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Mask-On/Mask-Off, Part III: Mask-On Play

Traditional story structure begins with exposition. It sets up the world so that the audience can see the playing field, learn the rules of the world, and meet the players involved. That way, when the world is affected by forces that set it off-balance, the audience can follow the trajectory of the players as they try to win the game and restore balance to their world. Imagine sitting through Romeo and Juliet without understanding the rift between the Capulets and the Montagues. The main conflict would feel trite at best, the audience wouldn’t be invested, and it simply wouldn’t make any sense. The exposition is the audience’s chance to adjust their glasses to the unknown they’ve entered. Once they have a sense of the world, central conflict is introduced and the subsequent actions have a clear context.

Mask-On play lives in the unknown. It’s hard to articulate the elements of Mask-On play, because articulation is a function of the knowing conscious mind, which has to relinquish control during Mask-On play. The conscious mind will have plenty to do during Mask-Off play, when the discoveries made during Mask-On play can be shaped and refined to be efficient, effective, and communicable. Before we start shaping the mask’s path, let’s get acquainted with its world. 

If the Mask is the lens, Mask-On play is the time for the artist to adjust his perception to living through the lens of the glass. Living in the unknown, without prerogative or obligation, allows for discovery. This is the main goal of Mask-On play: Discovery. Mask-On play starts from a place where anything is possible. If you go into Mask-On play eliminating possibilities, then you inhibit the process. There’s no reason to eliminate possibilities. Ever. It’s easy to dismiss possibilities that don’t make “sense”, but if artists didn’t explore the place where anything is possible we’d get bored pretty quickly. The place where anything is possible offers infinite creative possibilities. I’d rather play there.

So, I put the mask on and enter a world of infinite possibilities. Now what? I don’t want to limit or inhibit the play of the character (the combination of the mask with my own intuition), but what can I do? Mask-On play requires a faith that something will come with time and space. It doesn’t start with the question, ‘what can I do?’, but rather ‘what am I?’ We spend our entire lives trying to determine what we are; while a mask can sharpen a particular perspective, we won’t immediately discover an articulate way to exist as our character. We don’t want to: articulation is the domain of the conscious mind, and his job at this stage is to observe the free play without judgement.

We start to answer the question of ‘what am I?’ by providing air to bring this new entity to life. We breathe. Full-bodied breaths. Breaths that send air and release to every corner and cell of our body, so that we may discover how this character exists in space. It can also settle the conscious mind into allowing this new creation to take the space it needs without having to interfere. How many times have you watched a movie with a friend who continually asks you to explain what’s happening, and you think to yourself, ‘If you would be quiet and pay attention…’

Once you’re breathing and discovering how it feels to be in the mask, you can start to see the outside world through that lens. Going back to a Commedia or other theatrical mask that suggests character or perspective, the premise is that when you take on the mask your being is transformed. If I wear a red ball clown nose, I am now the entity that looks like me but has a red, bulbous nose. Having that nose transforms me. Even if I try to deny or disconnect with my nose, in that moment it is my nose. The play is in taking on this new truth.

Elmo went through reverse puberty. His first puppeteer gave the red, furry monster a lower, gruffer voice, then another puppeteer gave it a more nasal voice, and finally, Richard Hunt (who voiced Scooter among others) tried voicing him and became frustrated with it, so he gave it to Kevin Clash to see if he could make something of it. Kevin picked it up and found the voice and childlike perspective that made the entity effective. I’m assuming he didn’t consciously decide how the puppet was supposed to be voiced and played. Kevin discovered it through his own intuition. Once the puppet could breath and vocalize, Elmo could begin seeing and discovering how he responds to the world around him. His responses to the world around him beget his perspective. Thus, a beloved character is created.

A character’s responses to what he sees also begin to illuminate wants. If a character is faced with a lollipop, a bag of money, and a broadsword, he might well gravitate toward one of them. Or, he’ll experience all three and be drawn to one in particular. A character might see the objects and become curious to taste all three. He might then love the lollipop, be confused by the bag of money, and become terrified of the sword after cutting his tongue on it. Or, perhaps the lollipop is too sweet for him, and the taste of his own blood after cutting his tongue on the sword invigorates him. Two fairly different characters.

How do you know which one is right? Wouldn’t it be easy to consciously decide one of these options is a more correct choice than the other and “discover” that by making the assumption. That decision is a product of fear. It could be fear that there isn’t enough time or space to make genuine discoveries, so you settle for assumptions rather than discoveries. It could be fear of making a wrong or poor choice in someone else’s eyes, believing that your part in the creation of the character is somehow insufficient. These fear-based factors add flavors to the creative stew while shortchanging it of the ingredient of your playfulness and intuitive impulses. Again, there’s no need to fear a wrong choice. Either, your character will naturally discover the “right” choice, or it’ll reveal an unexpected choice which could be far more interesting than you imagined. It’s far more exciting to play in a world where anything is possible.

Mask-On play consists of taking ample space and time to breathe, see and take in stimuli from the world around you in any way you can (hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), and then intuitively responding to those stimuli. The cycle of seeing and responding brings about action. If other impulses for action, including locomotion, arise, then great. What’s important is that they are intuitive impulses rather than your everyday habitual tics or consciously decided mannerisms. You are no longer the everyday self that exists through the perspective you’ve built up over your lifetime. You’ve taken on a mask. You’ve transformed and committed to giving life to what you’ve become. 

How does this work in creative mediums that aren’t theatrical mask? Let’s take writing. The first step we’re often encouraged to take is to brainstorm. Brainstorming in writing is essentially the Mask-On play section of the process. The encouragement during brainstorming is to let go of concern for the end product, and write down whatever ideas or images pop into your imagination as you move through the session. During brainstorming, we act as scribes. Say a word and a slew of images may come to mind. The word “animal” could inspire to “cat”, “dog”, “platypus”, “elephant”, “cow”, “Muppet”, etc. “Elephant” might then lead me to “grey”, “pink”, “trunk”, “tusk”, “ear”, “roar”, “trumpet” and so forth. Some of the words might not even make sense based on the world as you know it, but that’s okay. There’s no need to fear the nonsensical. Unusual connections are the source of innovation. Combine “elephant” and “trumpet” and see what the connection of those images begets. Perhaps the beginning of “Trashin’ the Camp” in Disney’s Tarzan.

At this point, the concern isn’t how well the ideas will translate or play to an audience. The editorial process will come later. In any creative endeavor, there is a portion of the process where you discover how your intuitive curiosity responds to taking in the world through some kind of lens. It’s natural to freeze and shield ourselves, blocking inspiration, since our chosen mask or lens may be foreign to us and we are forced to revert to a state of not knowing. The conscious mind hates this, because it loses its power. But its time to shine will come soon. At this stage, it’s about breathing, taking in the world, discovering how you and the mask respond to it, taking objective notes, and playing in the land where anything is possible.

Part IV: Mask-Off Play

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