Tom Vitorino’s passion for THE ELEPHANT MAN did not come accidentally. The life of John Merrick (1852-1889) remains fascinating and powerful even after more than 100 years. On March 21, 2019, Vitorino will bring Merrick back to life on the El Portal Theatre stage when he stars in THE ELEPHANT MAN. On 2/25/19, Tom Vitorino took time out of his busy schedule to comment on the upcoming production and how Merrick’s story resonates with him.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INTRIGUED BY THIS MAN WHO LIVED SO LONG AGO?
I think that it has to do with a life-changing experience which I had in 2012. That’s when I contracted Bell’s palsy, an airborne virus that primarily attacks people of Mediterranean descent. It goes into the ear and affects the nerves in the face. I woke up one morning with pain in my ear. While I was looking in the mirror, the left side of my face just dropped…everything drooped, my mouth, my eye. I drove myself to the emergency room, and they told me I have Bell’s palsy. There is no cure. The doctors said that some people get 50% back…all the way to 100% back, but there was no way to tell. After a couple of months, I got about 85% back, but the virus never leaves you. Whenever I get sick, it feels like there’s a weight on my left eye.
But Bell’s palsy didn’t get me interested in Merrick. It was what happened to me for the first month or two after I developed it. From the emergency room, I went right back to work. But I noticed that people were acting different towards me, looking away in public. Sometimes, they looked sorrowful; and other times, they could be cruel. My face just hung, and I was drooling. The strong muscles on the right side were pulling my nose to the right; my left eye was closed. How people reacted to me made a sea change in how I looked at other people. For the first time, I realized that I had judged other people even without knowing it. Looking at people isn’t like looking at a painting. We look at each other and can go right to a negative image. Bell’s palsy was an eye-opener. I’ve been different ever since. I used to make snap judgments based on how people looked. Then I realized that we are our actions, our thoughts – not our outward appearance. Maybe in every curse there’s a blessing. What happened turned out to be a life preserver for my own humanity.
One day, I was walking down the street and passed a group of people. One of them said, “Hey, it’s the elephant man.” That’s when I started to examine Merrick and his life.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM READING “THE ELEPHANT MAN?”
Merrick’s life has a lot of deep meaning. It took years for me to take on this role. Sometimes, I’ll read the play alone at night, and I’m moved to tears. Another time, I’ll discover another layer, maybe a funny part, and I’ll laugh. THE ELEPHANT MAN is a magical piece of work. I don’t fully understand it or why it was written. Even Bernard Pomerance, the writer, said that he was sometimes confused by the information he found. He finished writing it in 1977. He said that he was inspired by Ashley Montague’s book, “A Study of Dignity.” The book talks about being kind to others. Merrick was so kind. No matter what, he gave love and kindness. Regardless of your religion, I feel that people who are so selfless, so kind, have a sort of wisdom. Merrick’s life is magnificent. I find out more truth as I go along. He had Proteus Syndrome and lived life at hyper speed; he died in his late 20’s.
One of my goals for producing THE ELEPHANT MAN is to change people, to make them kinder. If one person is changed for one second, we did our work. The play changed me, and I hope it has that effect on other people.
But I didn’t only read about Merrick. I started to collect memorabilia about him and the people whose lives he touched. I found first edition books from the early 1900’s written by people who knew him. I have a handwritten letter by his doctor, who did the first appendectomy – on the King of England, no less. I have a photo signed by Mrs. Kendall, who was famous in the late 1800’s. I have an accurate reproduction of Merrick’s skeleton. They’ll be on display at the El Portal when we do the play.
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS?
Me and my partner Alice L. Walker wanted to start a theater company, but the only one available was on a Thursday night. That’s how we founded the Thursday Night Theater Club. Our plan is to do plays that challenge our morals. We’ve done “A View from the Bridge” and “26 Pebbles.” THE ELEPHANT MAN is our third play. We’re already planning our fourth. We’re presenting NUTS in the fall at the El Portal.
I have a special message about El Portal Theatre. I love El Portal Theatre. It’s historic, literally a pebble that dropped into LA river and has spread in all directions. Patrons and actors can’t help but be moved by its history. El Portal is a gem of a theater. It opened in 1926 and was the first theater in LA to have films. El Portal would get them first and distribute them to other theaters in LA. Over the years, they did vaudeville and musicals and everything you can imagine. If it’s quiet and you’re alone, you can feel the energy. It’s a magical space. I hope that the people in North Hollywood will support El Portal. It’s a historical landmark and deserves every bit of attention it gets. We have to take care of our past to have a meaningful future.
THE ELEPHANT MAN opens on Thursday, March 21, 2019 and runs through April 14 with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays (3/22, 4/5, 4/12), Saturdays (3/23, 4/6, 4/13), Wednesdays (4/3, 4/10), and Thursdays (3/21, 4/4, 4/11) and at 3 p.m. on Sundays (4/7, 4/14). El Portal Theatre is located at 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601. Play tickets range from $25 to $55. After all Friday and Saturday shows, there will be a reception including private viewing for $20 of 1 or 4 existing replicas of John Merrick’s skeleton, authentic correspondence between Dr. Treves, a photo signed by Mrs. Kendal, and other authentic artifacts. For information and reservations, go online.