Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. -Oscar Wilde
I’m always being told that in any situation as a performer, the most appealing and engaging thing I can to is “just be myself.” I was also told that throughout my childhood, battling a shy phase that lasted from age six to sixteen. Sure, it’s great advice, but under extreme stress, I tend to lose a sense of my true self. Recently, I discovered the best way to tap into inner truth is by acknowledging one’s outer masks.
This past Tuesday, I attended the “dance-theatre, non-linear Macbeth mash-up horror show,” Sleep No More. Audience members donned Venetian Carnival masks as they wandered through the McKittrick Hotel, viewing pyscho-sexual dance/theatre sequences that leave one in complete shock and awe. The anonymity of the masks not only made everything look creepier in the dark space, but I found mine freed me to feel and express any emotion or reaction without fear of judgment from those around me. Suddenly, feelings started bubbling up, aroused by scenery, performances, and internal baggage I thought I had left with the coat check. Roaming in a dark and foggy setting felt all too familiar, like those days when I questioned myself and a career path that could not be any less clear. Seeing others getting lost and panicked didn’t feel very different from the way I’d felt waiting to sing at Nola a few hours earlier. We all looked the same, we were all trying to find our way on the same journey, and we were all suppressing our doubts and fears. The main differences between Nola and Sleep No More were that the opera singers had much more clothing than the dancers at the McKittrick and wouldn’t be dawn into murder…no matter how many times a room full of sopranos may suggest such an outcome.
While being an anonymous observer brought out some intense emotions and truths in me, I’ve also had some similar experiences as a spontaneous performer. I am currently studying improvisation at the Magnet Theater and I’ve noticed a day spent in my head as a vocalist leads to an evening struggling to get out of my head as an improviser. My reaction times feel slow and my deliveries feel forced because they are passing through a judgmental filter before coming out of my mouth. Then I have to spent more time masking my “That was stupid” face, taking me even further from the scene being created. Just like Sleep No More, though, no outside judgment is involved. Fellow performers cheer on peers in every choice and genuinely want everyone to succeed. As a singer, I need to remember the audition panel wants me to succeed as well. As adversarial as this business may feel, my only real nemesis is myself. And if I say “yes, and” to a moment of happiness in a scene and wear that particular mask, I will eventually feel it, just as I have the power to say “yes, and” to an energetic and exciting aria. Even if I don’t feel the emotion I’m wearing, in the end, I will feel a more truthful commitment to any real emotion simply by committing to express one.
So, underneath the mask of a strong, independent New Yorker, the questions, “Am I enough” and “Where am I going” are constantly running through my head. Instead of ignoring them or compartmentalizing my life, as I am want to do, I can accept these inner voices, embrace the inner macabre, and find my way through this foggy maze. During audition season we will have our dark moments and we will have our days when we need to fake it til we make it. However, no matter what we choose, committing to any emotion and breathing into it will not only bring authenticity to what we do, but perhaps ignite something in those watching us, and illuminate their own masks that shape their views. When we face our masks, we face ourselves.