Playing with masks in drama class this week I found myself thinking about their significance and symbolism to real life. In particular, our personas (conscious and unconscious), and the role of archetypes in our psyches.
These weren't ordinary thoughts, however. They had a resonance to them that rung me like a tuning fork, and gave reality a subtle and otherworldly tinge as I pondered; a misty, coloured pause in which I found myself... grasping. Thoughts that clacked like dominos, knocking one after the other toward some final golden domino of 'truth'. Thoughts like the glass of a mirrored elevator. And there I was, shifting my position in a futile attempt to get out the way of my own reflection: to finally see where that tunnel of infinite glass went.
At the beginning of class we were asked to walk around the room as different archetypes; at first all the same one, and then of our own choosing. Magician, Lover, Victim, Sage, Mother, Outlaw and Trickster to name a few. We'd speak a line for each, either into the space or to other students we met along the way. "Protect me", "I hate you!", "I can do it!", and so on. Poor Child, full of enthusiasm, meeting the Devil or Psychopath. What fun when Hero met Nemesis (who would cower first?!). And how would the Innocent respond to the protection offered by the Caretaker? Lots of juicy dramas to unfold.
Next, the teacher gave a demonstration. "You shouldn't let the audience see you put the mask on," she said from the far side of the room, her back to us. "It ruins the illusion. And never touch the mask once it's on."
Embodying the mask, she turned to face us, approached, and started doing certain body motions to express the character of the mask - most artfully, I might add. With hand gestures, she invited questions from the audience.
"Are you sad?" someone asked.
"Are you waiting for your friend?"
"Are you going shopping?"
A rapid shake of the head - No.
It's really not a very pretty mask, I found myself thinking. It conveyed a slightly sad, aghast expression and reminded me of one of those older ladies that overdo the botox. The image amused me, and I found myself asking, "Do you blame the plastic surgeon?"
A good number of my fellow students, the better ones, chuckled or laughed out loud. This warmed me immensely inside; I do love to entertain (or escape taking something seriously?! hmm). The teacher on the other hand, swiftly raised her hands to take off the mask (gasp! that faux pax of Commedia dell'arte!) and tell us, well me, that despite my comment rousing laughter, "you can't do that; it kills the illusion."
Oh... I thought, feeling a little sheepish, mentally noting it as a 'learning point'. Whilst the teacher returned to the back of the room to prepare herself again, I found myself wondering if I'd just discovered a key ingredient to humour: the breaking of some illusion. Hmm. I decide I hadn't however: there was no golden rule there; just a coincidence. I took a deep breath, and told myself I shouldn't regret my remark: I like to make people laugh, we all learnt something, and the class goes on...
In the next exercise, some of us were given a mask. We didn't know which one (the teacher had quite a selection), and we had to guess the archetype from the reaction of the audience.
Again, something deep to chew on here, I thought. The click and clatter of tumbling dominos. The sparkle and refection of mirrors. A whiff of insight. But nothing definite.
A little later, five students were stood before the group, each wearing a different mask, and I was amazed. Amazed at how the fixed characteristics of each mask––the set expression: happy, sad, confused, sinister, courageous, proud, and so on––amplified everything. The body's movements could be so small––just a shrug, or a fold of the arms––yet take on so much of the mask's emotion.
The masks we wear... There is some lesson in human psychology here. Some signpost to the human condition...
I sensed something about 'freedom'. A freedom in two very different forms. One, made possible through the masks we wear; the roles we play ('persona' in Latin of course meaning 'theatrical mask'). The other, transcending personality; doing away with masks.
As I write this now, I think of an experimental documentary I saw this week called 'Sleepers Beat'. It's a hauntingly beautiful film about several women who work as attendants, waitresses and cleaners (or combination of) on the Trans-Siberian railway, and have done most of their lives. Away from home for weeks at a time, the train trundles back and forth across the breadth of Russia, and they are addicted to it rock and rhythm. At one point in the film they talk about all the lonely men who pass through their world. How some just want to cry––knowing they will never see these women again––or talk and talk: offload that which burdens their soul, I guess. And how sometimes the women can immediately see what these men are carrying as they enter the carriage. The type of stories they hold. The masks they wear.
Towards the end of the class we shared our experiences of doing the mask work. Some students said they felt liberated behind the mask. I, on the other hand, felt a tad unhinged. Perhaps my own rigid mask (ego) couldn't cope with another trying to take it's place even temporarily, in jest or play. Who knows? I certainly wasn't the only one to notice how easy it is to keep making unseen facial expressions behind the mask - an automatic response to what your eyes are seeing and what you want to communicate. It felt odd and awkward.
"Try to focus on the toes, or another parts of the body," someone advised.
Yes, it was better: thinking about the hands; the extremities; it helped.
The class was a great exercise in non-verbal communication. I wonder how much we communicate with our eyes alone. Or through our body movements. And perhaps I'm not the only one to ask:
What are my masks?
Which mask do I wear most frequently? How does it serve me? Limit me?
Is everyone aware they wear a mask? Does learning that you wear one, give you the power to transcend it?
And perhaps even:
What animating force lies behind each mask? From where cometh that twinkle in the eye? And if I do transcend my mask, who then is the 'I' looking out at the world? Who is it interacting with my fellow man?
Perhaps you don't waste your time with such questions.
It's unlikely we can live without a mask. That is, we need our ego in order to operate. But perhaps... just perhaps, we can loosen the straps and get some air in there; or swap it for another one - a prettier one! A more transparent one; so more of our spirit can shine through.
Why is it that when acting––playing an imaginary character in imaginary circumstances––when really 'in the zone': connected to your 'truth'; moving an audience––you can feel more alive and more authentic than ever? Has the actor just swapped one mask for another? Or, paradoxically, are they free from the game of masks, and simply free to be themselves?
What shining analogy or lesson for life am I grasping for here? I don't know. But I can sense it in the misty realms of my imagination... but the elevator door closes and the lights go out. And the fall of dominos is thwarted by a couple spaced too wide apart.
I remember an old work colleague who used to be on stage a lot as a child and teenager with the National Youth Theatre. She left all that behind, and became a very shrewd and successful business lady in a company I quit. Was it all a performance? Did she have some cunning strategy all along; knowing her 'game'?
As ever, I was led by my emotions (that's why I quit!). She was more... professional. So often I needed 'to be honest' about how I felt. Forgetting those inner states are so changeable, and there's always a choice of what meaning we assign to them. A choice to what mask we put on each day, each moment.
I hated the idea of people playing games to get ahead, unawares I was playing one myself, albeit unconsciously, and more often than not, taking myself backwards.
As the teacher reminded us (me), on stage you don't want to break the illusion. But in life, unless you're really attached to your story; drama; or suffering (and alas, most of us are), you do, don't you? Isn't it best to break the spell? To discover more freedom? To discover... yourself?
Drink the right potion? Tumble down the right rabbit hole?
Perhaps it's just to pause long enough to truly be honest with ourselves. Either that, or play with dominos, mirrors or masks for long enough. Long enough to get really bored.