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Embody Meant

The elderly neighbour sighs, and puts his book down. He leans forward in the recliner to light a stick of incense and a candle, and top up his glass of wine. Then he leans back, puts his earphones in, presses play on his mobile device and resumes reading.

That was it. That was the entire part. No lines to learn, not a whole lot of acting required, and not even a lot of tasks to memorise.

Even for the most amateur of actors, this was not a difficult part to rehearse for.

And amateur though Hank was, rehearse he sure did. Oh boy, did he rehearse.

First, Hank sighed until he was blue in the face. Then he practised placing his brand new prop book on the side table until it was worn and dog-eared, without ever once being read.

Hank rehearsed his way through countless packets of patchouli-scented incense, trying to get the lighting of the stick just right. Then he worked his way through umpteen bottles of red wine, most of which got poured down the drain, as he topped up his glass again and again and again, until he was convinced his portrayal was truly believable.

To this day, no living human being can place earphones in their ears with the comfort and ease in which Hank trained himself to do so, in the weeks leading up to that audition.

Hank read and re-read the entire script, and memorised everyone else’s lines.

The script was for the pilot episode of a TV show called Man About Town, in which a man recovers from a near-death experience and decides he wants to go from door to door across his entire town, and get to know every resident and business owner.

He dines at every single restaurant one by one, drinks coffee at every café, beer in every bar, visits each and every shop in town, goes ten-pin bowling at every single bowling alley, exercises at every gym, attends a sporting event at every venue and so on. He even gets manicures and pedicures so he can get to know the city’s nail salons.

Of course, along the way, he gets himself into all kinds of trouble and becomes tangled up in various misadventures. When he comes home of a night, his disgruntled wife engages him in family-friendly arguments appropriate for prime-time TV audiences.

“Why do you have to run around town getting involved in everyone’s business” and “Now look what you’ve done” and the like. Eventually, they inadvertently raise their voices, and this is when the neighbour comes into it.

Every episode, there was to be a token scene in which the neighbour overhears the couple’s endless squabbling while he reads his book. He sighs, puts his book down, leans forward in his recliner to light a stick of incense and a candle, tops up his glass of red wine, leans back, puts his earphones in, presses play on his mobile device and resumes reading.

Presumably, the audience would laugh each time this scene played. Just like they do every time Jazzy Jeff gets thrown off the front porch in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or Rowan Atkinson topples the three-wheeled car in Mr. Bean, or Jerry Seinfeld utters the same two words: Hello, Newman

In Man About Town, the neighbour was written to be a stuffy, intolerant man who didn’t take kindly to anything he deemed to be out of the ordinary. But once he blocked the world out, he was happy. In many ways, he was the protagonist’s exact opposite.

And so, Hank learned how to portray a stuffy, intolerant man who didn’t take kindly to anything he deemed out of the ordinary… And he played it well.

Too well, in fact. In the days following the audition, Hank was told that, while his performance was truly stellar, the casting director had found Hank’s portrayal of the stuffy neighbour to be a little too “heavy”, “dramatic” and “intense” for a TV comedy.

This would be the first (and final) rejection of Hank’s acting career.

At 63 years old, Hank was no spring chicken when he first tried his hand at acting.

But then again, not every Hollywood role called for a spring chicken. There were plenty of middle-aged male characters whose roles needed filling, and as a recent retiree from 45 years of data entry, Hank was eager to take a leap of faith.

After all, Morgan Freeman was 52 when he finally managed to establish himself as a respected and recognisable actor!

As a 45-year veteran of data entry work, Hank had grown accustomed to cold, hard figures. In his industry, pats on the back were associated with the consistent and timely completion of the task at hand, in which there was only one way to carry it out.

Black and white. No grey space. Either you’d completed the job, or you hadn’t. Pass or fail.

Acting was a whole new beast for Hank. He hadn’t told any of his peers about it, because he knew they would laugh at him.

“You wanna be an actor?!” he imagined them chuckling. “Hank?! Obsessive-compulsive, number-crunching, everything-has-to-be-just-right Hank?!”

To be fair though, what kind of uptight, stuffy middle-aged man lights incense?

That was Hank’s first issue with the script. Incense was associated with hippies, free spirits and degenerates trying to smother the smell of weed. A stuffy Vietnam War-era hard-ass would not light incense.

“Don’t overthink it,” they said. “Just focus on the character’s movements.”

Hank’s next reservation (which he kept to himself this time) regarded the fact that a stuffy and intolerant elderly man would be unlikely to stream music on his mobile device. Of course, Hank had other burning questions, but he did his best to supress them.

For instance, where is the character’s wife? Why does he read at dinner time, instead of before or after? Why doesn’t he bang on the neighbour’s door, instead of putting his earphones in?

“Don’t overthink it,” they said. “Like we said before, just focus on the character’s movements.”

And so, Hank focused on the character’s movements. Day and night. Week after week.

The elderly neighbour sighs, and puts his book down. He leans forward in the recliner to light a stick of incense and a candle, and top up his glass of wine. Then he leans back, puts his earphones in, presses play on his mobile device and resumes reading.

Hank had been denied the role of the stuffy and intolerant elderly neighbour. But he couldn’t understand why. He’d played his part perfectly.

He didn’t understand where he went wrong, or how he could have improved his performance… all he knew was that he would not play the elderly neighbour in the pilot episode.

It couldn’t have been his acting that lost him the part – Hank had prepared for weeks. No, it must have been the inconsistencies in the script.

And yet, he who was cast managed to overcome the script’s inconsistencies.

But how? Hank obsessed over it.

The pilot was deemed worthy of a full season, and eventually another, and another. All the while, Hank’s inferior counterpart regularly appeared as the stuffy and intolerant neighbour, again and again.

Ironically, Hank had grown so accustomed to the peculiar scent of patchouli in his rehearsals that he legitimately enjoyed the smell now. In fact, he didn’t just enjoy it… he revelled in it. The moment the first wisps of patchouli-scented smoke curled their way into his nostrils, he would feel calmer.

Since retiring, Hank had felt the stress that can often arise from idle hands. A glass of red wine, a patchouli-scented incense stick and an episode of Man About Town by candlelight was just what the doctor ordered.

Things evolved in such a way that every night, for the 30 minutes that Man About Town aired on television, Hank became the stuffy and intolerant neighbour that he’d spent so long learning how to portray.

One night, after leaning forward in his recliner to flick on the television, lighting a stick of patchouli-scented incense and a candle, pouring himself a glass of red wine and reclining in his chair to enjoy tonight’s episode of Man About Town, Hank couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing on the screen in front of him.

As usual, the protagonist and his wife were squabbling about whatever silly conundrum he had gotten himself into this time, and as usual, the scene cut to the stuffy and intolerant neighbour.

Only this time, it wasn’t the same actor. The character was the same, but the actor was not.

The elderly neighbour sighs, and puts his book down. He leans forward in the recliner to light a stick of incense and a candle, and top up his glass of wine. Then he leans back, puts his earphones in, presses play on his mobile device and resumes reading.

The scene played out the same as usual, and the studio audience laughed.

But Hank didn’t laugh. He couldn’t believe his eyes. This made no sense. It simply did not compute. How could they replace the actor who portrays the stuffy and intolerant neighbour, and not make any reference to it in the show? It defied the laws of continuity.

Hank did some research.

Apparently, the actor who had been playing Hank’s desired role had found a more enticing part on Broadway. He had ended his contract, and the creators of Man About Town were forced to recast his character.

Not only was it completely detrimental to the story arch to suddenly recast a crucial character, but Hank also struggled to accept this new actor’s embodiment of the stuffy and intolerant neighbour.

The man put absolutely no effort into his sigh, and the way he leaned forward in the recliner seemed forced and scripted. Hank could tell by the way the incense burned that it clearly wasn’t patchouli, and he was utterly unnatural in how he placed the ear phones inside his ears.

The entire scene made Hank feel sick to his very stomach. All the patchouli-scented incense and red wine in the world couldn’t put Hank at ease.

And yet, still Hank continued to watch the show night after night, more out of disdain than anything else. He felt disoriented and confused, as if he’d somehow lost his own identity the moment they recast the stuffy and intolerant neighbour.

Retiring from data entry had been one thing; he’d tried his hand at acting as a way to soften the blow of losing the purpose that his day-to-day job provided. But this was something else entirely. He felt wobbly and unsure of himself.

Although he wasn’t particularly looking forward to the next 30 minutes like he used to, Hank sat down to watch Man About Town. He leaned forward in his recliner, lit a stick of patchouli-scented incense and a candle, poured himself a glass of red wine and leaned back to observe what kind of shenanigans the man about town got himself into this time.

As soon as the opening credits gave way to the first scene of the episode, Hank knew something was wrong. As the episode played on, Hank felt a knot grow tighter and tighter in his stomach.

The story arch wasn’t playing out the way it normally did. The scriptwriters had strayed from their usual formula. Nevertheless, the protagonist eventually found himself arguing with his wife in the kitchen, and their voices raised ever so slightly with each new line, until finally…

The elderly neighbour sighs, and puts his book down. He leans forward in the recliner to light a stick of patchouli-scented incense and a candle, but finds that he has run out of incense sticks.

Hank’s eyes bulged.

As he stares at the empty incense holder in horror, he fumbles for the bottle of red wine and accidentally knocks it over. Red wine gurgles out of the toppled bottle and saturates the elderly neighbour’s earphones.

As Hank watched the screen, incredulous, he suddenly felt out of breath.

The bottle rolls off the side table and smashes on the floor. The elderly neighbour jumps to his feet, and looks from his empty incense holder, to his empty wine glass, to his wine-soaked earphones and finally, to the wall, where his neighbours can be heard arguing on the other side.

Hank couldn’t believe his eyes. He clutched at his chest as he struggled to pull himself out of his recliner. He could feel shooting pains up and down his left arm.

As the neighbours’ arguing intensifies and their voices grow louder and louder, the elderly neighbour clutches his chest, falls to his knees, and drops to the floor.

Hank took a few wobbly steps towards the television, where the screen showed the elderly neighbour dead on the ground as the studio audience laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.

They killed him off! They wrote him out of the show in the most merciless of ways! They wouldn’t have done this if Hank had played the part. They would never have needed to replace him, nor write him out of the show. The audience would never have grown tired of Hank’s portrayal of the elderly neighbour.

As Hank staggered backwards and crashed onto his side table, flopping onto the floor and groaning in pain as he tried to crawl, the TV screen showed the man about town and his wife continuing their argument, unaware of what had just unfolded next door.

Through teary eyes, Hank caught a final glimpse of the TV screen, where the show carried on without the elderly neighbour.

He managed to suck in one last breath, which stole away the smoke curling up from the patchouli-scented incense stick, now resting on the floor beside his face. The peculiar scent managed to calm him down one last time.

With that, Hank’s body unclenched and his face, bright red and puffy, went blank.

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