Neutral mask crafted by Pepper Kaminoff
How does one learn to be more present–in that state of being in the moment, open, receptive, and curious?
And how do I move beyond my overstretched I’ve-got-to-have-life-figured-out brain, and, occasionally, (good luck), stop trying to control the world?
I’d like to find more of the part of me that can be still, notice rather than plan, and walk with curiosity rather than ambition. The me that is child-like and entranced by her senses.
This is not a part of me I’m likely to find in my cell phone or on Facebook.
Last weekend, on a ferry ride into Seattle to attend an improvisational theatre workshop, I realized, oh dread of dreads, that I’d left my cell phone at home. How was I going to be able to entertain myself and stay in touch with the world on my ferry rides? How would I even let my husband know that I had gone free-range without access to my cell phone?
photo by Joe Mabel
Hoping to borrow a phone from someone so that I could call my husband, I strolled slowly around the passenger deck. There I saw an amazing, if terrifying, sight. All but one of the passengers, on this scenic ride across Puget Sound, were looking down at their phones.
I would have been doing the same.
What’s happened to us? How do we expect to notice the world with our eyes focused on our screens?
Playing our way back to presence
The two-day workshop to which I was traveling soon offered me clues about finding more presence. Taught by master teacher, director, actor/clown Arne Zaslove** the workshop focused on playing, improvising and working with masks. Through simple games, such as throwing balls in a circle, Arne helped us recognize the quirky behaviors to which we default when we become stressed or frazzled. As he often likes to say, “Under pressure, you are your game.”
During most of the workshop, we improvised scenes using masks, both expressive masks that reflect a character, personality or emotion, and neutral masks that contain no expression, and no visible personality.
Before I studied with Arne, I thought masks, whether tribal or theatrical such as Japanese Noh masks, were largely historic relics. In the United States, we barely use masks, except at Halloween when they are used casually to imitate movie stars or pseudo-spook people.
Masks can be so much more. Even a cheap Halloween mask can be transformed into a persona by an actor who knows how to enter into the world of the mask.
Masks invite me to explore the world, free of the worry about what my face is saying to the world.
In donning an expressive mask, I step into the world of a character or emotion. Using masks, I explored being a haughty woman, a crinkled grandmother, a serving wench and a laughable, arrogant Captain (a classic Commedia Dell’Arte character).
Neutral masks challenged me to just be present without suggesting who I was supposed to be. In neutral mask, you play a scene devoid of personality and past. When I’m in neutral mask, I’m challenged to go beyond my mind, ideas and plans, and see the world with the curiosity of a small child or the instincts of an animal.
In a neutral mask, I respond to the world that is in front of me, rather than filtering life through my past experiences, expectations, and concepts of how life is supposed to be.
Neutral mask invites me to be more present.
I’d done a little neutral mask work in a previous class of Arne’s, but on the first day of this workshop, I failed in my first attempt. “Too much expressiveness,” Arne offered, with his characteristically kind blend of encouragement and suggestion. I stood in front of the group, baffled, trying to understand how I could possibly express the mask without my usual expressiveness.
After class, my classmates whispered hints: “Drop into your gut.” “Let your breath travel throughout your whole body.” “Don’t think with your mind–think through your heart or gut.” “Explore the emotions you find in the scene and let them carry you.”
Arne asked us to consider the world of animals and how they move, ever alert, reactive, and tuned into their surroundings.
I immediately pictured our two new foster dogs. Those bro-pals go from sound asleep to revved up and ready to roll with only the slightest hint of footsteps. No longer can I fix my quiet cup of tea in the morning before these can-we-play-NOW guys demand attention. They live in the moment, always looking to play.
On day two of the workshop, I learned more about what neutral mask offers. I improvised a scene without planning or thinking about who I was supposed to be. I centered in my body and let myself be curious. I responded in the moment to the moment. I allowed myself to be moved by what occurred spontaneously in the scene.
By the end of that scene, I was shaking, as if I’d stepped through a portal to a different part of life, certainly a different part of myself.
Neutral mask is not a philosophy of how we’re “supposed to be” in the world. We also need planful minds that can understand rules and think ahead. I can’t drive a car like a child, free of past knowledge or awareness of consequences. Yet sometimes, I still need to play.
A neutral mask is a terrific tool for re-discovering the worlds of discovery, invention and play.
After just a few minutes of play, listening with my senses, and responding to what was in front of me, I felt my imagination waking up–an imagination that, for many of us, is endangered these days.
Alas, I can’t depend on a workshop to rekindle my imagination–although I would highly recommend studying anything with Arne! I need to find how to bring play into my day to day life.
Maybe I can begin by taking my eyes off the cell phone on my next ferry ride and watching the light shimmering on Puget Sound and the clouds dancing around Mt. Rainier. I can sniff the scent of saltwater mixed with bathroom cleaner from the nearby toilets and coffee in the galley. I can hear engines rattle and the squealing of children running down the aisles. Perhaps in twenty minutes of being present, I will find magic.
As to our new Springer Spaniel foster dogs, those high octane tanks of brotherly energy? Perhaps they’ve come into our lives for a reason. They’re true masters of play and willing to express, at any moment, what they have just discovered. Currently, they’d much prefer that I stop writing PLEASE because, why don’t I see, it’s time to PLAY!
They’re right. Maybe, if people would learn to play more, we’d all bark a lot less.
**Learn more about Arne Zaslove, his work, and his upcoming events. Check out his blog about physical theatre and masks.
I’m fascinated by how others live, not just by the face they show the world.
Living in Paris, I’d spend hours people-watching at outdoor cafés. A café creme was the excuse I needed to be able to sit and watch the world pass by. Living in Seattle, I enjoyed walking my dog at dusk through my neighborhood of small bungalows. When amber lights glowed and curtains were not yet drawn, I could enjoy a quick peek at the lives of my neighbors.
No wonder I’m drawn to reading memoirs.
The lives of three authors captivated me recently, because, unlike fiction, their stories were true.
Educated by Tara Westover, reads like a thriller; I couldn’t put it down. It’s the story of a woman raised in a fanatical, survivalist family in Idaho, ruled by a father convinced that the feds would be coming for his family after the gun-toting, government-hating, Weaver family was shot at Ruby Ridge. (Not to malign Idaho, but weird things have happened out there.)
Fearing exposing his children to any government thinking, Tara’s father decided to keep his three youngest children out of school. He claimed to home-school them, although most of their time was spent working in a junkyard, where Tara was forced to do unbelievably dangerous work.
Spoiler alert: I tolerated reading about her father’s cruelty and her brother’s violent abuse after reading the back cover, which described how Tara eventually escaped her home and became educated. As a testimony to her brilliance, she taught herself what she needed to know to take college entrance exams. (Can you imagine learning trigonometry if you’d never been taught math?) Her dedication paid off when Brigham Young University accepted her, and she earned a B.A. She subsequently won fellowships at Cambridge University in England and completed both her Masters and Ph.D.
Not surprisingly, Tara still bears the wounds of a crazy childhood and the pain of loving a dad who mixed religious fervor with psychological pathology. Educated is a story of heartbreak, abuse, love, and the triumph of perseverance against all the odds.
Dani Shapiro grew up in an orthodox Jewish family, proud of her Jewish lineage and devoted to her faith, even as people occasionally questioned how a perky blond child could have been born to two Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews.
Then, in her early 50’s, Shapiro signed up on a whim to have her DNA tested by one of those inexpensive-DNA testing sites. The results were devastating: she learned that her deceased and dearly loved father was not her biological father. After sleuthing online–it didn’t take long– she identified her biological dad: a doctor of Scandinavian lineage, who lived on the other side of the country. Watching a video of him teaching, she was stunned to see that even their gestures were similar.
The foundation of her world seismically shifted.
Imagine what it was like for the biological dad to receive an email out of the blue, suggesting that he had a daughter from a sperm he sold fifty-plus years earlier. I’ll save the rest of the book for you, but Shapiro, a gifted writer, keeps you spellbound with the questions she raises about what is family and the impact of family secrets. With compassion for her parents, she offers some context: her parents desperately wanted a child in an era in which a court had ruled in 1954 that donor insemination was considered to be adultery by the woman.
Shapiro’s story might seem bizarre and exceptional, but parts of it may be repeating now with the spread of low-cost genetic testing. At a party last week a friend told me that two children born of sperm he had sold years ago just contacted him.
Welcome to the new world.
As you may have read, dogs are on my mind these days, (a bonded pair of two Springer Spaniel brothers are about to join our household!), so I was gripped by this story of how healing a dog allowed, and required, Patricia McConnell to heal herself. Patricia McConnell is a renowned animal behaviorist whom I had the pleasure of hearing when she came to our island for regional sheepdog trials. She’s a wonderful writer as well as a speaker.
For those of us who know the power of our animals to change our lives, this memoir is a must-read.
So with that, I’ll skedaddle. I have two new furry friends to meet. Ruff!