The Downside of Being Neil Armstrong

I wear my faith around my neck. As melodramatic as that sounds, it is quite literally true. In my show my "costume" is clerical garb, that is, the black pants and black shirt with white collar, frequently worn by members of the clergy. Ironically the "Roman" collar was invented by a Scottish Presbyterian minister (I read this on the Internet, ergo: truth.) and, as such it seems appropriate that I should be wearing it here in Edinburgh.

Years and years ago when I was a wee improviser in Chicago, I expected that I would one day perform at the Fringe; I just never imagined it would be as a vowed celibate. I've been told that I'm the first Jesuit to perform here, which more than likely means that I am the first religious (religious meaning member of a religious order, such as the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, etc.) of any kind to showcase their wares at the Fringe; as Jesuits always seem to be the first to do this sort of thing. And by this sort of thing, I mean moving outside the boundaries of conventional church ministries and into the realm of the predominantly secular. I'm like the Neal Armstrong of seminarians, or so I like to tell myself. It's a unique position in which I find myself, and sometimes people don't quite know what to do with me.

Arriving for my technical rehearsal the day before my show was to open, the staff at the venue spoke to me in almost deferential tones, eyes cast downward, each response punctuated with a sort of spastic half-bow. I was referred to as "father" and there seemed to be a quiet tension in the air, as if each of them were measuring their words and silently attempting to decipher which commandments they were breaking for every moment they stood in my presence.

This isn't the first time I've had this experience, it comes with the collar; still I always feel a bit repulsive doing the whole, "I'm just a regular guy like you, call me 'Jake'" spiel; but the reality is that I am just like everyone else... well, except I don't have sex, I live in community with a bunch of other men who can't have sex and I can't own or purchase my own house or car. Other than that, I'm just like everyone else.

After the rehearsal, my technical director Jax -- a product of a good Jesuit education -- let me know that most of her colleagues were a bit confused as to how to deal with me. Clearly. She was the only Catholic (however lapsed) amongst them and they sought counsel from her as to how to behave. Did they need to not swear? Should they wear a sack cloth and ashes? Perhaps make a virginity pledge? It was awkward for them, it was awkward for me. Apparently there is a downside to being Neil Armstrong.

And yet, I cannot play the innocent without being a hypocrite (not that I would be the first). I freely admit that outside the secular world of the arts, in the more comfortable confines of religion, I reap the benefits that come with the collar. Teaching high school the past several years while wearing the collar (with more than a little help from my intense unibrow) has saved me an extraordinary amount of time in classroom management -- yes, teenagers are still afraid of the clergy. It has also extricated me from the numerous headaches that frequently beset my lay colleagues while dealing with the intrusions of overzealous parents. In these situations the collar commands respect, deference and compliance. And yes, I'll have some more please.

But in all truthfulness, my best self -- who can sometimes be seen glimmering briefly in the light of the waning moon -- would prefer none of it, and would rather just prefer to be a part of it all. And yes this is a plea for an egalitarianism of the worst, most idealistic, most futile, most teenager-writing-poetry, sort. It comes from that most primitive, yet dare I say, God given, desire to be a part of, to be a member of, to be in solidarity with, those around me. To not be an exception, not be less than, or greater than, my fellows. Rather to be a member of a community, in this particular case, a community of artists, but always a part of a group that is capable of something far greater than I could ever achieve alone. After all Neil Armstrong didn't operate Apollo 11 by his lonesome.