I can recite every word of the movie Harriet the Spy. Thanks to a night of accidentally falling asleep with the bright orange Nickelodeon video tape still inside the VCR, I spent one whole slumber dreaming of dining with Rosie O’Donnell at a pizza parlor. The dream was accompanied by the movie’s actual dialogue playing over and over until I woke up. If you are too young to know about VHS tapes are, let me explain: the actual tape, inside the rectangular little box you injected into the player, would rewind automatically once it played through, and start over-you know what, this is hard. Shouldn’t you be taking a selfie or something? Whatever, here’s a picture:
An aspiring actor from a young age, I was predisposed to the influence of movies. As a self-proclaimed writer, I was even more susceptible to Harriet the Spy’s particular story line. I saw it for the first time in the summer of ’96. It’s the first movie I recall seeing with my Grandma in New York. Hardly a moment after a tiny Michelle Trachtenberg narrated the line “Golly says, if I want to be a writer, than I’d better start now-which is why I am a SPY” while simultaneously scrawling in her black and white composition notebook, I was ready to invade homes, trespass into warehouses, and push away all of my friends in selfish pursuit of a publishable novel. And I really, really wanted to see an actual dumbwaiter (Hint: It’s not a server with a low IQ.).
Not living in New York in the sixties and therefore not being able to run around a spectacular city unsupervised, I settled for raiding my Uncle Mike’s old bedroom at my Grandma’s house, where I spent every day of every summer letting my imagination run wild to the music of the Florida rain beating on the roof. His being away for college not only decreased the risk factor of being found while my grandparents answered phones for their home-run business, but also significantly reduced the the likelihood of finding anything fun-most of which was probably thrown in a sporty duffel and flung over his shoulder when he left our boring town. Aside from a few legal pads with math problems and one of those Triangle Peg Games you play at Cracker Barrel with a baseball theme, I found zilch. You can relax now, Aunt Taimie.
As more spy-related females surged onto the big and little screens-in variably sexier outfits than yellow raincoats over striped sweaters-so did my desire to be a spy…or at least play one on film, which constitutes less potential legal ramifications. As a someone who is about quarter Russian maybe, it should come as no surprise that the desire to spy was basically a natural part of my childhood. Recently, I got as close as I have ever been. I got paid to improv as a double agent in a live corporate team-building activity. And I got to do it in the middle of the happiest place on earth with a life-size, international spy play set called Epcot.
Yeah, you read it right. Thanks to a killer connection in the form of Tracy (an awesome improv actor and teacher whose niece was in my sorority), I got to make one of my childhood dreams come true. I credit the fact that no grown-ups came to turn the TV off and tuck me in properly for not only rendering me capable of quoting the entirety of Harriet the Spy-and a strange personal attachment to Rosie O’ Donnell (Rosie, if you are reading this, we should grab pizza sometime… IRL )- but also with learning several valuable life lessons I wouldn’t heed until they actually came up in my life, such as “don’t write anything in your diary that you wouldn’t want the mean girl in school to read out loud to everyone” and “don’t spend so much time writing in your journal that you don’t do your homework and you make your guidance counselors think you have psychological problems”. Similarly, being a good “double agent” calls for a few traits that are really great for life in general:
Flightiness and creativity sometimes go hand in hand. Luckily, us creative types are so, you know-creative, that we can get around the flightiness when it strikes. Though practicing mindfulness has made me more aware of things like where my keys are and whether or not I packed everything, I still manage to make a big boo boo once in a while. With the intense and ample guidelines that must be followed for wardrobe, paperwork, and more when doing an odd job or acting gig, forgetfulness is ever more likely than going to an office with a cubicle at the same time everyday-but also more consequential.
Playing a double agent, I had to bring a couple of outfits and options for carrying my stuff around the theme park, despite having virtually no idea where I would be changing, waiting, walking-or that I would be entering and exiting the park with my card at multiple times. I arrived in my first outfit, a black-and-pink pinstriped suit that had “sexy spy” written all over it. Once that portion of the scavenger hunt was completed, I had to change into a more natural, flirty-girl-next-door casual look-something that said I was just another theme park patron. I thought I had the perfect thing for the weather and role: casual, khaki-colored pants and a striped sweater with socks and shoes. I went into a resort bathroom to change, and just when I had everything on but the pants, I realized I had no pants.
While unpacking and repacking various bags-a staple of a day “on set” or on location, I somehow completely misplaced my pants. On a tight schedule of scenes to play in different “countries”, there was no time to check my car, shop, or return home. As far as I could initially see, my only other bottoms were the same distinctive pink pinstriped pants I had already worn-a big no-no when it comes to trying to portray a totally different person in the same hour. It would have been easy to let the panic set in, but as an actor, I was accustomed to thinking on the fly. As a long line of ladies awaited use of the bathroom stall I was occupying, I did what I was asked to do that day: I improvised. I took a moment to be grateful I’d worn nude colored underwear, then I faked it all the way “around the world”.
When I left the bathroom, I was wearing my stretchy white undershirt as a skirt with my sweater. I tied the sleeves around my waste like it was the nineties. I endured the worst blisters of my life after walking around all day in shoes that hadn’t been broken in yet, unable to wear the wacky socks I packed (that I thought would be hidden beneath long pants). The important part was I looked like a South American tourist who just got done shopping at the Tommy Hilfiger outlet, and I couldn’t be more proud of myself. The ability to do the best with what you have is a skill I try to take with me everywhere-though I usually try to have something to LITERALLY cover my butt first. Still, being prepared? That’s for Girl Scouts. Being prepared for not being prepared is for freaking spies.
Other than that, I only managed to misplace my entrance pass about six times. Also, I had the pants the whole time. Oh, creative types.
Mad Improv Skills
Becoming an actor, like most walks of life, is made up of what can be considered a lifetime of baby steps. I am not sure actors ever reach a point where they think, “I’m done. There are no more hurdles to jump.” Somewhere on this eternally ascending latter is a wrung for “improv”. While classes and some gigs have made me moderately comfortable with improv, I don’t yet consider myself fully trained. I am confident enough at this point to say “yes, and” to an improv opportunity, but it still intimidates the tiniest part of me. Still, confidence and commitment seem to be most of it. When it came time, I was “Trixie”enough that the client group apologized for bothering a tourist during the game, not realizing that I was the character-or the same girl who played the agent earlier- until I proved it by telling them my “name”. Even when problems arose with the unusual venue and miscommunication, Tracy-a seasoned improviser and long-time professional-and I continued to think on our feet and go with the flow. In that sense, improv is kind of essential to remaining poised and charming in situations where things don’t go completely as expected-and that’s most of life. Real spy, fake spy, or lame, boundary-abiding citizen-staying in character while simultaneously thinking on your feet is an essential enigma.
Oh, and I also learned that a wig can make you look like a totally different person. In fact, with the purchase of a few wigs, I’m convinced that my life could be completely different.
I can’t believe I fit all of my hair into this thing.
While I didn’t get to eavesdrop on corporate corruption, hover into a room while suspended from the ceiling, or leap rooftops, every new “job” makes me incredibly nervous. One of the strangest, yet most rewarding things about doing random gigs is not knowing what to expect-over and over again. Even if I have done a similar job more than once, they are always so sporadic or so infused with disparate people that it is like something new every time. This means jitters and uncertainty, but it also means stimulation and skill-building. I usually walk out of a new, “scary” gig thinking “that was fun” or “I can’t believe I just made money that way.” In this particular instance, I got a free day at Epcot, almost half of my rent paid, more confidence in improvising, to work with an incredible fellow actor, and a bunch of biomedical scientists singing my praises to someone who could continue give me more work in the future.
Guts are glory. Also gory if taken in the literal sense, but we’ll stick with glory.
Though opportunities to fulfill one’s childhood fantasies of being a spy are few and far between, it’s never too late to implement a spy’s best qualities-to be resourceful, learn to improvise, or have guts-even if they do seem to shrink with age. You could probably leave the sneaky liar part of it at home. Now, I can check another “when I grow up” off the list, and you can go about your daily life with a bit of espionage…just don’t start peeking in neighbors windows or something. At least, don’t attach me to it. I leave you with a picture of me looking like an “international spy”, according to my mother-mostly because the featured image of this blog looks less like a lady spying and more like Taylor Swift trying to protect her “red lip classic thing that you like” from the bitter cold.