The Understudy

November 10, 2011

Photograph by Damien Maloney

You tell people that you are a serious actor. That even though you have the range to tackle comic roles, that you excel at the dramatic. You feel justified in telling people this because as you sit on the empty stage with the other cast members, you realize that everyone is rehearsing lines in a stage drama in which you, Jack Chang, play the lead. For a moment, your ego swells beyond what is normal and what is healthy.  

The stage overlooks empty waves of seats, and behind the stage is a photorealistic mural of outer space: lonely solitary stars and nebulas arranged on an infinite black expanse of nothingness. As you and the other actors rehearse your lines, it feels almost as if your voices echo across the vacant rows and out into the vastness of the universe, that everyone and everything revolve around what you performers say and do, at least for this particular moment in time. This is the stage of the Exit Ghost Repertory: a small, independent theater located off of Santa Monica and Vine, adjacent to a handful of other small local theaters, music clubs, lounges and dive bars. The building the theater is housed in used to be an abandoned warehouse, which is immediately apparent by looking at it from the outside, because it still looks like an abandoned warehouse. At night, a glow in-the-dark door can be seen adjacent to the real entrance, painted there to convey a sense of urban irony.

The current season involves a production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, a three-act play. For roughly a year now, you have been playing the lead role of Bérenger, an impressive feat for an Asian American actor you think, the central hero who maintains his humanity after an entire French town is gradually turned into rhinoceroses. Steve, the director, wanted the rhinoceroses to wear gas masks and military uniforms to be symbolic of the modern war machine, torture and Abu Ghraib, but many found that to be tasteless. As a result, a more futuristic-looking metal mask-and-horn set was settled on.

"All right," Steve says. "Do that part over." You are all at Scene 1 of Act I. Your friend, Alfredo, plays Jean. You clear your throat. You recite the scene where Jean mentions to Bérenger that he's gone without sleep again, yawns all the time, and reeks of alcohol, while Bérenger says something is wrong with his hair and mentions how he always seems to wake up with a hangover. You all wrap. Steve compliments your work and the work of the cast, and thinks you guys especially "brought it" tonight. You finish the rehearsal, say goodbye to your fellow cast members, and walk out of the theater into the cold night air. Lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag, you exhale a ghostly wisp of smoke and see it slowly coil around a flickering series of neon signs saying "TAQUERIA – 24 HOURS" and "BAIL BONDS" hovering above you. Whatever ego trip or endorphin high you had during that rehearsal is now gone, and you are brought crashing back down to the harsh reality of your life.

You will return home to your apartment, a small one-bedroom in a shorter, older and less-expensive building that lies below the high-rises and infinite lights of downtown L.A., and you realize that even though she has her own place, Adrianne might be there tonight. But, with things being what they are currently, this is uncertain. Things with Adrianne used to be completely different. Three years ago in San Francisco, where both of you lived at the time, you could say you were in love. She was your Korean American angel, your savior, the only person who “got you.” Initially, she wielded this powerful and disturbing magnetic pull over you, consumed you with so much passion that you were scared that she might swallow you whole. But now, you don't know where that passion has gone.  

Three years ago, you also decided to move from San Francisco to L.A. to pursue your dreams of becoming an actor. You left the Bay Area, where your family of otolaryngologists reserved a spot for you at Stanford Medical School, wanting you to continue the tradition of treating Ear, Nose and Throat disorders by joining the successful practice that they had brought over from Taiwan. It took a lot of balls, but after revealing to your family that you graduated from Cal with a degree in theater (instead of biology), you told them that you were looking for something more meaningful. They suggested law school. You said acting. They scoffed and said surely, you were joking. You said you were not. They became very disappointed, and after a very painful back-and-forth of three long, drawn-out years, they finally decided to disown you. Thus, you stopped speaking to them, and they stopped speaking to you. You knew in your heart you were destined for something better anyway, something great, and that you were finally given free reign to live your dreams.

So, in L.A., you thought that with your chiseled good looks and natural talent, you were destined to "make it," even considering the fact that you were an Asian American actor. It'd be hard work, sure, but you were almost certain that with your discipline, training and insane work ethic, you would be able to land some major auditions, score some key roles in several sleeper hits, and in no time at all, you'd be sitting in a chair across from James Lipton answering his 10 questions. That was the constant vision that kept you going. But, things didn't turn out exactly the way you wanted them to. The first several weeks, you weren't having any success with callbacks. Those weeks then turned into months, those months into years, and the only types of jobs you were landing were commercials where you had to dress up in a karate uniform and chop something. However, you didn't give up, and enrolled in the Stella Adler Conservatory. You also started getting involved with local theater programs – smaller Asian American theaters that didn't accept you and said you weren't really the "right fit," as well as Shakespeare troupes that balked at your lack of classical training – which eventually led you to the Exit Ghost Repertory, which you felt was the only troupe that really understood you.

There was also the issue of money. The Conservatory was expensive, and you had only enough saved up to last for a month. You also had to pay for bus fare to get to auditions, and you had to eat. However, every job you got was more unsatisfying than the next: busboy, valet, fry cook. You wanted a job where you could also sharpen your acting at the same time, a venue where you could also display your talent. So, you were eventually hired as a performer/waiter at Joe Tinseltown's Diner Museum, a diner where struggling actors dressed up like famous movie icons and recognizable Hollywood figures to serve burgers and malt shakes to bewildered patrons.

Because you were Asian, they cast you instantly as either Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. You thought such roles were limiting, demeaning, and a bit insulting, but you really had no choice. As consolation, you told yourself that they used to have more racist roles like Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan, but that those roles have been phased out as America has become more progressively accepting. What role you really wanted to play was Marlon Brando — either young Brando from On the Waterfront, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or The Wild One, or the older Brando from The Godfather, because you have nailed down the Brando impression cold and can do the high nasal voice exactly, and so, so well. Your boss, a Christopher Walken impersonator, wants you to get more "into" the Bruce Lee role and do the yell more often. So you comply, justifying to yourself that your work pays tribute to a legendary icon, instead of the opposite.

Hence, for the past three years, your days have conformed to this monotony, and your own failures begin to encapsulate your existence like some thick cocoon of patheticness. Occasionally, you get calls from your agent, but most of the time he has nothing for you. It's a cutthroat industry, he always says. What can I tell you. So when night falls, you look forward to the one thing that has kept you going all these years: acting in theater. When you become Bérenger, all the regrets and doubts of your life, all the things that could have been and all the expectations that the world wants of you slowly begin to fade and melt away into nothingness — and you become simply a character in a play.

Bérenger is how you prove to the rest of the world and to everyone who has ever doubted you — your family, Adrianne, the Hollywood machine — that you are an actor and that you have talent. Of course, when you come home that night, Adrianne isn't there. She calls to tell you that she is preparing for a trip back to San Francisco, to likely bang Ben, an old flame that's in finance and who you think is a douchebag, but who may have the upper hand over you in the "having a future" department. Fuck it, you really don't care anymore. You take out a flask of Wild Turkey and you drink from it like it's a water bottle, until you fall into a hazed, blurred stupor. You hear Adrianne's voice telling you that ever since you came to L.A., you've become too consumed by acting, and that you are not the same person you used to be. That somehow you are not yourself.


The next day, you wake up and go to a local Starbucks on Sunset to get your usual double espresso and the L.A. Times, smile at the barista, and then go to work. Boss Walken ambles over to you and combs his fake grey-hair wig back so that the hairs stand up. After you drop off an order of steak-and-eggs at one table and twirl your nunchucks around a bit, he comes over to you and begs for you to do a whole martial arts demonstration for a birthday party.

"But, I don't know any Martial Arts," you say.

"Jack, you're busting my balls over here!" he says. You want to quit right then and there but realize that the rent is coming up, so you think better of it. You then proceed to take the orders of a table and attempt a series of confused, frantic motions that you think replicate what Bruce Lee considered "Jeet Kune Do," but the only thing that registers on the kids' faces is a deep, troubling look of confusion.

When night falls, you go to the Exit Ghost Repertory to rehearse. However, tonight, the mood is slightly different: you can feel it in the air. When you get there, Steve, the director, comes up to you. He tells you that a new actor will be joining the cast, an understudy that will be closely analyzing your role as Bérenger. At first, you are a bit taken aback, maybe you feel that Steve is trying to replace you, but he reassures you that your talent at playing Bérenger is unparalleled, and that the understudy is only there to relieve you in case you are not able to perform. Besides, the understudy will also be playing the minor role of Jean, Bérenger's friend, and that apparently is his main job.

Steve then gestures to the stage, and a dark man with intensely matted black hair and a devilish-looking goatee walks out of the shadows of the dark universe mural behind him, and introduces himself.

"Hyde," he says, pumping your hand firmly. "You must be Jack Chang. It's truly an honor." His eyes have a sharp, piercing quality to them. Also, he looks Asian, almost like a combination of all Asian races at once, but you can't quite place what type of Asian he is — and normally you consider yourself pretty good at that.

"Likewise," you say back, with an unequal amount of energy.

Hyde emanates this mysterious aura, dressed in black as if made from the night, because you have never heard of him before, and actors in L.A. — especially Asian American actors — run in small circles. He tells you that he has heard of you before, however. He says he followed your work at the Stella Adler Conservatory and has watched you countless times before, performing as Bérenger, thinking you were brilliant in the role. You feel humbled and actually look forward to working with him, as he appears to be a true professional. Steve tells you to start from a scene in Act II. Both you and Hyde recite the part where Bérenger tells Jean that sometimes he wonders if he even exists himself, and Jean says he doesn't exist, because he doesn't think, and once he starts thinking, he will exist.

You realize that with Hyde you feel at ease, because he appears to be a generous artist and gives you open vistas to display your talent, whereas other actors in the past have tried to take these opportunities away, or you were just being paranoid. As a result, you feel that not only is he a consummate professional, but someone who truly understands how an "actor is at most a poet, and at least an entertainer," as Brando has said.

For the next several nights, Hyde watches and analyzes your performance as Bérenger, absorbing every small detail. You often meet with him after rehearsals at a Starbucks on Sunset to talk shop, to share your rich knowledge with a fellow thespian. You tell him what Stanislavsky said about his method: "Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art." You quote him passages from Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting, and discuss advanced techniques such as Substitution, Emotional Memory, and Improvisation. You tell him how Mamet plays are the best for learning rhythm. You tell him about the genius of method acting, and how it is not really "performing" at all, but "becoming" by using the emotional tools already at one's disposal. You tell him about the Lunts, who really ate dinner off-stage while performing Chekov's The Seagull in order to accurately do a scene that took place after a dinner. You tell him about the pioneers of the craft, of Brando, Pacino, and De Niro, and how you re-watch their films over and over again, On The Waterfront, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, worshipping them like gods. He listens to you carefully and watches you sharply with his dark gaze, offering intelligent and constructive discussion in response. You suddenly feel privileged to have him as an understudy, and it feels good to have an apprentice, somebody that looks up to you, someone that appreciates you for the true talent that you are.

Days before Adrianne is to leave for San Francisco, she meets Hyde and seems to be strangely entranced by him, as she is by most good-looking men that are not you. To break her focus, you tell her that he is your understudy and that he is learning from you, not the other way around. She nods, and you aren't sure if she heard what you said, because she continues to shake Hyde's hand in a coy manner, smiling sheepishly.

When Adrianne leaves for San Francisco, you become suddenly very depressed, and Hyde notices this. At the lonely, desolate Arrow Bar on Vine and Fountain, the large neon arrow sign outside blinking with the hazy warmth of dimmed Christmas lights, you tell Hyde over a beer about Adrianne and your past with her. As you stare at the orange-lit rows of Beefeater, Absolut, and Stoli bottles in front of you, Hyde remarks how smoking hot — he corrects himself — how beautiful and intelligent she is, and you laugh out loud and slap him on the shoulder because you are intoxicated.

"You're not the first to say that," you say.

You tell him how she is going back to San Francisco to have an affair with Ben, a guy that is well-connected to your family, someone with money and a career. You say how it's sort of like how Bérenger desires Daisy in the play, but how Daisy falls for Dudard because he is successful, but all of them except for Bérenger are doomed in the end, anyway. "Art does imitate life, doesn't it? Fuck!" you say out loud. Too loud. People turn their heads. You are drunk.

In response, Hyde tells you that Ben likely doesn't have a soul, and that Adrianne will come back to you because of your passion for the theater and for acting because all women love passionate men. This makes you laugh inside, and you realize Hyde is becoming more and more like a close friend, a confidante, and you drunkenly hug him.

The day Adrianne comes back from San Francisco, you go and pick her up from LAX. On the drive back, both of you are silent, and you watch through the windows a series of ghostly green-purple columns move past you against the night sky in a sad, intermittent pattern. When you park your car in front of her place, she tells you something that you've known and feared for awhile: that she is in love with Ben now, and she thinks that you two shouldn't see each other anymore.

"I knew it," you say. "You were cheating on me."

"Look, Jack. You're always so wrapped up in acting, and so consumed by your own shortcomings, it was if I didn't even exist. I think — I think you should have seen this coming."

"Yeah," you say, looking out the window. "Get out of my car."

"Jack," she says.

"Get out," you say. You let her out and she slams the door, walking up the stairs to her apartment. Your heart feels obliterated, split open like a dusty, smashed clay vase. You roll down the window and begin to drive back to your apartment, when you see a familiar figure sitting outside the Starbucks on Sunset, dressed darkly and smoking a cigarette. It is Hyde.

Photograph by Damien Maloney

At the Arrow Bar, you drink your glass tumbler of whiskey and feel hot strands of liquid trickle through your body. You have been whining to Hyde for the past hour now, telling him how much you loved Adrianne, and how you envisioned this future together when you moved out to L.A., that you had everything mapped out, this grand plan. Hyde punches your shoulder in a clumsy way and then grips it with his hand. "Jack, you are a great actor. You can't let something as minor as this get you down." He rubs his devilish goatee.

"I let this happen, I just let it happen," you say. "I don't even know if I feel like acting anymore," you bleat, sobbing almost. "I don't want to act anymore. I've been out here in this shitty, soulless hellhole for three years, and still, nothing. Nothing! I'm a failure, not an actor.”

Hyde punches you in the shoulder again, a little harder this time. He grabs your collar slightly and shakes you from your trance. "Nonsense! An actor needs to really LIVE, needs to really ACT before even thinking of throwing in the towel!"

"What do I know? I'm not an actor. Why the hell am I even here?" You shout, drunkenly, to the bar lights almost, drowning the last drops of your whiskey. "What do I do now? Where do I go?"

Hyde grips your shoulder and pivots around: "I will show you the way. Let me be your guide," he says, then, with more intensity: "Let me be the Mephistopheles to your Faust, the Virgil to your Dante. But first, do you agree for me to lead you? Do you trust me?"

You drunkenly and impulsively nod, not knowing exactly what you just signed on to, and before you know it, you are at another club where you down a round of Vodka, and then you are at another club, where you down a round of Jägermeister — places with hip, trendy, one-word names like Arena, Aura, Privilege, Element, Crimson – places that eventually blur into a single, continuous place, because of their shared traits: the same trendy modern furniture and the same plastic, youngish crowd with the same music pulsating, ad infinitum, in loops.

You stop at a club called Holy Sanctuary, and your body spills into a bar chair that is shaped like a giant cross, your back pressing against it. So much alcohol is pumping through your veins that everything seems to be delayed by a whole five seconds. Hyde seems to know the bartender, a bald man, and nods at him.

"Are you beginning to feel it?" Hyde asks.

"I can't feel anything, really, right now," you say.

"Good," he replies. "This will help." He takes out an eight-ball of cocaine and lays it on the marble counter as the bartender looks the other way. He takes a snort and you follow his lead.

"You need to feel it," he shouts to you, "you need to understand the essence of acting. This, and only this, will save you."

"Acting is bullshit, it's all a ruse, it's fake, it's not real, that's what acting is," you slur haphazardly.

"No, you got it all wrong, acting is the exact opposite of that, it's a heightened way of life. Acting is living." He orders a round of tequila and downs his glass when it comes. "I know how much you worship Brando, but thinking like that is an insult to the great master, because Brando understood that the best."

"Yeah?" you ask, partially sipping from your glass, the burning liquid igniting your throat. "How's that?"

"When Brando started out at the Stella Adler Conservatory, they had everyone do an exercise. The teacher told the class to act like chickens that were just about to be hit by a nuclear missile. So, everyone started clucking like mad, running around like crazy, acting like they had gone insane, like it was the end of the world. Do you know what Brando was doing?"


"He was standing in place, clucking and pecking at the ground, as if nothing was going on. At that point, Stella Adler knew Brando was a genius."

"That's funny," you say, hiccuping from the tequila.

"No, Jack," Hyde says, gripping both your shoulders. "It's not funny, it's dead serious. Do you see what Brando was trying to say about the craft? He was trying tell us that acting isn't just mere pretending: if you're going to just do that, you might as well quit."

"That's great, that's really—"

He grips you again: "You've got to ACT like you LIVE, and vice versa, otherwise, nothing else in this world fucking matters!" he shouts to you, and you begin to nod slowly. "Now, DRINK IT!"

As the alcohol mixes with the drugs, the next moments flicker by in bright flashes: you see Hyde become this vortex of energy, the center of the party. You see him talking to the bartender, the group around the bar, a girl in a tight, red satin skirt and her friend in blue, and in the next flash you see him making out with the red satin devil girl, groping her, and then he tells you that the girl in blue thinks you're cute so you approach her, but her buff boyfriend sees you and shoves you, and Hyde responds by pushing him back. He tells you to stand up for yourself, so you lunge ahead drunkenly, but the boyfriend knees you in the chest and clocks you square in the jaw.

Before you know it, the bouncer is grabbing the back of your shirt to throw both you and Hyde out. When you get up, Hyde dusts you off and grips you by the shoulder, telling you that the night is still young. The rest of the evening is even more of a blur, a mixture of cocaine and ecstasy, the mint-green poisonous taste of absinthe, outbursts of pain and blood and more fights, ear-drum pounding trance music, the blur of flesh and glitter at a strip club, the pungent acidity of vomit, the scent of smoke, the flash of lights, of a million bright lights in a million different colors — all the colors that are even capable of being perceived.


You wake up on the couch with an awful taste in your mouth and a hospital band on your wrist and you wonder how that got there. You appear to be back in your own apartment, as far as you can tell.

You hear some noises from an adjoining wall – staccato bursts of moaning in escalating increments of pleasure – and realize that there are some people in your room. You try to move but you roll off the couch and hit the floor, hard. You stand up, steady yourself — you seem to have lost some feeling in your legs – and walk over to the kitchen counter. Then, a moment later, you see Adrianne walk out. For a second, your heart skips a beat.

"Ad-Adrianne," you stammer. "Am I glad to see you."

She smiles, says, "I'm glad to see you too," but draws out the last word in a slightly hesitant fashion.

"Look," you say, "I think I said some harsh things last night, and, well, I just wanted to apologize."

Adrianne looks at you with a somewhat dumbfounded gaze, and curls a dyed-auburn strand behind her ear, "Well, that's, uh, very nice of you."

Then, a second later, you see Hyde emerge out of your room. He walks widely and bow-leggedly like an overgrown, life-sized frog behind Adrianne, and drunkenly kisses her and laughs, while she kisses him back and laughs too, but giddily like a little schoolgirl.

"Wait," you say, "what the hell's going on?"

They both look at you like you are mad.

"What are you talking about, Hyde?" Hyde says, which is strange, because that's not your name. "This sexy lady knocked my socks off last night, that's all."

"Oh, Jack! Stop!" Adrianne says to Hyde, drawing circles on his chest with her index finger.

"All right, what the hell is going on over here?" you shout, a little too emotionally. Both of them look at you strangely.

"Hey, just chill out, man." Hyde says to you, smirking and laughing. "Did I tell you this guy was a great actor or what?" he says to Adrianne, nudging her. "Couldn't have asked for a better understudy."

Your mind is spinning out-of-control, and you are sure you are dreaming, or experiencing some type of hallucination or trip: was it the alcohol? The drugs? You pull your hair and grit your teeth and you start slapping yourself, hard, trying to wake yourself up.

"See, look at that," Hyde says to Adrianne. "Starting with the method exercises already. What a professional." Adrianne laughs, says she'll never understand you actors, kisses Hyde, and growls to him like a primal kitten. She then dresses and leaves for work. You are still standing up, grabbing your face with both of your hands and pushing your cheeks back in, while Hyde goes to the fridge and pours some orange juice into a plastic mug.

"Well, you can crash at my pad anytime," Hyde says. "But I do hope you have a place of your own." He gulps down some of the juice. "Last night was crazy, wasn't it?"

You get up, your brow furrowed with intense anger as you rush at Hyde, grab him by the collar and pin him up against the wall. The mug falls to the ground and shatters, juice spilling all over the tiled floor.

"What the hell did you do to her?" you scream at him. "Is this a fucking trick? Is this some sort of sick joke?"

Hyde looks confused, and slightly scared. He seems to have no idea what you are talking about. "Um, no? What is?"

"Look, Hyde. Just make her normal again. Make everything normal."

Hyde soaks up the spilled juice, cleans it up and laughs. "That girl is certainly NOT normal, at least in the sack." He figures you have a lot of pent-up acting energy to release, so he gets dressed and gets his keys, and tells you that you can tag along with him during his day if you'd like, as part of your training as his understudy. You are speechless and slap yourself harder again.

You follow him into the Starbucks on Sunset, and he orders a double espresso, grinning at the cute barista at the counter. She hands him her number. Then, like a ghost by his side, you follow him into his job as a Brando impersonator at Joe's Tinseltown. Boss Walken greets him cordially, but doesn't seem to recognize you.

"Come on! Don't you know who I am?" you shout to Walken. Boss Walken nervously smiles at you and looks at Hyde to explain things. Hyde smoothly tells Boss Walken that you are supposed to be his understudy, and that you are just shadowing him for the day. "He's a, you know, actor," you hear Hyde say, emphasizing the last word. Boss Walken slaps Hyde on the shoulder.

"Well, Jack, I know he'll be learning from the best then." Boss Walken then whispers something into Hyde's ear. Before you know it, Hyde steps out in a full yellow jumpsuit with a black stripe down the side and everyone cheers "Bruce Lee!"

You roll your eyes. "All right, any Asian actor can pull that one off."

Hyde then goes back and returns in a full black tuxedo with cotton balls in his mouth and a white cat in his arms, and entertains a table as Don Corleone. He has the nasal accent and the gesturing down cold, and when he comes by, you can hear a table scream "Marlon Brando!" He gives you a toothy grin through the cotton-ball cheeks and returns in a few more minutes wearing a tight shirt, a leather jacket and slicked-back hair. He goes to another table to take orders and you hear someone shout: "Holy shit, James Dean!"

You grab your dizzy head and run outside. You steady yourself on a wall and nervously grab a cigarette to take a long drag. You are no longer shocked by what is happening, but more shocked at how he is so much better than you. Were you just doing everything wrong the entire time? Were you just a poor actor? Hyde just waltzes in there and does Bruce Lee without breaking a sweat, but also Godfather Brando and James Dean, and the Boss let him do it too. Why? Because he's that good? So good as to transcend race? You are confused, and sit on a curb, dumbstruck, slowly finishing all your cigarettes, and look straight ahead in a dazed, outward gaze.

Hyde then leaves his job early and tells you that you can follow him to a meeting with his agent. He tells you his agent won't stop bothering him with phone calls for new roles. You look at him again, dumbfounded, but don't even say anything this time. When you meet his agent at a local palm-tree lined café, you realize it is your agent. You grab your head and bellow an exaggerated scream.

Your agent laughs and looks at Hyde. "Who the fuck's this guy? He's funny as hell!" The agent then hands you his card. The agent then tells Hyde that this week he was able to line up several big things for him: a small role in a TV show maybe, some beer commercials, supporting roles in two independent films, and a possible three-liner in a major studio picture.

You suddenly feel very tired. Hyde slaps you on the shoulder, tells you it's all about "continually just doing work," and tells you that he'll see you later tonight. You sigh, long and low, and walk down the empty streets of Los Angeles, as day slowly turns into night and the sun slowly sets. Then, you feel the spiritual void of Hollywood, the spiritual vacuum of being an actor, of show business, of this machine — but the sheer irony of it all stings you and hurts you even more: that you wanted desperately to be a part of this machine, you wanted to do good, but you failed, whereas Hyde — a true talent — has succeeded.

Evening slowly begins to appear in the sky and you begin to feel like a ghost of a walking corpse, all bloodless and lifeless, and you think to yourself: this must be what it's like to be dead. No one knows who you are, no one even cares. No reason to live, no reason to go on. Just nothingness, eternal nothingness forever and ever. A deep and gut-sinking sense of emptiness fills your stomach as you collapse knees first onto the ground, and you desperately try to make hot tears fall down your face in cascading streams but instead, nothing comes. What a pitiful actor, you think, can't even cry on cue.

But then, you remember rehearsal, you remember the Exit Ghost Repertory. The one thing that kept you going before. The one thing that Hyde can't take from you, no matter what. It will pull you through this, it will be your salvation. You get up, dust yourself off, and run as fast as you can down Santa Monica towards the abandoned warehouse, that building with its illuminated sign and glow-in-the-dark door, that theater with its myriad lights, beckoning you like the fluorescent cathedral of some neon god.

You storm in, breathlessly, and you see that the actors are already mid-rehearsal. They are positioned there, sitting in chairs on the stage, behind that photorealistic mural of outer space showing lonely nebulas and stars against a black void, and for a moment, you remember too when you were a part of them, when you felt your chest swell with pride at playing the lead.

"Hyde," Steve the director says. "Glad you could join us."

"Yeah," Hyde says, "come and read a part." It then hits you that Hyde is now playing the role of Bérenger, and the role that you now play is uncertain, nebulous, still up in the air.

However, this doesn't stop you, because as you step up slowly towards the stage and grab a script, you don't care if your role is not Bérenger, or if it's a rhinoceros role. You take another step up the stage, the physical step like a crutch that cements you in reality, and you think, maybe this is not so bad. Maybe I can start a new life. Somehow, the fear and the pain and the doubt begin to slowly evaporate from your chest in gradual, undulating waves.

If it's a rhinoceros role, I'll be a damn good one, you think to yourself, I'll be the best damn rhinoceros there ever was. You look around and see the mural of the universe behind the stage and see the eyes of the cast members looking at you, expectantly.

And then, at that point in time, you feel the life slowly returning to your veins, the blood pumping from your heart, to your chest, to your hands, and then to your mind, which begins to swell with a feeling of dizzying soaring and an absurd, bizarre sense of liberation, and at that moment, you abandon all doubt, because you remember what Hyde was trying to tell you before about acting, of how to live, how to really live. And then, you take a deep breath, in order to ready yourself to perform, to become, to act. To do what you do best.

Timothy Tau is a writer and filmmaker living in San Diego. This story is the winner of the 2011 Asian American short story contest presented by Hyphen and the Asian American Writer's Workshop.

Magazine Section: 

Timothy Tau

Timothy Tau

Timothy Tau is an award-winning writer and filmmaker and was recently named by PolicyMic magazine as "6 Young Asian-American Filmmakers Who Are Shattering America's Asian Film Bias." His short story "The Understudy" won Grand Prize in the 2011 Hyphen Asian American Writer's Workshop Short Story Contest and is published in the 2011 Issue of Hyphen Magazine as well as online. His short story, "Land of Origin" also won 2nd Prize in the 2010 Playboy College Fiction Contest (See October 2010 Issue of Playboy Magazine). Both stories are being developed into feature film projects.



Hi! I really loved your story. I'm an education student in the Philippines (specifically in Cebu), I would like to ask if you have an email address that I can send an email with regards to our critic analysis of your story. I strongly acknowledged your write up in our college for it to be featured in our literary class. I'm looking forward for your response.
Where can we read the full story? What issue is it printed in?
How can I order the Winter 2011 issue to read this?
Will this be expanded into a novel? Looking forward to reading more!
I was very interested in the use of second-person narrative in this story. I am doing a paper on second-person narrative and would like to cite this as an example.
Is this being turned into a movie?