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Civilian Life

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2016-12-02


This December marks the fifth year since I last appeared on a stage, when I performed in a play I had written and directed for Arena Dinner Theatre called True Life Christmas Disasters. While I'm certain that my absence from the Fort Wayne stage hasn't been noticed by anyone except, well, um, me, it still feels like an important anniversary. After five years I know there's no chance I'm ever going to act again, and I can't help reflecting how odd it is that I've already outlived that part of my life. It was once an essential aspect of my personality, acting was, something that helped define me, something that I always imagined would be a part of my waking, breathing existence. But now it's just gone. I'm even hard-pressed now to remember the singular focus that I had back then, the depths and contours of my fervor and commitment. (And of course, the concomitant arrogance and pretentiousness.) It's like I'm a civilian now, decommissioned and discharged, never to be in active service again.

News of my retirement is not going to cause mass suicides and anarchy in the streets, like I once had hoped, and I think I have enough perspective to recognize that this isn't exactly J.D. Salinger calling it quits. I was a moderately talented amateur with a little flair in a mid-sized city that's generally supportive of its theatrical volunteers. I made great friends and had a good time and didn't embarrass myself too often when I got a good role. And I'm hardly the lone example of a local actor who discovers it's time to give it up; I know dozens of other folks who've made the same, often difficult choice. Life often forces changes like this, especially when there are more vital responsibilities going on in your world that demand your immediate attention. And 98% of the artists in this town (in almost any town) don't get paid a nickel for their work, and the ones that do get a stipend don't get enough to live on. The only currency artists really carry is energy, and enthusiasm, and that wonderful feeling of camaraderie, and while those forces can often push you through a series of projects, it's simply axiomatic that that energy can't sustain itself indefinitely.

Which sounds depressing, to be sure, but I don't feel depressed or regret when I reflect on the plays I did and the artists I performed with. Most of my friends not all, but most are artists of some sort, and I'd say a majority are still going at it, and I genuinely look forward to viewing the consequences of their labor when they're ready to display them to the public. Just because I'm on the sidelines now doesn't mean I'm not rooting for them to succeed, in whatever way that they define success.
But man how peculiar it is to be out of the game.

I still receive the occasional phone call from a director or producer who wants to see if I'm available for an acting or directing gig, and some of the projects sound enticing enough for me to seriously consider accepting the job. But even if it's physically possible for me to commit the time which is always a thorny proposition I have to be honest with myself and recognize that whatever "it" is that gets people to rehearsals with passion and eagerness, well, I simply don't have "it" anymore. I used to, but not now. It's a difficult thing to admit to losing, that particular well, whatever it is but one must face the facts when "it's" gone. You don't have to hear the slam to know when the door's been closed.

I'm fortunate to have other outlets for my creative impulses and I usually load up my free time in full pursuit of them, and I'm lucky in that I actually get some compensation for some of the work. (But again: I'm not quitting my day job.) Still, though, I spend a lot of time thinking about my friends who are rehearsing and sweating and putting in the hours and struggling over that comma or that awkwardly-shaped scene and trying to make it right for their audience often a tiny audience, that's been cajoled into sacrificing their evening who are going to sit in stony judgment of their work, their art, their existence. I have to admit to feeling . . . envious?. . . of their struggle? Yes, envious. I try to send out positive karma to all of them, in Fort Wayne and Indy and Chicago and New York and LA, that in whatever they're working on, all will go well.

I made a "civilian/military" analogy in the first paragraph and I should probably just admit that I stole that notion from a review that Pauline Kael once wrote about the comedian Sid Caesar. "Ten From Your Show of Shows (1973)" is a compilation of comedy sketches from Caesar's celebrated television show, and in her review Kael rather audaciously opines that while she thought Caesar was a prodigiously gifted comic actor, she didn't think that he was a naturally "funny" man, like she thought of the Ritz Brothers or the Marx Brothers as being naturally funny. She saw him, rather, as a fantastically talented technician who didn't really possess a native lunacy when she saw him, after his show had ended, on a talk show or in a public setting, she was shocked at how bland he came across. It was like without the weekly stress of doing a live television show, he wasn't the same performer, or the same person. (And indeed, if you happen to catch Grease on cable it's on about every minute it's almost astonishing how unfunny he is.) She said he was like a civilian who had been discharged from the army, someone who would never feel the urge to perform the duties that his former gig once demanded of him.

The metaphor has stayed with me. Haunted me. I've made my peace with my decision to not act again, but sometimes when I'm sitting in a theatre and the lights go down before the first act, for instance I'll feel a small pang of loss and sadness. It doesn't last long, and usually the play will engage me enough that I'll forget all about it, but sometimes I'll wonder if it's not completely impossible for me to re-enlist. If only for a night.

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