Acclaimed playwright on masks and back on stage

The Greek masks of the ancient theater were both practical and ritualistic; they allowed the performers to change roles and genres, and ...

The Greek masks of the ancient theater were both practical and ritualistic; they allowed the performers to change roles and genres, and also to let an immortal howl emerge from a face that had become more than mortal by the artifice. From African masks in theater and dance to Tibetan masks in ceremonial traditions, to commedia dell’arte masks in 15th century Italy, the masks were believed to unleash an almost supernatural power in the actor. But masked theater in the West is now rare, and the peculiar genius of most New York actors is that they can make us believe that they are fully exposed when they are in fact masked by a role. So two weeks ago we in the audience were sitting in real masks, in respectful silence, seeing the actors’ naked faces again, feeling the incredible warmth of community theater.

Finally, being in an audience together again was miraculous and also – if I’m completely honest – a little strange and unfamiliar. There was a time when many of us thought we were going to squat for a few months, maybe learn a new hobby or two, and cleanly come back to doing what we did before. In my case, it was writing plays and being in a rehearsal room. I know I’m not the only one in the theater community who feels oddly dislocated now; the quarantine itself was horrible but had an icy clarity about it; at least we knew what to do – we stayed put. Now that the theater, the dance and the music (our secular worship rituals in New York) are back, there’s the party and, I find, a weird floating feeling – in a landscape that should feel like home.

If I thought there would be a sharp clarity coming back to the theater, like I could walk through the door of my childhood home and pick up where I left off, the hot mug still on the table where I left it. had left – I was wrong. The liquid in the cup needs to be warmed up. Mirrors must be dusted. Can we still recognize our faces in those same mirrors that we are used to using, to confirm our identity in the eyes of the people we trust and work with?

I SUSPECT that behind our masks right now some of us don’t even feel ready to smile yet. How to come back to life after a long illness as an individual, or as a theatrical community, or as a body politic, especially when there is no clear return to health? And how to recognize the losses, the transformations, the seismic gaps?

When I recently met colleagues at the theater, most of whom I hadn’t seen for 18 months, we all obscured, partially revealed, the simple question “How are you?” Hovered with a new weight. I didn’t know who in the past year and a half had broken up their marriage; or a teenager going through a mental health crisis; or lost a parent, aunt, cousin, spouse; who suffered from a long Covid; who may not be able to afford the rent. So ask “How are you?” no longer had the impression of chatting. We leaned on our eyes above our masks to make connections. And then the theater darkened, the curtain was raised, and we reveled in the unmasked actors giving us their art to the full. If the actors have always been avatars of what we cannot express, they seem so even more now.

I think we all want to come back to our old rehearsal rooms, studios and offices with confidence and a bright smile; but for some of us, right now, a half smile is a more precise expression of our emotional states. We are learning to be a work in progress again together. Unfinished, masked and full of hope. As we slowly take our masks off over the next few months, let’s be tender to each other. Let’s be patient as we relearn the beautiful and once automatic act of smiling face to face.

Sarah Ruhl is a Brooklyn-based playwright, essayist, and poet. His new book is “Smile: The Story of a Face”, published by Simon & Schuster.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Acclaimed playwright on masks and back on stage
Acclaimed playwright on masks and back on stage
Newsrust - US Top News
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