In For a Penny: Shedding the Pounds

Charles Lewis III, contemplating sound body and sound mind?

“Heartthrob? Never! Black ‘n ugly as ever…”
– The Notorious BIG, “One More Chance”

I have this thing I do before every show. It’s really not all that different from the pre-show ritual of any other performer: a series of physical warm-ups and vocal flourishes that, to the untrained eye would probably give the impression that I’d been possessed by the kind of demon only Max von Sydow could defeat. Y’know, the usual. At least I think it’s usual. One of my physical moves is to do a handstand against the wall, with a few push-ups for good measure.

It’s a move of such fundamental simplicity that it’s taught small children. But for some reason it’s become my “signature warm-up move”. I’m not even kidding. Claire Rice mentioned it in her intro for me during the third Olympians Festival. Granted, her comments were nice. Usually people tell me that this simple maneuver – which, again, is so damn simple that it’s taught to toddlers – is just me showing off. As if I were a Dell’Arte alumnus flaunting my skills in front of a room of paraplegics.

Cirque du Soleil – Ovo – Spider contortionist

Cirque du Soleil – Ovo – Spider contortionist

I used to just laugh off this baseless accusation. Then I got annoyed. More recently, I’d get angry. But lately I’ve just felt sorry for those other folks. I took a moment to remember that someone who cares that much about something as insignificant as a pre-show warm-up is likely speaking from insecurity. And what would artists – theatre folk in particular – be without our sense of insecurity?

I actually wanted to write about this in my last piece. Early February 2015 was a perfect storm of body issue articles appearing in mainstream media: both Cindy Crawford and Beyoncé Knowles had un-retouched photos from their most recent photo shoots leaked to the public; the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was revealed to include an advertisement (not an actual photo spread) with model Ashley Graham as the first-ever plus-sized model to appear in the magazine; the same day of the SI announcement saw the release of the trailer for the upcoming film Magic Mike XXL; a million articles were written about stars getting into shape for the Oscars red carpet; and I read this article about one of my heroes, Kate Winslet. And that’s just the stuff I can remember off the top of my head. Apparently it was Body Conscious Week, but no one told me.

Now one would think that the pressure to achieve “perfection” wouldn’t be as important to the average indie theatre person as it would to the average red carpet all star, and that’s true to a degree. We’re all low enough on the totem pole to where it’s rare to have anyone following us around with high-speed cameras, asking how we intend to get in shape for bikini season (hell, most people don’t even believe what we do is “real acting/directing/writing” simply because it’s theatre – the last thing they care about is what we eat). But that doesn’t change the fact that we notice, both in the mainstream and in our little “underground” world. When the Ashley Graham thing was announced, a stand-up comedian friend of mine joked that “Ashley Graham gives me hope that one day I too could have my luscious bod airbrushed within an inch of its life, featured in SI, and called ‘plus-size’.” I’ve mentioned before that backstage can easily turn into an area of silent tension as performers positively and negatively assess their own bodies with those of their colleagues. It’s that oft-mentioned “junior high mentality” that we find ourselves unable shake. Being artists affords us an outlet for these anxieties, if not an actual relief.

Eventually – seeing as how so much of our work (writing in particular) is based on a mental acumen in which we take pride – some wiseass will ask “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you try exercising your body as much as your mind?” Honestly, it’s not a bad question – it’s just one for which it’s incredibly easy to make excuses.

My workout regimen (if it can even be called that) is very rudimentary. It has to be: I can’t afford a gym membership (hell, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a professional gym in my entire adult life) or exercise equipment, so what I do is done around the house. I’ve just made a habit of incorporating it into my everyday life. I work my stretching and balance in the morning as I’m waiting for the stove to heat up as I make my breakfast. I spend some days adding in jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, and lunges. Days when I don’t do that, I make it a point to go jogging at least three miles. That’s about it, really.

No, really, that’s it. Without any personal trainer or set plan, I just know enough to raise my heart rate and not injure myself.

And yes, I enjoy it. I enjoy jogging more than anything because it’s when my mind is at its most fertile. I don’t play music when I jog or exercise and jogging relieves me of the burden of having to count reps. As such, I spend a good amount of time coming up with what-I-think-are-great-ideas and the rest of the jog trying to remember them, so as to write them down when I get back home.

This is just the latest version of a routine I’ve tried to keep since my early 20s, with varying degrees of success. Last month I turned 34, which means I’m officially in my “mid-30s”. My metabolism isn’t the same as it was when I was 17, and it’s just gonna get slower from here. I don’t smoke or drink coffee (I tried both when I was a teen, instantly hated them both, and never went back), have no known food allergies, and I try my damndest to get as close to eight hours of sleep as I can – and believe me, that one is the hardest. And I’m still not satisfied with how I look or how much I get accomplished.

To say nothing of the fact that as a Black man in America I’m far more prone to every ailment and illness in the Western world, not to mention more likely to have his jogging mistaken as running from the scene of a crime. (Yes, that has happened to me. More than once.) This is why my sympathy disappears for most folks who say “I’d work out if more, if I could.” Barring any serious injury or other condition, it’s often that they just don’t want to. I make the same excuse for whenever I don’t write. I write on a non-electric manual typewriter, so when I’m sitting in my room and I don’t hear that “klack-klack-klack” sound, I know I’m not doing something I should be doing. And I’m pissed off at myself for it.

But I’m still not satisfied with how I look. Now I know that as a guy there isn’t nearly as much pressure on me to conform to bodily norms as there is for a woman (if only someone would explain that to Russell Crowe), but that doesn’t make me any more secure about my lack of a six-pack. Or my increasing number of gray hairs. Or the crow’s feet around my eyes. Or the zit marks and moles all over my fa—Jesus H. Christ, how does the woman I’m dating even stand to look at me for more than fifteen seconds without her face melting?!

But as lacking as I am in admirable physical traits, I’m secure in the knowledge that at least I’m healthy by most counts. I can easily pull off the “sit and rise test” (sit on the floor, stand without using your hands or arms) and simple balance tests (stand on one leg for 20 sec. without falling over). Maybe one day I’ll have enough money to be under the guidance of a personal trainer on a regular basis, but until then, I’m happy to be healthy.

More importantly, I actually like how my exercise fits into my artistic life. As I said above, I love jogging because all of my best ideas happen when I’m jogging. If I have any skill as a writer – and I’ll be the first to say that I don’t – then I’d attribute it regular exercise. And, like all things artistic, it’s great when you find others with whom you can share it. A theatre artist I admire has been aiming to start an exercise group for some time now; should she ever get it up and running, I’d love to take part. About three years ago I was part of a weekend exercise group composed of SF State alumni-turned-theatre folk (I never went to SF State, so I’m still not sure how I got into that group?) and the sweat-inducing routines were presented as being just far more exerting pre-show exercises. And I’m always someone who will take part in pre-show warm-ups with the rest of the cast. I don’t think it should be required – for some actors, it’s akin to putting a gun to their head – but it’s an invaluable bonding experience for people who will spend the next few weeks/months/what-have-you running around playing Make Believe together on stage.

So no, I’ve never done my physical work to show off. It’s so rudimentary, I don’t know where “showing off” would even begin. No, I do it for the same reason I do everything else in theatre: I’m passionate about it. As the month of February draws to a close, so too does Theater Pub’s month-long look at the themes of Passion and Desire. I desire to be the best artist my skills will allow, and I’m passionate about taking the steps that will make me better at it. Plus I just like the view from this angle.

Charles – upside-down handstand

Charles – upside-down handstand

Charles Lewis’s biggest physical goal is to one day be able to pull off a “human flag”. Look it up. His next feat will be having four actors join him in the 20-yard dash that is spending one week producing Ashley Cowan’s This is Why We Broke Up for ShortLived 2015. See you at the finish line.

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3 comments on “In For a Penny: Shedding the Pounds

  1. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    My latest Theater Pub piece looks at issues of body image and motivation within the indie theatre scene.

  2. Just realised my comment about Russell Crowe might now make any sense, so here’s Patricia Arquette commenting on it: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/02/patricia-arquette-boyhood-feminism-ageing

  3. […] voice for this role, primarily with the show’s composer/musical director. I’ve mentioned before how importantly I regard exercise, and vocal exercise is no different. Even when I’m not in a musical, I’ll go through as many […]

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