Thoughts on life after the PhD
I’ve been telling this story a lot lately, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe getting to the end of my grad career inspires a lot of reflection. Or maybe it’s just that the story feels goofier and more unreal every time I tell it.
I was a drama major in college. Even though the drama department was large, roles were hard to come by, because any role with more than a few lines was essentially reserved for people in the Acting track (I was in the Theater Studies track, the one for people who wanted to be drama teachers). So whenever any audition presented itself I usually jumped at the chance to perform before I’d even read the play.
When I was nineteen I was cast in a production called Animal Magnetism. The show was conceived by Mabou Mines, an avant-garde theater group founded in New York in 1970. During the information session I learned that Animal Magnetism was a work in progress about a chimpanzee and a rhino who fall in love. I have this very vivid memory of a sign language interpreter translating that meeting (one of the students in the department–a really talented actor, I wonder what happened to him–was deaf). At one point she had to translate the words “make the rhinoceros fly.” Which she did, beautifully.
For the audition I was asked to do a couple of basic dance routines and a lot of “movement improv,” which essentially consisted of acting as freaky as possible. I got cast in the ensemble along with nine or ten other undergrads.
There may have been a script for Animal Magnetism, but it was a rough one, and it kept changing. The director, who I’ll call Rick, preferred a more free-spirited approach. He would sometimes change the story in the middle of rehearsal. I was in awe of him. I think one of my classmates, who I’ll call Melissa, was in love with him. Maybe had an affair with him, or at least wanted to.
The story involved a chimpanzee and a rhino in love. As in, they acted just like humans–talked on the phone, complained about their jobs, talked about sex–but they were a chimp and a rhino. Secretly, the rhino was selling rhino horns. At some point the girlfriend found out about this and was shot dead by the rhino’s henchmen. It was a pretty short play.
What I remember most are the costumes. Part of the deal that Mabou Mines made with the university stated that they’d put on a play and give undergrads the chance to work with a professional company, and in return the university’s costume department built two very elaborate costumes.
The rhino costume was…a life-size rhino costume. Okay, maybe not QUITE life-size, but the thing must have weighed a ton. There was an enormous rhino head and a full-body suit. The poor actor was sweating buckets the entire time he was in it. Oh, and there was a penis. An enormous, detachable rhino penis, made out of latex and stuck prominently on the front of the costume.
The chimp costume at least looked a bit more comfortable. It was a full-body leotard covered in hair.
A lot of the play consisted of the rhino and the monkey describing dreams they’d had. The absolute worst kind of dreams–the kind that some socially awkward person starts telling you at a party, that have absolutely no point and go on for ages without any conclusion. The dreams had no relation to the plot of the play–as much as the play could be said to have a plot.
For the opening sequence the rhino was flown in on wires with a bunch of balloons attached to him. That sequence took a really, really long time to plan.
At one point the rhino was again suspended on wires from the ceiling while I and the rest of the ensemble knelt below him holding arrows. Timed to certain music cues, we stabbed him in slow motion. He was dripping sweat onto the floor. At the end of the scene he said something like, “I watch the red chromosomes behind my eyes. Life goes on, and I’m dying.” Then the music got jaunty and he sort of danced in his wires as the lights went down.
The chimp also got hooked up to wires at one point and bounced all over the stage. There was something in the script about her room being “bugged,” so the director asked the props department to make a bunch of felt bugs and one bug-camera with a protruding eyeball. The chimp bounced all over the stage destroying the bugs.
The chimp and the rhino had sex on an airplane, with the chimp straddling the rhino and jiggling a lot. I was always worried that his penis might fall off.
I was at that age where I was in awe of a lot of things that didn’t really deserve it, when I hadn’t really learned to distinguish between high art and crap, and when I was terrified of voicing a negative opinion of anything artsy for fear of being labeled naive or mainstream. Still, I did voice a few doubts about the seemingly disorganized nature of Animal Magnetism. Most of those doubts were quickly shot down by my classmate Melissa, who told me that Rick was a visionary and had everything under control.
Apparently Animal Magnetism went on to enjoy generally positive reviews in New York (with, I’m assuming, a modified script). What we put on, though, was crap masquerading as high art. Which, I suppose, could describe a lot of university theater productions.
It’s a sort of magical time, that period when you don’t yet know good from bad, when you’ll basically just watch whatever movie / tv show / play is thrown in front of you, especially if it’s being endorsed by people whose coolness you envy. There’s an equally magical moment when you watch or read something and actively hate it–not because other people hate it, or because your parents love it, but because you’ve suddenly developed the capacity for passionate judgment.
The first movie I remember hating was Legends of the Fall. The hate was kind of beautiful. I was actually offended by how bad it was.
I don’t know what I learned from my Animal Magnetism experience, if I learned anything at all. It’s a time capsule of a different me and a different world. If anything it’s just fun to be able to tell people that at one point I was crouched on a stage under a man in a giant, anatomically correct rhino costume, stabbing him with an arrow while he danced above me in mid-air.
Thoughts on life after the PhD
tales of travel, research, and life
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