The Gift of Presence.
“Good job,” I say. She smiles. I turn to the class, and the discussion begins.
One might think that Melissa’s reaction during this exercise is a result of being put on the spot, a side effect of being in a new and perhaps uncomfortable setting or situation. But I had known her for some months. She studied with me in two 4-week on-camera audition workshops, and was in the second month of the ongoing scene study class. She is very talented, has a BFA in acting from a very fine university, and projects an air of confidence. That last was precise reason I asked her to join me in the exercise. So to what do we attribute her reactions, first the tension, and then the tears upon the release? And for what purpose do we even engage in this exercise in class?
We all wear masks. We learn how to put them on as children, and we’re taught to refine them throughout our lives. We put them on and take them off during the course of the day depending upon circumstance and relationship: “This mask will make Mommy happy.” “This mask will keep the bully away from me during recess.” “This mask will make Betsy want to sleep with me.” “This mask will . . . .” Fill in the blank. Sometimes we wear a mask to get what we want. These are the easiest to put on and take off. At other times, we wear them to get what we need. These are a little stickier, and we are less conscious of them. Some masks we wear to survive. These we often don’t even know we are wearing.
Although the unconscious use of our own masks may help us in our day-to-day interactions, they can only interfere with the creative process of performance. That’s why these personal masks pose a problem for the actor at any stage of the study of craft, but in particular for the newcomer. Indeed this is why the masks that we wear ourselves form the very basis of the character work encouraged by Uta Hagen in her masterful exercise Changes of Self, described in A Challenge for the Actor. Through this exercise we begin to explore our own masks, so that we can use them in the roles that we play. Through the process of self-exploration we tap into facets of our own being, and create a living, breathing, authentic character.
As actors, then, we need as much as possible to come from a place of self-knowing and self-acceptance. If we are welded to our own mask, we cannot share honestly with the viewer. This has led me to the use of this exercise as a first step, as a way of aiming for a neutral ground zero as we move into our creative practice. In doing so we create a safe space where we can simply sit and be together, where we look at each other with as little of a mask as we can manage. We allow ourselves to be seen. Doing nothing. Gazing at each other without fear or judgment. For some, a few, it is easy. For most, it is difficult, perhaps even terrifying. For many it is at first a release, and frequently brings tears. After all, how often do we simply gaze into someone’s eyes and allow them to gaze into our own? Many don’t do so even with their closest intimates.
The dramatic arts achieve their most transformative effect when a viewer feels that their secret soul is seen, understood, and accepted. It is through that level of connection that change can occur. Ideas and values can be communicated and expanded. When we get in touch with all of the facets own authentic selves and share them with the audience, they feel understood and know that they are seen. That is the greatest gift we can give them. It can help to heal primal wounds, both in the individual and society. When we as actors can learn to accept our own weakness, fallibility, and shame, and also at the same time to claim our strength, courage, and heroism, we can engender that same acceptance and claim in the viewer. For them, that becomes a step toward recognizing those qualities in others. That in turn opens the door for greater compassion and healing. And what greater aim can there be for the artist?