Pride in a Pandemic // by Patrick Boll

Actor Patrick Boll rethinks his relationship to ego, embarrassment, and the produce aisle.

Near the end of William Inge’s classic American play The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Rubin Flood, the character I played in Transport Group’s 2007 production, is torn between two worlds: his former life as a horse tackle salesman, which is quickly becoming obsolete, and his new job working with oil machinery.  Struggling to remain relevant in a quickly changing world, he laments the coming of the future and explains this pivot to his wife, Cora:
“…Times are changin’, Cora, and I dunno where they’re goin’.  When I was a boy there wasn’t much more to this town than a post office.  I on’y had six years a schoolin’ cause that’s all the Old Man ever thought I’d need.  Now look at things.  School buildin’s, churches, fine stores, movie theaters, a country club.  Men becomin’ millionaires overnight, drivin’ down the street in big limousines, goin’ out to the country club and gettin’ drunk, acting like they was the lords of creation.  I dunno what to think of things now, Cora.  I’m a stranger in the very land I was born in…I look at the town now and I don’t recognize anything in it.  I still have to get used to the piano and the telephone and the gas stove, and the lace curtains at the window and carpets on the floor.  All these things are still new to me.  I dunno’ what to make of ‘em…”
Amen, Rubin—I feel your pain.  This past year (ugh—I’m sick of talking about it!) has left me (has left ALL of us!) lamenting the future and what it will bring and I’m as confused now as I was then.
When the shutdown happened, I hoped, as we all did, that this was a temporary setback.  A pause.  An intermission.  It’s turned out to be the longest set change in the history of theater!
But then the questions began…
How long will this last?
Is this pandemic real? (I don’t see people dropping in the streets…)
Do we really need masks? (I know, I’m pissing off some of you right now, but don’t tell me that you haven’t had the same questions…)
More importantly, when can I (when can we ALL) get back to work?
Then it dragged on.
Then we learned names like Fauci and Birx.
Then the murder of George Floyd happened.
Then the election happened.
Then the Capitol riot happened.
It seemed, as a society, that we kept splintering into more and more groups.  My side.  Your side.  Their side.  But rarely “our” side.
This whole time I kept thinking, “…Times are changin’ and I don’t know where they’re going.”
But I’ve always believed in transformation.  Whether it’s the transforming power of theater or the transforming power of the individual, life transforms.  We adapt.  We (sometimes) lament the things we’ve lost and look forward to the things that might be.
As an acting career quickly faded into the rearview mirror, I was faced with a dilemma: first, a month of unemployment.  Then two.  Then four.  Next thing I knew, it was September and employment (and a future in theater) seemed less and less a reality (at least for the foreseeable future).  I’ve made a living for the last 30 years as an actor.  But that was now on hold—and I needed a job.  In considering my options, I was quickly confronted with my greatest challenge: Pride.  Pride is not an easy trait to confront.  Pride, as an actor, goes hand in hand with ego, and ego, as you know, is the cornerstone (and the crutch) of any actor.  Pride/ego is what gives an actor the courage to stand in front of people and make a fool of themselves.  (Wait…every other actor doesn’t make a fool of themself?  Damn—I’ve been doing this all wrong!)  In any event, it took a fair amount of self-negotiation to work through my pride/ego self to get to a place where I could go back to work in a “real” job.
I knew I was capable of a few things outside the acting world.  I’m funny.  I’m a quick study.  When I have a task, I’m quick to accomplish it.  I’m also very handy.  I’ve been a part-time amateur DIY contractor for many years.  I’ve installed pocket doors.  I’ve installed French doors leading to a deck and hot tub (thank you Mamma Mia!).  I’ve renovated basements and bathrooms and kitchens, oh my.  I’ve replaced entire floors!  Needless to say, I know my way around a tool-bag.
After applying to the local Lowes and Home Depot (apparently my inability to distinguish between floor tile styles kept me from THAT job), I discovered that a new grocery store was opening up a block away.  Here was my chance—at least temporarily.  It was a job.  It was some money.  I was close to home.  I could be funny and get tasks done.  It was perfect.
But I also knew I needed something more long term.  (Grocery work is backbreaking!)  I remembered a quote I came across one day, “Find something you love to do and get someone to pay you for it.”  I always loved DIY work, but I was never cut out to be a contractor.  Instead, I discovered the field of Private Home Inspections.  Here was a career where I could use all my skills in building and combine them with all my communication skills as an actor.  A perfect fit.
But that “pride/ego” thing…
When I was a young actor, I was fortunate enough to work at Williamstown Theater Festival with the likes of Kate Burton (whom I will ALWAYS consider the First Lady of the American Theater, but that’s for a later story).  I was mortified only months later when I had to wait on her as a cater waiter (she was still as gracious as ever!).  How could I let her see me like this?  A WAITER?!  Oh, the tragedy of it all!!
But, of course, times have changed.  I’m not so mortified.  Perhaps, with age comes wisdom.  Also, Covid has leveled the playing field.  Now, I don’t care.  I’ve raised 2 kids.  I’ve been married for almost 30 years.  I’ve survived prostate cancer!  (What could be more embarrassing than having a nurse pull a catheter out of your penis?  Waiting on Kate Burton?—I don’t think so!)  My point is, making the choice to work in a grocery store or train to be a Home Inspector or any other choice I make gets considerably easier with age.  Would I love to be back on a Broadway stage?  Sure.  Am I okay stocking carrots at the grocery store?  Sure.  It’s an honest day’s work—and there’s nothing wrong with an honest day’s work. (And some days I wake up and I’m just grateful for sunshine!)
In October, I got a job stocking groceries and checking people out at the local grocery store.  I’m considered an “essential” employee.  I just like helping people.
Since January, I have been enrolled in an intensive, Home Inspection training course.  16 hours a week in online classes, a different 500+ page book each week covering a different subject—Plumbing, Heating, Electrics, Roofing.  It’s a lot—and I love it!  For the first time in many years, I feel like I’m learning something that will help make a difference in other people’s lives as well as my own.  By the end of this course, after 200 hours of mentoring and successfully passing a 4-hour, 200-question, multiple-choice National Home Inspection exam, I will be a licensed Home Inspector in the state of New Jersey.
Will I act again?  I hope so.  (I’m still submitting self-tapes for NCIS-New Orleans and Kraft cheese commercials, for Chrissakes!)
Will I be a Home Inspector?  I hope so.  (I’ve put a LOT of time into figuring out the difference between a Mansard and a Gambrel roof!)
Will I work at the grocery store?  I hope not.  (Great people, nice work—but the most disorganized, mis-managed, top heavy organization I’ve ever seen!)
In the end, just as Rubin fumbled his way forward, I, too, am trying to remain relevant and make sense of the future.  I look at the world around me—a world I’ve known for many years—and yet everything seems new.  But as Rubin says, “I’m scared.  I don’t know how I’ll make out.  But a fellow’s gotta get into the swim.  There’s nothing else to do…”

About the author:

Patrick Boll is a New York based actor who has performed in over a half dozen Broadway shows, including starring in the hit Broadway musical Mamma Mia!, where he played the role of Bill Austin for 3 years. Other Broadway credits include Death of a Salesman, Hedda Gabler, Tom Sawyer, Old Times, Faith Healer, and Twentieth Century.  Off-Broadway credits include All The Way HomeThe Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Three Days to See with Transport Group, Bill W. & Dr. Bob, Henry & Mudge and others.  Regional credits include Newsies (Theater by the Sea), Betrayal (McCarter), 4 seasons at Williamstown Theater Festival and many others. Film & TV credits include the Coen brothers’ Burn After ReadingHow to Be SingleFBILaw & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Quantico, Odd Mom Out, Madam Secretary and more. Patrick’s first book, Product: You – The Workbook and Guide to an Actor’s Life, is available now on Amazon.