"Playing Sick" by Elena Passarello

Elena Passarello

Elena Passarello

Elena Passarello is an actor and writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she teaches at Grand Valley State University. Her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Slate, and Ninth Letter, among other publications. More work is forthcoming in The Iowa Review and in an anthology of pieces from the EMP POP Conference, published by Duke University Press. A 2008 graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, Elena lives a few blocks from the Grand River with her three-legged cat and her two-legged boyfriend.

Playing Sick


Ultimately the basis for all disgust is us—that we live and die and that the process is a messy one emitting substances and odors that make us doubt ourselves and fear our neighbors. —William Ian Miller

The most basic trigger to that which revolts us is a hard-wired recognition of what we cannot abide in our mouths: the unsavory, the revolting, the rotten. Across cultures, human disgust dials directly back to this simple rejection. We open our mouth and spit. It's a frank distinction between the mouth—soft, vulnerable gateway to our organs and visceraand the countless foreign bodies that might try to enter it. And while biology compels us to eject offensive objects from our mouths, we are not compelled, at least initially, to voice this ejection. Primal disgust happens without speech or internal monologue. Our two vocal cords stay still and separate as the tongue rolls out or reels back.

(Like waking up one morning and groggily feeling a bug crawl across my cheek and toward my mouth. Knowing, as I jerked into consciousness, if I opened my lips to say anything, I'd taste its filthy, evil legs on my tongue).

But when small boys dare each other to poke worms that writhe in gutter puddles, they exhale sound as they inch their fingers toward the worm's segmented body. Their necks retract. Their teeth chomp forward, fencing in the mouth-hole: “Ee.” Then, lips encircle teeth, puckering like drawstring hoods: “w.” This is the literal vocabulary of slamming the door between our sensitive tissue and a world of offenses. In this word, they show that they don't need to put the worm in their mouth to know that it tastes disgusting. And up through the windpipe to meet this face: a tone in head-voice.

(But not like when, at the cast party of my first professional acting job several years ago, I grabbed the wrong open Coke bottle and drank a watery mess of discarded cigarette butts, spitting it back before my tongue could push it toward my throat. I don't remember how it tasted; all I feel when I recall the moment is a rolling, nauseous shame. The fear that someone saw me, dolled up and nervous to be there, making such an asinine mistake. The spit was silent, but, back past my throat and into my body, it was, somehow, voiced.)

When people ask me what part of theatre I find the most challenging—crying, kissing, being naked onstage, remembering all those lines—I usually answer “making people laugh.” Not that I find any of these other tasks easy, but they are all, at least, rehearse-able. Comedies introduce a terrifying variable into the mix every night. While delivering a playwright's jokes, the actors must make room for the sound of the crowd, changing every night as the laughs arrive in different places, for different lengths of time and at different intensities. Playing for laughs is a balancing act; you have to both acknowledge the audience's laughter and completely ignore it. Become too aware of the audience or the litany of jokes the script forces you to shoot at them, and you're sunk.

In every show, I manage to find a seemingly innocuous line, or bit, or piece of business that I cannot figure out. The frustration makes me abandon the audience each time I try the joke. And then I muck through it alone, night after night, tuning out the house while wriggling in my own self-disgust.

The seventh line of the play is “Eew,” and, though it's not a bit of dialogue one encounters in many scripts, I can't remember the first time I delivered it, at the audition. Pages in hand, pretending to feel at home on an invisible set that wouldn't be built for months, I was preoccupied with the weird task of convincing a director that I belonged in his unvoiced, speculative concept called “the world of the play.” I was far too focused on this to plan the perfect delivery of an unusual line like “Eew.” My only concern was to have “Eew” blend in and not stop the flow of my audition. It appears to have not, as I ended up with the role. Once I'd been hired to play Mimi the waitress, I began working through the script and noticed that “Eew” appears again and again in her dialogue. It seemed I'd be saying “Eew” five times a night, in response to five different lines, on pages 9, 21, 22, 28 and 49 of the 55-page script, convincing first my director and then a paying crowd, that five separate concepts grossed me out.

CLAUDE: Fricaseed platypus, stuffed with
turnips, served on a bed of sautéed
Argentine grasshoppers.

(Mimi makes a sound of disgust)

MIMI: Eew.

Disgust expert Paul Rozin notes that North Americans like myself can split the things that disgust them into nine distinct categories. Food. Death and dying. Emissions and fluids of the body. Animals. Sexual activities. Corpses. Unnatural entrances through the flesh “envelope.” Interpersonal contact with humans who are either hygienically or morally contaminated.

Rozin adds that certain elicitors can disgust us for more than one categorical reason. Filthy animals, like slugs and worms, might also disgust because of their resemblance to our own body's fluids and waste, or to the unreliable tongue that polices the fragile envelope of our mouth. Vultures disgust us both because they eat contaminated flesh and because we know that one day we, too could be vulture food. Those with a heightened sensitivity to disgust, Rozin notes, usually also harbor an amplified fear of death.

Mimi the waitress' “Eew”s are spoken in reaction to a series of images: eating grasshoppers (animal), viewing photos of a corpse (corporeal), the bones of a starving man poking through his flesh (envelope violation), shoving paté down a bunny's throat (envelope/ animal), and Ernest Hemingway meeting the business end of a shotgun one night in Idaho in 1961 (corporeal/ envelope/ fear of death and dying).

I often see punch lines as like musical themes rather than pieces of language or emotion. If I can identify the pitch, tone and timbre of the character I'm supposed to play, I'd just as well sing the line rather than act it. I count sentential rhythms meticulously, scouring lines for repetition, especially threes, for sounds with vowels that can be stretched or clipped or yodeled out. This works. So I first tried to see that “Eew,” as a musical note—not an “Eew,” but, rather, an out-of-tune E-flat.

One night, early on, I spoke Mimi's lines to my empty apartment, and all five “Eew”s hit false notes. Even though I felt my face instinctively prepare for the sound of “eew” and its accompanying emotionscrunching and wincing, neck jerking back a little as I must have at some disgusting point in my own lifethe actual sound of the word felt foreign and ridiculous. I wore the word out the first day I owned it, trying to grimace and pitch my way into its intent, all the while squeezing the meaning out of it until it hung, limp and desiccated, in my throat: “Eew” (at full volume). “Eew” (soft and plaintive). “Eew” (descending tones). “Eew” (low-to-high). “Eew” (eyes wide). “Eew” (eyes slits). “Eew” (brows knitted). “Eew” (face neutral).

Without the spontaneity of a surprisingly disgusting event, I couldn't get the word to make any sense in my mouth.

I wondered how it was that a word I'd certainly said scores of times in my life seemed so impossible to conjure in the imaginary mouth of this French waitress. I began jotting down every “Eew” I heard in its natural habitat: Monday 7/18: Upon hearing that my friend, a new mother, had leaky breasts. Thursday, 6/5: During an account of the night a friend's idiot paramour text-messaged her while in bed with another woman. Friday, 6/22: Watching my cat vomit. Monday, 7/9: Looking at the filthy fingernails of a cast member that I had to touch.

The sounds would shoot from my mouth, perfectly formed before I could catch them, fueled by a belly-lurch in the rhythm of each two-way conversation. I tried to rewind them, relying on my short term memory to reconstruct the “Eew” in perfect pixels. No luck.

There were also unvoiced moments where I felt as revolted as Mimi might when envisioning eating grasshoppers or looking at the corpse of a Nobel Prize winning writer. A shudder in my throat as my stomach stopped short. These happened when I was alone: replaying a barroom argument where I talked a little too much trash. Passing a mirror while not wearing a shirt. Washing dishes that I'd left sitting for a deplorable amount of time. “Eew,” it appeared, was a public act, a socially normalized self-report of my body encountering stimuli. Thus, even in natural speech, an “Eew” is a performance of sorts. Even everyday “Eews” are forced. And I kept hunting these forced sounds like a birder in the woods.

(Like the art book on my shelves that with the picture of that motorcycle crash victim. Belly-down on a tin gurney, he's missing the lower half of his face. What's there is an almost cartoon-shaped explosion of skin, unframed by lips or jawbone, just red and pink, string and sinew, hanging down like willow branches. Above the mess, a bald head, blue eyes, eyelashes clumped with wet.

Just passing that book and knowing the image is between its bindings makes me shudder. Remembering the tongue, fat and dripping, lolling past the flesh and into the gauze on the gurney.)

In 1971, a team of researchers at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh invented the “Mister Yuk” sticker in response to fears that the current symbol for poison, a skull-and crossbones, might symbolize adventure to children rather than toxicity (especially in the hometown of the 1971World Series Champion Pirates). Mister Yuk is an asparagus-green circle-head. Painted across his face are black diagonal eyes and brows, a convex mouth, and a vertical, oblong tongue. He makes the same instructive face a mother might when she catches her infant trying to lick a penny.

Though frozen, this expression is a violent, active response, one voiced with a cartoonish retching noise mined from low in the chest cavity. It's a contradicting sound of spitting and shutting off at the same time; the hollowness of the open vowel squeezed thin by the closed throat. In English, we've gone so far as to spell this face: yuck vocabularized spit. Thus, the name, the word, the sound, the face are all lessons, prompting both physical and internal responses from their young audiences, grabbing each new lexicon by the chin and forcing each mouth to gape, then expectorate.

We see precursors to Mister Yuk's frozen face in Noh theatre or in the hands and body positions of theNatyasastra from ancient Hindu drama. Across cultures, only a few broad strokes are needed to tell the audience something is gross. If only, I thought, instead of trying to sell this wretched “Eew,” I could instead turn my face green, my features trompe l'oeil. Disgust seems to play much better in two dimensions than in one.

So I watched clips of the cartoonish Lucille Ball, with her own classic (nearly Classical) gesture and noise for “Eew.” Lucy sells the sound as a compartmentalized comedy bit, a one-two-three punch spelled differently than Mimi's, possibly “uhEEEwww.” I've seen her make this face in a variety of situations: inadvertently eating snails, dipping her feet into a vat of grapes, downing a spoonful of Vitameatavegemin.

The first step of her sound is a prologue: she directs all of her energy and body posture to the thing thatwill disgust her—the waiter explaining how escargot translates, for example. Mouth slack, body twisted into an obscuring profile, eyes boring into her scene partner, she waits, appearing almost hungry for the offensive information. Upon the utterance of the disgusting line, Lucy lets the energy of his word slap her like a violent hand. Next, she reels away from him, lets out a low howl (the vowel is “uh,” due to the slack mouth) and swings her body toward the camera and the studio audience, morphing her face as she swivels so that the teeth clench, the eyes squint, and the mouth widens into an oblong grimace. Once she faces full front, her howl rises in pitch as the mouth stretches the “uh” into an “eee,” leaving her chest and moving up into her nose. Then, finally, as a coda, the sound descends back to her chest as she freezes the face in a more relaxed, but still grimacing, frowna mug to hold for laughs. She does this in reaction in at least a dozen episodes without wavering from the formula at all, like she spliced in the move during post-production with anachronistic camera trickery.

Like most parts of comedy, it's too technically perfect to be spontaneous, more like a dance move or a famous soliloquy than a moment of verité. But it sells because something in it is not false. She somehow, in all of her Apollonian exactness, gives it the heightened energy of a real recoil, a parody of the face we saw our mothers make before we developed a memory or a lexicon.

And, of course “uhEEEwww” works because it sounds funny, especially with Lucy's nasal delivery, which she uses for other catch phrases, both linguistic (“Ooo Rickeeeee!”) and non-linguistic (“Waaaaaaaaah!”). “UhEEEwww” is also, for her era, uniquely adenoidal. Lucy makes sounds other glamorous actresses as famous as she might find offensive. Think of Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall; from 1950 to 1959, their voices never left their chests. Marilyn Monroe's voice was high in pitch, but breathy. Ethel Merman and Ann Miller were loud, but low. So, not only is Lucy's trademark “uheeewww” beyond language, it pushes her outside the basic parameters of on-screen female performance as well.

I tried Lucy's “uheeewww” in rehearsals, revving up, swinging full front, mugging in the afterglow. The result felt like pulling the E-brake on a moving train, derailing the scene for no meaningful reason. It was too long and involved a moment for one character to perform in the presence of five others. It also wasn't my bit to land. I don't know what I was thinking, offering such an operatic take on the little line. The play is not, after all, called I Love Mimi, and the show's arc is not to set her up for an aria of bits and pratfalls. At the moment of the above “Eew,” for instance, all the other actors had their backs to me. The saddest mugging happens when one mugs alone.

My director reminded me how the line was spelled in the script. With only two letters and one-and-a-half phonemes, there's no way to fit a three-step Lucy-style aria into “Eew.” Maybe the doubled “e” in place of two “w”s indicates a tighter and lighter touch, more wrinkled nose than grotesque grimace, feminized by the lifted palate and extended vowel. An “ee” almost in the style of “Eeek! A mouse,” perhaps.

I tried to cut Lucy's three-part mug off at both ends, axing the “uuuu” and the “www,” the mid-point “eeee” remaining. It sounded like I was singing the theme from Psycho. The director put his head in his hands.

(Like the pinfish I caught, standing alone on a sea wall when the rest of my family had gone into the condo to take naps. Shocked that something actually bit my line, I stared at the hook in its jawing mouth, piercing the pink tissue right where its tongue would be.

I heard bones cracking before I touched it. So I bashed it against the side of a wall until it stopped moving.)

Mister Yuk's crayon face and Lucy's end-point mug mirror the face Charles Darwin wrote about a century earlier in his Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals. Chapter Eleven's illustration plate shows model Oscar Rejlander performing a dead-on Mister Yuk: eyes dark, nose and eyebrows straining as if they might touch, tongue unraveled into the beard. “The protrusion of the tongue in letting a nasty object fall out of the mouth,” Darwin says, “may explain how it is that lolling the tongue universally serves as a sign of contempt and hatred.”

Yet when lovers pair off, huddle in a quiet corner and shut their eyes, they enjoy making the Mister Yuk face into each others' open mouths. The fervent Yuk. The exploratory Yuk. And, further, a modified “yuck” response as well. The tongue relaxes and uncoils, as usual, but then it pulls backward and beckons. Like the mouth has changed its mind and decided that, instead of spitting you out, it wants you back inside it, so it sends its own tongue to tell your tongue, come hither. Maybe the tongue is more Lauren Bacall than we think.

Here, the indicators of disgust flip to become the expressions of intimacy, or at least of want. Desire suspends fear. Tongues, soft arbiters of genes and disease, are forgiven their disgusting sins: the tumescence of the muscle, with its porous top and smooth, cordoned underbelly, the ingestion of saliva and the warm, live cultures of the mouth. All are taken in, almost as if to be swallowed like medicine.

But maybe this is not a complete reversal of Darwin's contempt. There is a devilish sort of agency in knowing that your tongue can crawl into someone else's mouth and “gag” them: make them silent or even make them retch. Perhaps this desire runs not counter to, but alongside the sweeter intimacies of French kissing. Either way, after each stab of the tongue, lovers' mouths close in on one another, demurring into mirrored puckers. Bee-stung mouths pantomiming “eew” in unison.

Apparently, Darwin found Expressions of the Emotions of Man and Animals one of his most difficult books to write. He and two of his children spent the Spring of 1872 knee-deep in convoluted proofs, photographs and questionnaires, trying to communicate the connection between language, gesture, emotion, and our primal natures. Unable to untangle the messy and inconclusive draft, he confessed to a friend that the process made him “sick of the subject, and myself, and the world.” He'd done his homework, surrounded himself with research and real-life examples, but rebuilding the gestures that come naturally from our bodies proved more frustrating than he could imagine. Funny that his work on disgust led him to such a disgusting feeling. And how far that disgust must have felt from a simple worm in the mouth.

According to Paul Rozin, somewhere in the past few thousand years, disgust has evolved. We've taken the feeling behind Darwin and Yuk and connected it to other things. Not just rotten meat, but the behavior of animals (“They are an abomination to you, and you detest them. You shall not eat of their flesh and you shall detest their carcasses”) as well as the behavior of other humans (“Stop picking your nose, you filthy boy!”). The most recently-evolved type of disgust recognizes invisible offenses of moral or spiritual filth (“Pervert. You disgust me”). In this new version, disgust is an attack; it's a weapon of interpersonal shame.

Rozin and his team spent much of the 1990's asking citizens from dozens of cultures to list what disgusted them. Moral offenses far outnumber physical ones these days. The most universally disgusting thing, according to Rozin's research, is not, say, ingesting feces or sharing a bowl with a dog, but donning a sweater once worn by Hitler. Here, Rozin says, the mouth expresses in a word, a sound and a face, an intent not to guard the physical body, but, instead, to guard the soul.

This latest disgust is also the first that we can feel from within. We stand in judgement of our own rottenness and say “yuck” in rejection of ourselves. We can swallow Yuk, digest him and use him for fuel. Like Darwin did that spring, when trapped in a project, a kind of performance that he felt he'd never be able to successfully finish.

(“Like, just say it,” a young actor told me a few days before we went into tech rehearsal. “You're totally stuck in your head. Just stop analyzing yourself open your mouth: 'Eew.'”)

Halfway through our three-week run, there was a night when I was tired. We'd done two shows already that weekend and my shoes pinched. I was mid-way through a closed-mouthed yawn when I heard one of the cue lines and, terrified of the silence, I just spit the damn word out. I wish I could describe to you how it sounded, but it was a short sound, some alto tone to brief to register. I imagine half a wavelength hitting the lip of the stage and skipping across the house like a stone. And the audience howled. Three of the actors turned to me as they held for the laugh and their eyes were twinkling. Of course, the following afternoon, at the Sunday matinee, I tried it again and the audience barely stopped opening their cellophane-wrapped candies. Idiot, I thought to myself.

Three years ago, Rozin amended his internationally recognized Disgust Scale, adding a new kind of disgust to the list: “magical thinking.” Rozin's 21st Century subjects report that they are most disgusted by 100%-pure pieces of chocolate fashioned to resemble dog turds. They say they would never eat soup that had been stirred by a flyswatter, even if the flyswatter was obviously new or if they'd seen it be sterilized. Apparently, millennial disgust has moved past edibles and even past moral codes. We humans can now use our imaginations to disgust ourselves past the bounds of logic.

Like how, the minute you begin to doubt your ability to deliver a line, it becomes illogical. You find yourself anticipating it and dreading the way your gut will feel after it's been said. A doubted line becomes a personal cliché. Meaningless, like “to be or not to be.” Impossible, like “STELLA!” This, for me, is where disgust truly meets performancein the magical, transformative power of doubt.

Once it starts, it's there, reminding me of just how unnatural my job really is: standing, overly lit, in a pinned-together skirt and spray-painted shoes, pretending that the doors that keep me onstage can actually lock and that the hundreds of people in front of me aren't visible.

You unpack all the fairy dust that allows you to “be” another person, and the self is all you're left with up there on stagean exposed self, a soft self that feels almost liquid and bloody, as if it were shoved into view against its will. You grasp the set pieces, trying to hold on to something external that will take that self and shove it back down your throat. Because that self is not supposed to be here. Because that self is revolting.