I don’t like deception, but I love being someone different than who I am. The problem is that it’s hard to tell the difference between that and deception, except on stage, where the boundary is clear and so the freedom to experiment is much greater. But it took me awhile to figure that out.
When I was in my mid-20’s, my friend Rami and I decided to take a bike trip down the coast of California from Berkeley, where we lived, to L.A. We agreed that if we had serious problems on the road, we’d ask for help with English accents, since people generally seemed more tolerant of confused foreigners.
The first day on the road we had a few breakdowns, so it was almost dark by the time we stopped a local who told us about a campground a mile off the main road. We’d been riding since early that morning, so we happily coasted a mile, then two, then three down a huge hill – surprised it was further than he’d said, but grateful it was all downhill. At the bottom we found a trailer park, where we knocked on the door of the main trailer.
A tall man in his 60’s opened the door, crouching a little to look out.
“Can I help you?” he asked, and in our British accents, asked where the camping ground was.
“Oh, the camp ground. Gee,” he said, “that’s all the way up the other side of the highway.”
“The other side?” I asked.
“Long way back this time of night,” he shook his head.
“Well, is there a – I mean, could we – is there any place down here?”
“Nope, sorry about that,” he said. “But good luck to you girls.”
So we trudged out. “Forget that hill,” I said to Rami. “We’re going to hitchhike.”
“Someone will come by with a truck,” I said.
We stuck our thumbs out and sure enough, in less than three minutes, a truck stopped.
“Hi!” I yelled.
Rami poked me hard in the ribs. “Oh, Cheerio there!” she said in her British accent.
That’s when I realized the guy in the truck was the man from the trailer park.
“Now, you two girls just come on back,” he said. “Me and my wife thought it was a shame two nice girls like you should have to ride back over to the campground. Look here, we have an empty Winnebago in the driveway. You come on to our trailer, we’ll make you some home-cooked dinner and then you two can stay in the Winnebago over night.”
So Rami and I spent the evening in the trailer park, pretending to be nice English girls and telling our fascinated hosts how we were childhood friends from London and how much we were enjoying America. We avoided using the bathroom because any moment apart meant we might miss an essential episode of our personal history and contradict it later.
Half-way through the spaghetti dinner, our host asked if we’d flown over the ocean or over the Pole getting to the US. I’d never been to England, I’d never been on a transcontinental flight. So, after a split second of panic, I said I had come by boat – and because that suddenly sounded implausible to me, I added that it was a luxury liner and I’d paid my way by playing the harp.
They were enchanted. So enchanted that I continued. “Not only that,” I said, “but I’m heading back to France soon, to see my fiancé, who’s a composer in Paris. He’s hoping to win the Pris de Rome and I, myself, am writing an Opera.”
By the time Rami and I got into their Winnebago, I had an aunt who was a German opera star, a dog that thought it was a kangaroo and I was a child prodigy. When we finally lay down in the dark our mouths were sore, and lazy ‘r’s and flat vowels never felt so good.
Sure, everyone thinks it’s fun to toss off a Monty Pythonism with a British accent for a few sentences, but try doing it for an entire evening – it’s exhausting. And I was terrified our hosts would find out we’d been lying. I wouldn’t mind so much if they just confronted us, but what if they found out after the fact and felt they’d been deceived? The memory of these charming girls would dissolve into hurt, and their kindness as strangers would harden. They’d never trust another person with a British accent. (Actually that idea was kind of interesting – thinking they’d wonder – as I always do – if people really come from where they say they do.)
We felt such remorse that we sent them postcards for weeks afterwards. But my mind still tried to undo the wrong. I kept thinking they knew all along and that they were fooling us, egging us on to see how far we could go.
But that’s one reason I love being a performer – we all enter willingly and together into that place of flexible reality. The audience does egg the performer on. As an audience, I want to believe what can’t be true. But I want to enter that place willingly.
So now I think that maybe all the world isn’t a stage, and we’re not merely players. There are times and places when the wall of illusion needs to disappear. Sometimes that place is between a performer and audience, and sometimes it’s with strangers.
And if you happen to come across those people in the trailer park, could you tell them the last time I went to England, I flew over the ocean.