The Life of an Elephant Man

I saw the dress rehearsal for the university production of The Elephant Man, which opens in a couple of days. Their production is quite brilliant, pulling together an exceptional group of gifted designers, actors, and technical craftsmen. The production is clean, sharply focused and hits the core of humanity unflinchingly on the head. I will be shooting the production photos later in the week so I was able to slip in for a preview. The kid playing Merrick was astonishing and brought such compassion and depth to the character that took me on the emotional journey of his ordeal. Having worked in the theater for so many years, I feel like I have become somewhat desensitized to story and character and rarely get caught up in the shows because I am so busy focusing on the production elements, even when I go to New York and see Broadway shows. But this kid did such an amazing job of capturing the deformity and mannerism of character with so much dignity, honesty, and grace that I was touched to the very bottom of my soul and completely pulled into the production. There was no added makeup for the actor, yet in the first scene where he physically appears he is stripped nearly naked standing before a panel of doctors as the physician Treves clinically describes his deformity and condition, as the actual Merrick is flashed on screens above. When he turns around to face the audience for the first time you see the psychological and emotional toll this condition has had on this man that you immediately recognize that deformity from deep within the character. I did not disbelieve him for a second.

In a sense, the whole scope of what I have been working on all year with this project relates to this production. My own self-image and self-examination and the culmination of coming to terms with identity has been the ongoing theme, as I age and my body changes from the vitality of youth to a mature male who now mostly lives mostly within his head and what he creates. Through the process of aging we begin to develop a certain loss of self-identity. It seems to come on gradual until it has suddenly hit us and we realize we have crossed a certain line from which we cannot return. No matter how much we resist the process it becomes inevitable and the self we once new has somehow transformed into something we often no longer recognize. I am still a bit fearful and reluctant to shine this spot light on my physical self though it seems to be the next step in coming to terms with what I have become through this process. To see this man, on the stage, expose himself for all to see and judge became a humbling experience for me. To witness his humility to stand nearly naked before a crowd of people under such duress and in such disfigurement, resonated so deeply within me that I became overwhelmed by my own emotions as tears welled in my eyes and for a moment I could see myself in his place. In that moment I saw how naked and alone I have become and I began to question how I have viewed and seen myself. Has it become self-imposed? I was suddenly filled with regret and shame for time I have wasted on such trivial things and for taking so much of my life for granted. One of my primary goals has been to illuminate the beauty of others, to reveal a hidden side to themselves that is remarkable, that they cannot see, in a sense to reveal a healthier whole that I could never recognize within myself. In gay culture it feels like we become somewhat deformed by the way we are perceived in society. Culturally it’s getting better, but it is still not completely healthy yet. Our plight is that of the elephant man to find a balance of living a life of normalcy and though the deformity we feel may not be on the outside it definitely impacts our social and emotional well being. To me this has been a year of coming to terms with my own demons and regaining normalcy by exposing those feelings and issues that have repressed me for years. It’s funny how relevant everything seems to become.