The theatre arts program at Freeport’s Highland Community College is nearing opening night for their production of Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man, a dramatized account of the life of Joseph “John” Merrick. In the latter 1800’s, Merrick gained prominence as the titular “Elephant Man” as a human oddity and medical case study, due to his physical deformities. Your Rockford Theater Examiner recently visited a rehearsal of the production, and sat down for a conversation with Andrew Reid, who plays the eponymous role.
“I actually kind of grew up on stage… I’ve always been drawn to theatre as much as possible,” says Reid, “and so I’m really glad to be able to do this dramatic piece and will hopefully do justice to this awesome character and person [as a] historical figure.”
Portraying the role has brought its share of challenges for Reid. “I get to do this transformation for his disfigurement. We don’t use any prosthetics. So everything that I do, I’m doing myself,” he says of how he portrays Merrick’s distinctive physical stature. This has been a hallmark of the play since its premiere in 1977. Unlike the similar film adaptation of Merrick’s life from 1980 (which starred John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins), his deformities are conveyed through suggestive means rather than makeup in the stage version. This challenge has attracted many notable actors to the script and the role over the years, including David Schofield, David Bowie, Mark Hamill, and Bradley Cooper. The actor must physically suggest what Merrick looked like through his body language. “Usually, at the end of any practices, I’ll be a little sore,” says Reid.
The challenges of the character are not strictly physical, however. Reid comments that “The way that I describe Merrick is that he has the intelligence, he’s a brilliant man, but when it comes to his emotional sense, he’s naïve.” Reid has enjoyed probing the character to capture this duality. “There’s a balance to my character,” he adds.
Apart from the entertainment value of the play, Reid also hopes that his audiences will have learned something when they walk away from the theatre. “Everyone should come to see this to understand how grateful we should be to have what we have. We all so often take being able to use everything that we have for granted… and this piece is a reflection on that, where this character, this human being, was different. They thought that since he was different, he was awful, and they needed to fix him. In a way it kind of reflects on us and how we need to realize that just because someone is different, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. In fact, John Merrick is probably the best character up there. Everyone else is flawed in their own way, shape, or form. Just because you look different or act different does not mean that you’re bad.”
He also hopes that the story may touch playgoers. “It’s going to be a pretty serious piece, pretty dramatic,” he says. “We tried to find the humor where we can, but his life, while it was uplifting and inspiring, was also pretty sad. Audiences should just be aware that, while it’s an amazing story, be prepared to cry.”
Reid and his castmates have been working hard on The Elephant Man. The show will run March 31st through April 2nd, with all performances beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $10, with students and senior rates available. Seats can be reserved by calling 815-599-3718, or can be purchased on Highland’s website. The show is directed by Highland’s theatre instructor, Laura Early.