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

After all the discoveries made during Mask-On play, what do you do with them? You’re sitting there with a heap of discoveries and information about the mask’s perspective in the world, and facing tons of choices.

Going back to traditional story structure, once the world, its rules, and the players of the game have been established, something happens to throw the world out of balance, which forces the players into action in order to restore some kind of balance. The runners are all lined up at the starting line, and suddenly the go shot is fired. The racers begin to run toward the finish line. 

Something in the world pulls focus and establishes itself as a matter to be addressed. Imagine a world where there’s a mountain on one side and the ocean on another. If pirates suddenly appear sailing toward the shore, the characters will likely turn their focus toward the ocean and pirates. Even if they turn away to run and hide in the mountains, their focus is on retreating from the pirates.

However, what if they get to the mountains and a jaguar attacks them? Their focus shifts away from the pirates to dealing with the jaguar. Turn back and there are pirates; turn back again and there’s the jaguar. The question for this unfortunate group of characters is how to survive a jaguar on one side and pirates on the other. Which one to deal with first? Can they escape? Can they maneuver themselves so that the jaguar and pirates wind up attacking each other, buying them time to get to safety? They begin strategizing toward a goal.

Try playing chess without understanding the hierarchy of the pieces. You might understand how each piece moves, but the experienced player understands how each piece can strategically help toward winning the game. A novice player might mourn losing a pawn, but the experienced player knows that a pawn can be sacrificed as part of a more complex strategy toward the overall goal of winning the game. 

There’s a great Michelangelo quote: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” If seeing the angel comes through Mask-On play, the carving is Mask-Off play. If Mask-On play is process-oriented, Mask-Off play is product-oriented. In Mask-Off play, the goals of the particular creative process come back to the forefront and the strategizing begins. The goal is usually product-oriented, whether it’s personal or intended to have an audience. But the Mask-Off carving process is still in service of the discoveries made during Mask-On play.

What are elements of this carving, strategizing, Mask-Off process? This is where all of the technique you’ve developed or been taught serves you. If you’re writing a lyric to a song (intended to be enjoyed by an audience), and all you have is a big list of ideas and related but meandering thoughts, understanding song structure can help shape those ideas into a product that is communicable. Don McLean’s “American Pie” originally could seem like a sprawling swamp of images and ideas, but with a traditional verse-chorus song structure with a repeated chorus and verses that use the same melody and rhyme scheme, the song can hold our attention for its entire duration (usually… it’s a long song).

Going back to theatrical mask work, Mask-Off play is determining what actions or happenings discovered during Mask-On play are fruitful toward conveying the story of the piece. This could be identifying moments that need to be technically examined for safety or efficiency (a physical stunt, an extreme vocal choice, etc.); it could be looking at how choices fit into the story dramaturgically; it could be considering clarity of story and how the ensemble works together to guide the audience’s focus. This is where technique, craft, and articulation shine. Both intuition and the conscious mind play in this process, since one can consciously or intuitively play using the tools of craft and technique. That’s what craft and technique are: tools.

Craft and technique are not necessarily objectively accepted processes. There isn’t one definitive technique for studying acting, or a single way to play a musical instrument, or writing, or fighting, or anything that seems to require technique. The technique that illuminates your creativity will be unique to you. It might be an amalgamation of approaches that resonate with you, it might be heavily inspired by a previously existing approach, or it might be something you develop on your own that happens to work for you. You might work with handheld saws and hammers, you might prefer electric screwdrivers and table saws, or you might jury-rig your own Dr. Seuss-ian looking contraption from whatever you find lying around and that gets the job done. The tools provide a means of shaping the raw material towards clarity and communicability.

This is why pure displays of craft and technique may be impressive, but are ultimately only deeply satisfying to other craftsmen, and the danger of becoming too enamored of Mask-Off play. It’s the difference between live and dead branches on a tree. A dead branch may have the shape and form of any other branch, but because it is disconnected from the part of the tree that  is alive, it can no longer produce leaves. It’s just dead weight. A performer who is all technique but unwilling to be present and aware in the moment of performance can only be impressive. They can be neither compelling nor moving, except to those who appreciate and understand all that has gone into developing that craftsmanship and the fineness of the tools – which is no small matter, mind you, and deserves appreciation. 

On the other hand, a performer who is all impulse without any sense of shape, form, or craft will have a hard time communicating because their play has no focus. All creative work has some element of distillation. It holds a mirror up to the world and then articulates the reflection in some concise manner. The creator without craft is unable to articulate, and may as well be wandering through daily life wearing an ill-fitting Halloween costume. Shaping, crafting, and identifying focus moves mass creative output into a communicative form.

Both modes of play are important. Both are essential. How do you balance them?

Part V: The Balancing Act

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