A million years ago, when I was attending the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, my class took part in a fascinating three-week workshop on performance in masks. While considered sort of avant-garde today, theatre more or less began with performers masking themselves or disguising their faces to tell stories. The classics of the Greeks and the slapstick buffoonery of commedia dell’arte were all originally performed in masks. The most common icon for theatre today is a pair of masks, one for comedy and one for tragedy. So this was going to be some exciting work in getting back to the roots of our craft, learning some vital fundamentals.
The sessions began even more fundamentally than we expected. To the surprise I think of many of my classmates, the first week’s session was absolutely free of masks. After a rather reverent introduction to mask work, we spent the rest of our time staring at our own faces in the mirror. Up close.
Literally face to face with ourselves, we were instructed to look deeply and coldly at our reflections. We were told to examine every line, curve, spot, and flaw with excruciating detail and meditative patience. We were made to drop all attempts at animation or expression, to let our faces find a state of absolute rest, to give up control of our facial muscles to gravity.
It was difficult and emotionally challenging, and yet we were to refrain from showing that emotion. We needed to simultaneously investigate our own faces with impartiality while also retaining mastery over them. This would be hard, I think, for anyone to do, but imagine the struggles of a room full of actors, all building their careers and lives on the imperfect, asymmetrical image before them.
As the workshop sessions went on, the reasoning for subjecting us to this became clear. Before we could ever be allowed to put on a mask, we had to reckon with the ones we were already wearing.
It’s a cliche to say that we all wear a mask to some degree, actors and non-actors alike, but it’s also true. The metaphor of the mask has special resonance with me, not just because of my life as an actor, but for the masks of normalcy that I have shielded myself with for decades. I won’t recount all the ways in which I am an odd duck, but consider the utility of “masking” for someone who has always been small, anxious, and awkward, creative and highly sensitive, bullied mercilessly in childhood and subject to other traumas in adulthood, and, for the kicker, on the autism spectrum.
Particularly since being diagnosed with Asperger’s only a few years ago, I have been working very hard to deconstruct those masks, to peel them away, layer by layer, and discover who the person behind them actually is. To pass as human had been the enterprise of my life, and over time it exhausted and sickened me. I lost myself within those masks, and I was terrified of who I’d find once they were gone.
I didn’t need to be. Here I am in my early 40s, getting on just fine, all things considered. It was enormously difficult, but I have learned to accept a great deal about who I am and who I never will be. I have grown to appreciate things about myself I never allowed myself to before, and I’ve acknowledged ugly truths about myself as well.
But just as I miss my life as a professional actor, taking on roles and living different lives, sometimes I miss the masks. Just as a costume can help bring an actor more fully into the mind of their character, a metaphorical mask allows a person to adopt qualities they might not otherwise possess. A personality enhanced by a mask may not be “genuine,” but is it necessarily false?
As part of coming to terms with my true self, I’ve had to accept and own my introversion and social awkwardness. But in the areas of my life where more confidence and gregariousness are called for, as in many work-related situations, am I better served by resigning to my “true self,” or might it be warranted to augment myself with the traits necessary for success? In other words, if I’m shy, but I decide to pretend to be outgoing, am I betraying myself?
A few years ago, I might have answered yes.
Part of the work of self-acceptance has been to insist on that same acceptance from everyone else — not for my own validation, but to be able to present myself truly, as I am, without the need to excuse or apologize for who I am. It’s been an essential part of this journey.
But that doesn’t mean that my “true self” always serves me best. An easy example of this comes from parenting. While I am very honest with my kids about who I am and what I’m like, there are always going to be moments when I am doing my duty to them as a father by presenting to them a person who is stronger, more assured, and wiser than I know myself to be. This isn’t to fool them, but to give them the care or the example they need in that moment. It’s not false, but it is a kind of mask.
And of course, there’s work, as I mentioned. As a communications professional, I can only achieve so much with creative-but-anxious, and I fail my employers if I shrug and say, well, this is who I truly am! Like an actor putting on a costume and reciting lines written by someone else, I have to put on my mask, the one that represents a character that is more confident and assertive than the real person wearing it.
This is a case of mask-as-augmentation, and I think it’s distinct from mask-as-shield. In a less self-accepting time, my masks were ways to hide who I was, to defend myself from being identified as different, to thwart anyone’s attempts to scrutinize my true self.
A defensive mask is always ill-fitting. It slips off too easily, or else constricts one’s circulation. The eyes don’t line up with the holes, or it makes it hard to breathe. To wear a mask defensively is to be in a constant state of disaster-aversion.
The relationship changes, I think, once we’ve come to accept our true face, when we take ownership of who we really are, for all our flaws. If we can get to a place where we have a handle on the whole of ourselves, strengths and weaknesses together, I think then a mask is not necessarily a shield or a disguise, but a tool.
If we mask with intention, we can thoughtfully and deliberately augment ourselves to better navigate different situations. When our natural state isn’t suited to a meaningful undertaking, we can choose the mask that supports our goals, adopting the specific qualities that help us get where we need to go, or build what we want to see come into being.
This is what we were learning in those first hours of that theatre workshop. Before the instructor would allow us to put on one of the masks she’d brought, and begin to inhabit — and be inhabited by — the character the mask represented, we needed to accept and master our own faces. We needed to take off our defensive masks, stop hiding from ourselves, and see our true faces as they really are.
To have used those masks as disguises would have been to miss the point. The goal must never be to disappear. Rather, the mask allowed us to bring something new into being. The mask was not hiding our true selves. Our true selves were giving life to the mask.
Accepting who we really are is just the start, not the end. Self-acceptance isn’t about stasis. It’s about taking responsibility for who we really are, and with intention and new understanding, finding the strength to see what else is possible. One way to find out is to try on a few masks. Who knows who might show up.