This is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of blogs on characters in productions (Live Theatre, Movies, TV, Etc.) where I plan to write about how I can (or can’t) relate to the character and choices they make. I’ll admit, this is the most difficult blog I think I have ever planned on and then written.
I am currently playing the part of Norbert Garstecki in the play The Great American Trailer Park Musical. This part is a “first” for me in so many ways, and it’s also the most difficult part I’ve ever played. As the name of the play implies, the play is a musical and it is the first one I have ever done. The play is the first one I’ve ever done at the venue. It’s also the first time I’ve played a character like Norbert. While there are some ways that I can totally relate to Norbert, there are sooooo many ways I can’t…or at least I didn’t think I could…until tonight.
Norbert Garstecki is a middle age man who has made some poor decisions that brought him to the place he is in the show. Norbert was a star athlete on his high school football team. His eye is caught by the beautiful and alluring star “mathlete” (star of the math team and perhaps the math club) Jeanie. Norbert gets together with Jeanie so she can tutor him in the Geometry class he is failing; the sparks fly and the passion kicks in. As is so common with hormonal teenagers, they fail to take appropriate precautions and Jeanie becomes pregnant. Following a “shotgun” wedding, Norbert and Jeanie move into a trailer park and try to live as adults…even though they are not ready. To this effect, they quit school, Norbert gets a job and Jeanie stays home with the baby. A few years later, Norbert becomes careless while caring their son, and the baby gets taken. The trauma causes Jeanie to develop Agoraphobia which is a fear of going into public places. For twenty years Jeanie refuses to come out of the trailer that she and Norbert live in. Norbert continues to stick by his beloved bride but after nearly twenty years, his patience is gone. Norbert is broken hearted as his lover has become more of a roommate. Norbert misses being close to his lover and misses going places with her. He longs to have the passion and connection back that he once had with his friend, lover, bride, his wife….Jeanie. As the play begins, Norbert is storming out…he’s at his wits end and just doesn’t know where to go or what to do; he’s exhausted every mean and method he can figure out.
Norbert longs to have the passion, and connection back with Jeanie and misses the fiery, energy filled “go-getter” that he married. Soon, however, Norbert meets Pippi. Pippi is the new girl in town, the new girl in the park, an exotic dancer, and has all the qualities and characteristics that he once saw and misses so much in his wife, Jeanie. Needless to say, passion and fire flair and turn into a full-blown affair. Norbert has made a lot of bad choices in his life, and this is probably the biggest. Try as he might, the affair is not hidden from the neighbors, and eventually Norbert gets caught “in the act” with Pippi. I won’t tell you too much more, but will simply say that the remainder of the play looks at the struggles of Norbert as he sorts through what he’s done and the feelings he has for both women, Pippi as she seeks to find some stability and connection with Norbert, and Jeanie as she struggles with what she should do about the affair and with her fear of leaving her “safe” trailer.
I said before that I, personally, can and can’t understand Norbert and his behavior. Let me tell you first the ways I can relate to Norbert. Now, you’re about to learn a lot more about me that you may EVER want to know, but here it goes… When I was in high school, I was a kind of “Big man On Campus,” though it didn’t start that way. I was never a sports star, but I became involved in student government in my Junior year. My senior year, I lived on my own and supported myself while doing countless activities on campus…things that did not go un-noticed. I wanted to become a radio DJ and had a bright future ahead. I received several scholarships and had the chance to go into college and then into radio. I had even been given a scholarship from a local radio station and an offer of an internship at the station once I was in college. Like Norbert, I had a promising future….but I fell in love. Unlike Norbert, I did not get anyone pregnant…I had enough sense to put on protection when I finally “gave myself away.” Like Norbert, however, I moved away from all the promise and potential. I put my life (desires and future) on hold for “family.”
I don’t know about Norbert, but My family life was not good growing up. My father was a professional photographer who excelled in his field. Three months before he was killed in a car accident, his accountant had told him he’d be a millionaire in six months if he kept going the way he was. We buried my dad on his 34th birthday. My family was never close and my mother had mental…issues. The one thing I always craved and was jealous of were the big, close families. Rather than perusing my dreams, I continued to peruse “family.” There’s a line in the opening of the Great American Trailer park Musical that states, “‘Ain’t no sense wanting what you can’t have; no sense dreaming like a fool.” I wish I could have given myself that advice…and taken it…when I was young. Call me a fool, but I kept wanting what it seems I couldn’t have: a big, close family. I ended up being engaged twice before finally getting married.
Yea, I’ve been married. Norbert’s been married once. I was married four times, and divorced the same. As an actor, I believe I have to make it big in Hollywood because 4 divorces is a requirement to even get into the industry (just kidding). I can relate to Norbert putting his family first; it’s what I believe any real man will do. Now, Jeanie (Norbert’s one and only bride) developed a mental disorder after they were married. I have to say that I can relate here; My first wife had a multiple personality disorder known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, the second was Obsessive-Compulsive as well as being addicted to booze and drugs, my third had Asperger Syndrome as well as being Bipolar, and my third had Bipolar, Depression and Munchausen Syndrome. Like Norbert, I understand what it means to be married to someone with a mental illness. My last three wives’ spent almost all their time planted in front of a television, much like Norbert’s wife Jeanie does.
In The Great American Trailer Park Musical (GATPM), there’s a point where Norbert states, “I can count on one finger the amount of kisses we’ve shared in the last five years.” Norbert is an affectionate guy, as am I , but he’s in a marriage where there is no longer any affection or love. All mine were like that. Norbert, I understand….except where I don’t. Now we start to get into the places where I have really struggled with playing Norbert.
Norbert meets Pippi and eventually a torrid, hot, passionate love affair starts. I have struggled with this sooooo hard. It’s taken me a long time to even begin to understand Norbert because this is where we have really differed. In all four of my marriages, I had opportunity and invite to become involved with another woman. Believe me, I was tempted to cheat, just as Norbert is. In my case, I (being the ever dying romantic, and a man who does everything possible to try and be true to my word) chose to remain faithful to my bride. I made a promise to be faithful, and I was. So it’s been a real struggle for me to “cheat” on my “bride” in the show, even though she’s only a bride for the show. “How can I justify,” I ask myself, “cheating on a woman I swore to be faithful to?” It has always been a struggle for me to wrap my mind around why someone cheats on their spouse. If you can’t endure living with them, then get a divorce! That’s what I did! Maybe you look down on me for breaking my promise to stand by them faithfully forever. I simply will respond that when your “other” is unfaithful, abusive, or destructive that it is time to get out. When respect and trust are so far decimated that there is no hope of ever getting them back, then it’s time to get out.
I will give Norbert credit where credit is deserved: Norbert sticks with Jeanie for 20 years. If you add up all the years I’ve been married, I’m ashamed to say that I fall far short of that.
Why does Norbert cheat? I didn’t understand, but now I think I do.
I believe that Norbert is like me in that he holds a sense of responsibility to his bride. I believe he loves her and wants/hops to see the woman he fell in love with come back. Norbert is a romantic, I believe. He holds the faith that the woman he loves is “still in there” and will come out “any day now.” Norbert tries to woo Jeanie out to do things with him. As it happens, Norbert finds someone who is everything Jeanie was, but is them NOW. How beautiful is a woman who is confident, driven, a go-getter, in touch with their wants, needs and desires, and who doesn’t really need you…but want’s you around just because they feel happy around you! Isn’t that what life is all about…finding someone who will love you for you and doesn’t need or want anything from you but you because they are sufficient for and comfortable with themselves? “So what if he’s plain, and a Rockefeller he’s not…He’s got a beat up old car, I have to hold the door closed when we go out (in it) …” Pippi sings of Norbert, “…but he’s my tallest star, don’t care who you are… it’s alright as long as I’m with him and he’s with me.” Who wouldn’t want someone to love you like that? Don’t we all want to be loved for who we are, where we are, and have someone be “complete” just by being around us?
I’m really starting to understand! In fact, I was in tears at tonight’s show…”real, American tears” streamed down my face as I felt Norbert’s struggle. Norbert is torn between these two amazing women that he has fallen in love with! One is here, now, with him…loving him as he is. This one is strong, sexy, vivacious, at his side…and everything (NOW) that the other love was (back them) and he hope to see again. On the other side, the woman he swore to be faithful to, the woman he has spent 20 years with, the mother of his child, the love of his life…the woman who was (and he hopes will be again) everything that the other woman is right now! “My God!”, I said to myself, “I understand why Norbert cheated! I understand why he is struggling and what he is struggling with!” Now, intellectually, I kinda got it….I have an improvised monologue that I’ve extrapolated from a song I (Norbert) sings that I expanded on……but tonight I really got it. Tonight, I felt the struggle, saw the lives, saw the history and the fights and the scenes that came between the scenes we see in the play…..I got it. I now understand why Norbert cheats….but I don’t condone it.
Now I want to say, if someone has cheated on you, don’t just throw them out, but don’t just take them back, either. Make them earn your trust and respect back; if they want to and if you are willing to.
While I never cheated on any of my wives, I did have one who cheated on me….apparently, quite a few times. I did give her a chance to redeem herself, but ultimately had to terminate the relationship. “Here’s the cord. You cut it, “I said, “and you’ll never see me again…or we can work this out. The choice is yours.” She cut the cord, but tried to come back later….nope….sorry. So I say what I say having gone through it. I was not the cheating spouse, but rather the cheated on.
Norbert was a hard character for me to get in touch with. Usually, I have played comical characters and/or comic relief. I’ve had major roles where I played a “clueless” husband (See How They Run) or a frantic fiancée (Arsenic and Old Lace). The roles I’ve played have typically been easy for me to pull off. In the play The Dining Room, I played a whole slew of characters including a cheating husband(but I was “cheating” with the woman who really was my wife at that time) and the only other role where I cried on stage. “Norbert” has forced me to pull from all the other characters and roles I’ve played, PLUS pull on real-life experience, AND manufacture things to connect it all.
As Norbert, I’ve had to do things that I normally wouldn’t and were really hard for me. Laugh if you must, but I had to grab “high school” Jeanie’s ass and stare at Pippi’s boobs popping out of her shirt. Even with approval AND encouragement from the actresses playing the parts, I struggles with this because these are against MY character. Call me old-fashioned, but I want to be close to someone and get to know them really well before I even begin to think in that direction. Even if/when I’m at that point in a relationship, I’d have a time doing those things in public. I believe that it stems from the way I was raised and from trauma I’ve experienced earlier in life. That’s a story for another day.
To sum things up, out of the 18 shows I have done over the last four years, Norbert Garstecki has been the most challenging, not only because it’s my first time doing a musical, but because it’s my first time playing a character that is so different from me, my beliefs, my values, and my character. Playing him has, however, given me a deeper understanding and sympathy for people in other situations as well as helped me reach places in me that I didn’t know were there.
That’s no mishaguyas.