Mask Work

It’s really hard to hear your own voice,
and every lie you tell
makes your voice harder to hear,
and a lot of what we do is lying.
Especially when what we want so badly
from other people
is for them to love us.
~ Nora, A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath

Flashback: February, 2001

We had just finished our table read. I don’t remember the play, or which wonderful actor was sitting across from me in scene study class that afternoon. Cay was quiet for a long moment. “Vivienne, you’ve been studying with me for about a year now?” I nodded. She appeared to choose her next words carefully: “Not only have I not seen who you are as an actor . . . I can’t say I’ve seen who you are as a human being.”

Ouch.

When I approached Cay after class, unsure how to find this thing – this “me” I didn’t realize was missing – she said I didn’t need to search far. I was there, she said, but my “social mask” was obscuring me.

Cay’s words landed. I believed her. But I didn’t fully understand what she meant. I was too bound up in how I’d learned to represent myself. I’d come to believe this representation – what Cay called my social mask – was my truth.

I couldn’t hear – or maybe, recognize? – my own voice.
The revelation was scary as shit.

* * *

I’ve been wrestling with this post on the social mask for over a month. I’ve worked four different drafts of it, all crumpled at my feet — or would be, if I still wrote pen to paper. I’d get as far as that moment from 2001. After that, my writing would stall.

I started working on A Doll’s House, Part 2 for class and read the passage above. Nora is explaining to Torvald how, after she left him, she decided to live in total silence until she could free herself from all the voices she’d internalized, the ones telling her how to think, how to speak, how to be. The voices warning her against the inappropriate. After two years of silence she could finally hear her own voice. “I could think of things that I wanted that had nothing to do with what anyone else wanted.”

I realized I was resisting this post because my acting is still compromised by my social mask.

Since that afternoon in 2001, yeah, I’ve done a lot of work on myself and yeah, there’s been a huge improvement in my acting, thanks to Cay. But all these years later I can feel myself making nice when I fear getting moments wrong – because being “ugly” (in all senses of the word) means I won’t be loved. I slip behind my mask.

There’s a lot of shame in this. Worse, it short-circuits my self-awareness. A director or Cay might ask “What do you want?” My mind goes blank. I think: what do I want? What do I feel, in Cay’s words, “for real for real”? I get static – white noise – in reply.

This feels like a cop-out.
It may be a cop-out.
But there it is. As Nora says, “every lie you tell, makes your voice harder to hear.”

The social mask afflicts a lot of us. I think girls learn early on to fashion their thoughts and feelings in service to the ‘higher good’ of making others comfortable. This can muck us up for a lifetime. Many of the heartbreaking #MeToo stories I’ve read touch on an element of this dynamic and the self-doubt about what’s acceptable, what we allow ourselves to experience, what we allow ourselves to say. American men face their own oppressive set of expectations – be strong, be stoic, don’t lose.

If we’ve internalized these expectations, the social mask begins to wear us. As actors, as humans, it gets harder and harder to recognize our own remarkable voice.

 

(This post was running on and I’ve more to say on the ways the social mask can trip us up in our acting so, following the lead of A Doll’s House, Part 2, there’s a Mask Work, Part 2. Look for that in a week or so if you’re interested. Meanwhile, I’d be curious in any thoughts or stories you’ve got to share about the masks we wear.)

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