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Removing the Mask
By playing a role, I discovered myself
Melvin Pichardo
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I grew up believing that to be a man I had to be macho. My father wanted me to learn that men must be strong and valiant for themselves and women—and that men should be closed-minded, emotionless, and always winners. He seemed to think that the only acceptable time for a man to show emotions like sadness was if he’d been drinking. My father would criticize me when I showed my vulnerabilities, so I showed them only when I was alone or with my mother.

My father wasn’t the only one I saw acting macho. In my neighborhood, young men hid their vulnerabilities by acting tough. I saw that when a guy was upset, he kept his body still, wore a blank expression, and reacted to nothing around him. Instead of expressing his real feelings, he would become verbally aggressive and loud so he wouldn’t be seen as weak.

By the time I was 14, most of the young men my age were trying out this act. We were starting to go through puberty, and many guys became defensive if they didn’t have facial hair or their voice hadn’t changed. There was huge pressure for guys to get into relationships and have sex, wear the right clothes, and have money. To express their masculinity, many guys started to make fun of others, and to speak badly to girls. Other boys got into sports to fit in. But I wanted to think differently, and I did.

At the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, I aspired to have high grades, but none of the subjects I was “supposed” to like as a guy interested me. I wasn’t determined to become a great student in math, science, and engineering. That year, I was more interested in theater.

Even as a child of 7, I was intrigued by acting. Sometimes I’d stand on a chair and tell my dad, “I’m a star!” I wanted him to notice me, to hear me. Late at night, after everyone was asleep, I’d get up and look in the mirror, make faces, and pretend that I was walking across a stage. I would conjure up an audience, even hear the music, and I’d practice lines and gestures. I liked reinventing myself.

At 14, I began practicing monologues and dialogues with my 10-year-old sister. It gave me the freedom to be whoever I wanted, letting go of the superficial things and discovering my soul.

That year, I auditioned for a program for high school students at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and I got accepted.

Adler believed that an actor must observe specific details in the world around him. To prepare for a role, an actor must train his mind and understand the characters in the play.

At the end of the course, I had to present a scene from Jitney by August Wilson. I had the part of Darnell. He’s a macho older man who has trouble demonstrating to his wife that he has changed. He was no longer getting drunk and cheating on her. He was secretly working to buy a house and make a better life for his family.

I read the whole play, but the scene I had to perform was toward the end, when Darnell’s wife confronts him. She angrily asks him what he’s been doing, assuming he’s been up to no good. That’s when Darnell reveals the surprise he’s been working toward. Not only that, but he begins to tell her his true feelings. He’s no longer the person he was. He lets her know that he’s afraid of losing her, and he’s nervous about how she’ll react to the change in him.

I used the acting techniques I learned at Stella Adler to try to become the character—not just when I rehearsed, but all the time. I imagined Darnell to be someone like my father so I began studying the way my father moved, his tone of voice, even the way he breathed.

image by desantis creative

I read the script multiple times, trying to understand Darnell. What was he like? What were his intentions? I reminded myself from the minute I woke up to the time I went to sleep that I was Darnell. In doing so, my behavior became a lot like my father’s.

Instead of my usual awkward slouch, I started sitting with one leg casually crossed, my arms resting on each armrest of the chair with a confident posture. My saliva didn’t taste the same, I smelled a different kind of air, and everything sounded strange. I was no longer Melvin; I was now Darnell.

One day after school, I was on the floor staring at the ceiling practicing my lines when I spontaneously said, “Melvin.” I felt so confused. It was as if I was hearing my own name for the first time and I thought, “Who is Melvin?” I realized I had become so immersed in the character of Darnell that I’d lost my sense of self. I wanted to talk to my director about it.

I told him how I was beginning to question who I was. He looked at me with a knowing smile and asked me, “Have you ever heard of Socrates?”

“He’s the philosopher?” I asked.

“Yes, Melvin, and when he was a young man, he asked himself the same question you’re asking yourself.” He paused and waited for me to say something. I was silent.

“Melvin, many people at the age of 40 don’t know who they are and the fact that you managed to question that at such a young age is beautiful.” I couldn’t move or say a word. I thought everyone knew who they were and I was just being silly.

I thought about how, generation after generation, guys grow up to believe they aren’t supposed to show their feelings or care about their true selves. We are supposed to be tough, strong, independent, athletic, physical, rugged, powerful, respected, and feared. If we don’t measure up, we are considered wimps or sissies. Becoming a man in many cultures isn’t about being a man, but appearing masculine.

That summer I began to analyze my life, trying to have a better understanding of my real happiness, fears, and wants. Playing Darnell and looking at my father, I concluded that I didn’t want to wear the mask of masculinity and hide my true self.

Instead, I wanted to understand my emotions—the things that made me happy as well as those that scared me. What was happiness to me? It was when I wasn’t trying to be anybody but me. I didn’t want to have to worry about appearing intimidating or tough.

Sometimes I slip back into the mentality of what society believes men should be because everyone around me thinks that way. When someone asks what I want to be, sometimes I lie and say “businessman” or “cop” because I think the real answer—an actor or writer—might make people think of me as less of a man. But those moments of trying to fit society’s idea of masculinity happen less and less frequently.

I realize now that the Stella Adler Studio didn’t just teach me to be a better actor, it also helped me learn about myself. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m listening to my own voice.

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(NYC-2014-01-15)

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