An Acclaimed Playwright on Masks and the Return to the Stage

Greek masks in historical theater have been each sensible and ritualistic; they allowed performers to change roles and genders, and additionally to let an immortal howl out of a face that turned greater than mortal with artifice. From African masks in theater and dance, to Tibetan masks in ceremonial traditions, to commedia dell’arte masks in Fifteenth-century Italy, masks have been thought to unleash an virtually supernatural energy in the actor. However masked theater in the West is now uncommon, and the specific genius of most New York actors is they will make us consider that they’re revealing themselves absolutely whereas they’re in truth masked by a task. So, two weeks in the past, we in the viewers sat in precise masks, in reverent silence, seeing the actors’ bare faces as soon as once more, feeling the unbelievable heat of communal theater.

Lastly being collectively once more in an viewers felt miraculous, and additionally — if I’m being utterly trustworthy — slightly unusual, and unfamiliar. There was a time many people thought we’d hunker down for a pair months, maybe study a brand new pastime or two, and come again neatly to doing what we’d been doing earlier than. In my case, that was writing performs and being in a rehearsal room. I do know I’m not the just one in the theater neighborhood who feels oddly dislocated now; the quarantine itself was terrible however had a glacial readability about it; no less than one knew what to do — one stayed put. Now that theater, dance and music (our secular New York Metropolis worship rituals) are again, there’s celebration, and, I discover, a way of floating oddly — in a panorama that ought to really feel like house.

If I assumed there could be a knife-edged readability to the return to the theater, as if I may stroll in the door of my childhood house and choose up proper the place I left off, the heat mug nonetheless on the desk the place I left it — I used to be mistaken. The liquid in the mug wants to be warmed. The mirrors want to be dusted. Can we nonetheless acknowledge our faces in those self same mirrors we’ve been accustomed to utilizing, to verify our identities in the eyes of the individuals we belief and work with?

I SUSPECT that, behind our masks proper now, a few of us don’t even really feel prepared to smile but. How to return to life after a protracted sickness as a person, or as a theater neighborhood, or as a physique politic, particularly when there’s not a transparent return to well being? And the way to acknowledge the losses, the transformations, the seismic gaps?

Once I bumped into colleagues at the theater just lately, most of whom I hadn’t seen in 18 months, all of us masked, partially revealed, the easy query, “How are you?” hovered with new weight. I didn’t know who, in the final yr and a half, had had a wedding break up; or a youngster going by a psychological well being disaster; or misplaced a mother or father, an aunt, a cousin, a partner; who was affected by lengthy Covid; who won’t have the opportunity to afford paying the hire. So to ask “How are you?” now not felt like small speak. We relied on our eyes above our masks to make connections. After which the theater darkened, the curtain went up, and we reveled in the unmasked actors giving us their full-throated artistry. If actors have all the time been avatars for what we can not categorical, they appeared much more so now.

I believe all of us need to come again into our outdated rehearsal rooms, studios, and workplaces with confidence and gleaming smiles; however for a few of us, proper now, a half-smile is a extra correct expression of our emotional states. We’re studying to be a piece in progress collectively once more. Unfinished, masked, and hopeful. As we slowly take our masks off in the coming months, allow us to be tender with each other. Allow us to be affected person as we relearn the stunning, and as soon as automated, act of smiling face to face.

Sarah Ruhl is a playwright, essayist and poet dwelling in Brooklyn. Her new e-book is “Smile: The Story of a Face,” revealed by Simon & Schuster.

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