I was in New York some years ago, in the car with WGM, stuck in traffic. A hot day in July, car windows open, air-con wasn’t working; exhaust fumes, hazy visibility. WGM was practising for his singing lesson and had a few song sheets with him in the car. He showed me an old one: the Julie Andrews classic, ‘The Sound of Music’. and all of a sudden, sang the first part of it, there in the car: ‘The hi-ills are alive, with the sound of music…” stage performance, vibrato, full voice, and the volume was amazing! It blew me away. Heads turned, people leaned out of their car windows and the great river of jostling pedestrians paused for a moment on the sidewalk. It was M’s 15 minutes of fame.
But he did that kind of thing all the time, an ability to find the paradoxical circumstance and play the part. WGM was an actor I’d met in Europe the year before and staying with him in a cramped apartment near Broadway with other actors, performers and ‘people’. Different from other shared habitations because they were all hustling for parts in videos, TV ads, movies, music, anything. Life is ‘theatre’. They were opportunists. Every step of the way was an opportunity to perform – life itself is the audition. The ‘self’ we create is the performance; we are acting a part, all the time.
In the apartment the phone was ringing constantly, theatrical agencies calling up to return a call from somebody in the apartment, “Can you get that?” and “Sorry, he’s not here, can I take a message?” The thing about this that made it different from other shared-apartment situations was that the phone link was really important to everyone there; the world of opportunity. And the phone calls from the agencies made it somehow part of the ‘public’ world out there. It felt like the whole world was calling this number all day and most of the night – the outside world coming in to the inside world. Another thing about it, the process of answering the phone was an opportunity for these multi-personality specialists to try out a different persona every time.
So when the phone rings whoever is sitting next to it answers, switching to a subtly different ‘voice’, with a different accent, quite believable and acceptable to the caller but interestingly ‘changed’ to those of us in the room. It was baffling to me at first because I couldn’t figure it out and partly because there’s a strange logic to this: the unknown caller at the other end of the line is ‘somebody else’, a person with his/her own identity – hence the created personality, character (game) seems like, well, appropriate? It made sense because, on a certain level, it’s all about ‘self’, anyway, and who you are at that moment is subject to change because who you’re talking with determines who you are. I can appear to be somebody in one situation, then ‘be’ somebody else in a different situation. The self illusion has flexibility. The whole thing is about acting the part.
The phone gets put down and immediately rings again. The same person answers it in another ‘voice’ – an identity that’s so different from the one he just used it’s hard to believe; hilarious, bordering on the schizoid. Since that time I’ve been aware of the ‘act’ of being alive. It contributed to the discovery of the Buddhist anatta (no ‘self’) and the habitual ‘self’ construct, projecting ‘my’ character, ‘my’ personality at a particular point in time and in specific circumstances changes all the time. It just happens naturally.
The skilled actor plays the part so well, the spectator thinks he is the person, not the actor. A layer of paradox: the actor being himself and simultaneously not himself reveals the ‘self’ construct. Or it could be that the ‘act’ is revealed completely to the spectator; a self-reflexive act that does not distinguish between the ‘self’ construct and acting the part, it’s just there; a total act, an actor/spectator encounter in metaphysical terms and, for the most part, it’s accepted as ‘theatre’, illusion, samsara and we’re immersed in the story of it all.