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Mask-On/Mask-Off, Part V: The Balancing Act

Have you ever seen the circus act with a person balances on a plank of wood on top of a rolling cylinder? That’s a rolla bolla. It’s like a one-person seesaw, where that person shifts weight from foot to foot in order to find balance.

Shifting weight. The goal on rolla bolla isn’t to reach a point where the board is perfectly straight and you can get comfortable and stand still. That’s physically impossible. The board will always be moving ever so slightly, and your feet will always be adjusting to maintain the balance. Balance isn’t a state of stillness – balancing is active.

Navigating between Mask-On and Mask-Off play is also a balancing act. The creative process must shift between these two modes of play in order to find a balance of intuitive spontaneity and precise, intentional craftsmanship. Ironically, the product-oriented Mask-Off play is most valuable in process while the process-oriented Mask-On play allows the product to shine. It’s easy to get caught up in one or the other. If one mode of play feels more comfortable, we may encounter resistance shifting gears to spend time in the other. Someone who always wants the freedom to play and discover may fear losing the immediacy of their experience by crafting it and setting it into a finished product. On the other hand, someone who focuses heavily on craft and technique may feel intimidated by the expanse and unpredictability of the land where anything is possible since their primary concern is what will technically work. Someone who tends toward Mask-On play may fear making decisions before the most authentic discoveries can be made. Someone who tends toward Mask-Off play may fear wasting time wading through possibilities that may or may not be fruitful.

In collaborative situations, we may only be responsible for one mode or the other. A stage director may handle more of the analytical Mask-Off aspect while an actor is focused on the Mask-On side. However, both directing and performing are generative, creative crafts in their own right. Each artist will need some amount of Mask-On and Mask-Off play. There is always some kind of balance to be negotiated.

Learning to balance on the rolla bolla takes time and practice. Practicing over time builds up certain muscles that stabilize the body as it works to maintain balance. Maintaining balance is a constant negotiation. When first learning to stand on the rolla bolla, it may be a conscious struggle to maintain balance. It may seem impossible. Over time, the body learns how to intuitively negotiate weight while shifting from side to side.

All of this remains true in finding creative balance. This can be especially tough if your training is skewed in one direction. It makes sense that an actor’s training could be skewed in the direction of Mask-Off play, because that’s far easier to articulate. Teaching Mask-On play often involves pedagogy and exercises that have been articulated in a Mask-Off mode. Since your unique perspective and curiosity help define your own Mask-On play, the danger in teaching it is that your students’ Mask-Off brains will latch onto your perspective and consciously apply it during “Mask-On” play. However, it is then no longer Mask-On play. It’s Mask-Off play masquerading as Mask-On play, with your student consciously emulating what looks like your Mask-On play. Confusing, right? Authentic Mask-On play requires the courage to put forth your own perspective.

I believe it’s important for creatives to spend a fair amount of time with themselves: coming to know themselves and articulating what they see in the world without any one looking over their shoulder. That’s the benefit of a diary. I started journaling when I was in college, and if nothing else it gave me an outlet to say whatever I was feeling no matter how petty, fickle, or unrealistic it seemed. It was a way to release pent up perceptions. Going back to the warehouse of books, your mind fills up with thoughts and feelings over time. You won’t have room for anything new that might be helpful in the present if you’re clinging to what you’ve seen in the past.

On the other hand, if you become too preoccupied with your own perspective, you’re taking for granted that anyone else will connect with it. It depends what you want to do with your creative energy. If you want to paint or play music or write short stories for no other reason than to exercise your own creativity, that is valid and noble. If you intend to create anything that serves you professionally, then your audience must be accounted for.

Mask-Off play requires the humility to allow your creativity to be shaped by others’ perspectives. Our creative endeavors are enriched by outside perspectives, because the wide range of perspectives we encounter throughout our lives could become fruitful masks to play and create through. If creating art is the process of holding up the mirror to nature, then we have to look beyond ourselves for inspiration. How many creatives are inspired by the people and places they encounter in their every day lives? Or a philosophy, or an animal, or an event? These are all more ingredients to add to your spice rack that may one day provide the perfect flavoring for your creative stew.

Balancing between Mask-On play and Mask-Off play, much like the rolla bolla, is a skill to be built up over the years. The two modes feed and compliment each other. They are yin and yang. I would liken the intuitive Mask-On play to the feminine yin and the conscious-driven Mask-Off play to the masculine yang, but you could easily argue either way. Sometimes it helps to have collaborators help you navigate the balance, but working on your own through trial and failure is ultimately the only way to find it.

On another level, our creative process is always Mask-On play. In the same way that creating our Mask-On play requires combining our intuition with an external lens, our process asks us to consider our intuitive Mask-On play through the lens of Mask-Off play. Once again, because we are alive, we cannot help but create. It boils down to discovering how our authentic selves engage with the rest of the world.

In creativity, there is no right or wrong. Some fields may bear plentiful harvest while others remain relatively barren, but searching for right and wrong, good and bad, best and worst, is completely futile. These black and white extremes are illusions. There are too many forces in the world to consider it in only two colors. The duality lies in what we are and what we are not; ourselves and the other; the playing of our souls and the masks that allow us to articulate it. 

Back to Part I: On Creativity

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