting theories, and you need to study one like you’re studying open-heart surgery, and only once you master a theory can you become an actor, who is still just a person who pretends to be someone else.
My professors were especially enamored of the great Russian director and pioneering acting theorist Konstantine Stanisvlaski. You may not know his name, but Hollywood has been thick with adherents of his acting system since forever. Think Robert DeNiro gaining ungodly amounts of weight to play a boxer in twilight when a fat suit would have worked just fine. Stanisvlaski was really the first person to insist that acting training was more than having good posture and memorizing lines. He wanted more “naturalistic” performances. “Stan the Man,” as one of my professors called him, combined 19th-century psychology, script analysis, and good old-fashioned bullshit into a method that churned out very, very serious actors.
I really can’t bear to go into the many details of his system, but basically, he wanted actors to really become — inside and out — their characters. Like, in order to cry on stage, I should dig up memories of my dead dog. Of course, an actor does not, and never does, actually become their character. Oh no no. That would be, you know, crazy.
Here’s a story from theatre school that I think will explain things a bit. Legend has it that the protege of the head of the acting department — a local star of stage and car dealership commercials — once called his mentor late at night because he was trapped inside his character. That is what I was told secondhand that he said, verbatim. The poor guy was in some regional show where his character meets with a tragic end. Probably some weepy midcentury drama about the fall of the common man and set in a kitchen. He sobbed that he couldn’t shake his role. The character was destroyed at the end of the play, and so was he.
This story was told to me by actors who seemed to marvel at this actor’s artistry, and all I could think was, “Fuck, this guy needs help.”
Fuck, Alex Jones needs help.
It’s probably too late for him, though. He’s trapped. But it’s not too late to save yourself. Be nicer on Twitter, because one day you may discover that you are your handle.
Usually, undergraduate degrees do not prepare you for the working adult world. Higher education is one of our most revered rackets. But my time and money wasn’t totally wasted. Theatre school taught me how to act like a receptionist or a production assistant or a temp. Eventually I ended up playing a hack internet writer paid very small sums of money to make algorithms happy. My costume: jeans and a hoodie and earbuds. I am a performance artist. All the world’s a stage. And we are merely players.
When I take my mask off in the mirror, bones smile back.