“You want to be an actor? But…that’s something for queers and poor losers!”
Since I was a child I have heard that repeated and prejudiced mantra. It was said to those of us who expressed any interest in the theater arts.
Even in the most “progressive” high schools, those who had a humanities leaning were only given two feasible choices: first, to become a lawyer. Second, way back, a teacher. That was it.
The arts were not an alternative supported by the families. Either in Chile (where I studied middle and high school), or in the United States.
In both countries, to dream of the theater was paramount to treason for the families of the would be thespian dreamer. Something to be avoided at any cost. “All the efforts we made so that you could go to college and now…you want to study theater?!”
The theater profession has a bad reputation. I did not dare to challenge neither my father nor the predominant prejudices. In fact, my sister Margarita dared to declare her intentions to become an actress before I did. She was brave.
Nevertheless, when I arrived at the University of California, in Berkeley (with a sports scholarship) I was able to raise my voice and make a timid entrance into the study of theater. It was the year 1966.
Another Chilean actor became a great inspiration in my decision to study theater. His name was Tomás Vidiella. Today, I heard the news of his death, a victim of COVID 19.
At the time of his death, he was 83 years old, full of life, rehearsing new plays. Always sharp-witted. Always current. But this virus works in a surprisingly malignant manner.
Vidiella was a great actor. I did not see a lot of his work, but his acting influenced me strongly.
The first time I saw him perform, he was part of the cast of “The Hostage”, an Irish play produced by the Theater Institute of the University of Chile. I was visiting Chile, on vacation. I still had not officially declared that Theater would be my north. It was the year 1967.
The character played by Vidiella was a Gay prostitute in an Irish brothel. In “real life”, Tomás Vidiella also was “Gay.” Open and happily gay, although the adjective “happily” might not have been so true and most likely he did not have an easy life, in a country that remains toxically “machista” and patriarchal .
Within the theater walls, Tomás exhibited an undeniable force, attractive and positive. In the play that I saw, each time he entered the stage, he seemed to take over the scene, although the rest of the cast had a lot of talent and experience. Because Tomás Vidiella was a whirlwind of exuberant energy. A midday sun.
That night in 1967, I left the theater dazzled. Smiling. That was some acting!
When I returned to Berkeley, destiny intervened. In 1968, the Berkeley Repertory Theater, an up-and-coming theater group then, today one of national fame, decided to produce that very same play, “The Hostage”. And my acting teacher, Jean Bernard Bucky, would be directing it!
So, I told “Bernie” Bucky that I wanted to audition for one of the roles…perhaps one of the gay prostitutes of the brothel? He frowned and said: “But…Carlos, you don’t have an Irish accent!”. I thought that a few of the other actors also had trouble with that accent but instead I said, inspired: “What if I played the character as a mute?”.
He allowed me to try it. I started to build the character, the remembrance of the energy of Tomás Vidiella fresh in my memory.
I learned to knit, I also mastered quite a few phrases and gestures in sign language, I helped design a costume with brilliant colors and wore some very tight pants, plus some flashy jewelry and make-up. It was a way to help let my acting hair down. Since I was an athlete of 22 years old, big and muscular, the combination helped a great deal.
Nevertheless, more than the external help, what motivated me the most was the evocation of Tomás Vidiella’s exuberant and -to me- valiant energy. To channel that and to dare to explore the character’s complexities, lovingly and respectfully, was the key element to the success of my interpretation.
Since that time, the verb “to dare” became central to my acting life and in my career as an acting teacher, something that I did for over 25 years. To dare to be heroic, sexy. Evil, whatever it was! The theater is not for cowards.
Surprisingly, the day after the opening of “The Hostage”, I received a call from the Chair of the Theater Department at UC Berkeley. Together with a couple of other professors, he had attended opening night. They liked my work and they offered me a scholarship to study in their Graduate Program!
By then, my sports scholarship had finished and I had no ideas about what was I to do with my immediate future. That mute role helped me to decide. I dared, in a way, to “come out of my closet of dreams” and to declare myself an actor. When I did, I had shaky legs, but I was happy.
In March 2019, again in Chile, I went back to see Tomás Vidiella in action. He was acting in a very funny play: “Silly Old Farts!”. In Spanish, it sounds better: “Viejos de mierda”.
I waited for him outside the theater. When he came out, I was able to finally tell him how much I treasured and admired his work. He was very sweet, we took a photo together and said good bye. It was the last time that I saw him.
In places where “machismo” keeps ruling, perhaps the most valuable and valiant examples of what is traditionally considered as being a positive male of the species, can be delivered by people who defied the stereotypes. That is the main lesson that I got from Tomás Vidiella.
To accept and to celebrate who we are is key for our mental health and our success in life.
After all, as the saying goes: “Love is love.”