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culture Essays personal

The True Self Gives Life to the Mask

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A million years ago, when I was attending the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, my class took part in a fascinating three-week workshop on performance in masks. While considered sort of avant-garde today, theatre more or less began with performers masking themselves or disguising their faces to tell stories. The classics of the Greeks and the slapstick buffoonery of commedia dell’arte were all originally performed in masks. The most common icon for theatre today is a pair of masks, one for comedy and one for tragedy. So this was going to be some exciting work in getting back to the roots of our craft, learning some vital fundamentals.

The sessions began even more fundamentally than we expected. To the surprise I think of many of my classmates, the first week’s session was absolutely free of masks. After a rather reverent introduction to mask work, we spent the rest of our time staring at our own faces in the mirror. Up close.

Literally face to face with ourselves, we were instructed to look deeply and coldly at our reflections. We were told to examine every line, curve, spot, and flaw with excruciating detail and meditative patience. We were made to drop all attempts at animation or expression, to let our faces find a state of absolute rest, to give up control of our facial muscles to gravity.

It was difficult and emotionally challenging, and yet we were to refrain from showing that emotion. We needed to simultaneously investigate our own faces with impartiality while also retaining mastery over them. This would be hard, I think, for anyone to do, but imagine the struggles of a room full of actors, all building their careers and lives on the imperfect, asymmetrical image before them.

As the workshop sessions went on, the reasoning for subjecting us to this became clear. Before we could ever be allowed to put on a mask, we had to reckon with the ones we were already wearing.

It’s a cliche to say that we all wear a mask to some degree, actors and non-actors alike, but it’s also true. The metaphor of the mask has special resonance with me, not just because of my life as an actor, but for the masks of normalcy that I have shielded myself with for decades. I won’t recount all the ways in which I am an odd duck, but consider the utility of “masking” for someone who has always been small, anxious, and awkward, creative and highly sensitive, bullied mercilessly in childhood and subject to other traumas in adulthood, and, for the kicker, on the autism spectrum.

Particularly since being diagnosed with Asperger’s only a few years ago, I have been working very hard to deconstruct those masks, to peel them away, layer by layer, and discover who the person behind them actually is. To pass as human had been the enterprise of my life, and over time it exhausted and sickened me. I lost myself within those masks, and I was terrified of who I’d find once they were gone.

I didn’t need to be. Here I am in my early 40s, getting on just fine, all things considered. It was enormously difficult, but I have learned to accept a great deal about who I am and who I never will be. I have grown to appreciate things about myself I never allowed myself to before, and I’ve acknowledged ugly truths about myself as well.

But just as I miss my life as a professional actor, taking on roles and living different lives, sometimes I miss the masks. Just as a costume can help bring an actor more fully into the mind of their character, a metaphorical mask allows a person to adopt qualities they might not otherwise possess. A personality enhanced by a mask may not be “genuine,” but is it necessarily false?

As part of coming to terms with my true self, I’ve had to accept and own my introversion and social awkwardness. But in the areas of my life where more confidence and gregariousness are called for, as in many work-related situations, am I better served by resigning to my “true self,” or might it be warranted to augment myself with the traits necessary for success? In other words, if I’m shy, but I decide to pretend to be outgoing, am I betraying myself?

A few years ago, I might have answered yes.

Part of the work of self-acceptance has been to insist on that same acceptance from everyone else — not for my own validation, but to be able to present myself truly, as I am, without the need to excuse or apologize for who I am. It’s been an essential part of this journey.

But that doesn’t mean that my “true self” always serves me best. An easy example of this comes from parenting. While I am very honest with my kids about who I am and what I’m like, there are always going to be moments when I am doing my duty to them as a father by presenting to them a person who is stronger, more assured, and wiser than I know myself to be. This isn’t to fool them, but to give them the care or the example they need in that moment. It’s not false, but it is a kind of mask.

And of course, there’s work, as I mentioned. As a communications professional, I can only achieve so much with creative-but-anxious, and I fail my employers if I shrug and say, well, this is who I truly am! Like an actor putting on a costume and reciting lines written by someone else, I have to put on my mask, the one that represents a character that is more confident and assertive than the real person wearing it.

This is a case of mask-as-augmentation, and I think it’s distinct from mask-as-shield. In a less self-accepting time, my masks were ways to hide who I was, to defend myself from being identified as different, to thwart anyone’s attempts to scrutinize my true self.

A defensive mask is always ill-fitting. It slips off too easily, or else constricts one’s circulation. The eyes don’t line up with the holes, or it makes it hard to breathe. To wear a mask defensively is to be in a constant state of disaster-aversion.

The relationship changes, I think, once we’ve come to accept our true face, when we take ownership of who we really are, for all our flaws. If we can get to a place where we have a handle on the whole of ourselves, strengths and weaknesses together, I think then a mask is not necessarily a shield or a disguise, but a tool.

If we mask with intention, we can thoughtfully and deliberately augment ourselves to better navigate different situations. When our natural state isn’t suited to a meaningful undertaking, we can choose the mask that supports our goals, adopting the specific qualities that help us get where we need to go, or build what we want to see come into being.

This is what we were learning in those first hours of that theatre workshop. Before the instructor would allow us to put on one of the masks she’d brought, and begin to inhabit — and be inhabited by — the character the mask represented, we needed to accept and master our own faces. We needed to take off our defensive masks, stop hiding from ourselves, and see our true faces as they really are.

To have used those masks as disguises would have been to miss the point. The goal must never be to disappear. Rather, the mask allowed us to bring something new into being. The mask was not hiding our true selves. Our true selves were giving life to the mask.

Accepting who we really are is just the start, not the end. Self-acceptance isn’t about stasis. It’s about taking responsibility for who we really are, and with intention and new understanding, finding the strength to see what else is possible. One way to find out is to try on a few masks. Who knows who might show up.

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creativity Essays personal

An Actor, an Introvert, and a Universe of Possibilities

The author in 2006.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

I don’t even have to decode any social signals or read between the lines of what others are saying in order to know when to speak, because it’s all been planned out in advance. I am forbidden from speaking until my own lines are cued. That limitation is indescribably liberating.

I don’t have to know what to wear. I don’t have to know where to stand or how to behave, because all of that will have been worked out in rehearsal. If the play doesn’t call for my presence in a scene, I don’t even have to exist.

But there’s another way to explain the apparent incongruity of my personality that flips all of this on its head, and I didn’t even realize it myself until I had it explained to me in an article by a true master of the theatre from several years ago.

I recently came across an essay published in The Nation in 2011 by the great actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, who most folks will know as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, Grand Nagus Zek on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or the voice of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Toy Story movies. Maybe you know him from the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. Oh, and he was just in Marriage Story, so that might help.

In his essay for The Nation, which is a truly beautiful piece of prose in which he explains how his art leads him to consider himself a socialist, Shawn writes:

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

In one version of my explanation for why such a loud, animated performer like me could be such a severe introvert is that I alone am too small and too vulnerable to be comfortable in my own skin in the midst of other humans. But what Shawn helped me to see is that this disconnect also stems from the fact that my singular, real-life self is also near to bursting with thoughts, ideas, fears, ambitions, impulses, and possibilities.

The potential energy bottled up and pressed down into this small, delicate body is overwhelming. Letting any of its pressure out brings with it the risk of humiliation, regret, misunderstanding, or bewilderment. So a single, inoffensive persona must be adopted, a safe and broadly acceptable packaging must be applied.

The stage does not solve or sort all of these parts, but it does allow them to manifest in meaningful, productive, and satisfying ways. In this way, an actor’s role is sort of like Mjölnir to Thor.

In Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardian Avenger has lost his legendary hammer, Mjölnir, and at the edge of utter defeat, he hears the voice of his late father Odin, who asks him, “Are you the god of hammers?” Odin explains that Mjölnir was not the source of Thor’s power, but merely a means of focusing and controlling it. The real power, the “thunder,” is already inside him, coursing through him.

That’s what a role in a play is for an actor. It harnesses the lightning and thunder inside us and allows us to wield it. Shakespeare himself even wrote of “youths that thunder at a playhouse.”

It is true that for me, and I suspect for many actors, taking on a role is a way of protecting ourselves, providing armor for our fragility. But it is also a means to show our strength, to unleash a power within us that in most other circumstances would be too dangerous or destructive.

As Wallace Shawn says, we have within us a universe of possibilities. The stage allows us to live some of them out.

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creativity Essays personal

Writing Without a Mask

Clearly, there’s something I’m not doing right.

It is my third full day at the writers’ refuge and I am researching my article’s topic, the muscles in my neck and shoulders simultaneously taut and compacted such that I find my range of motion constrained.

IMAG1268.jpgI am in a veritable paradise, with astounding natural beauty, a sublime and comfortable writing environment, surrounded by books and supplies and various corners and nooks into which I can settle and work my craft, smart and friendly people around who are both few in number and fully understanding of my need for solitude, but also interesting and enlightening when I do get into conversation with them, and two weeks to pursue this project in any way I please. Oh, and I am right now looking at a different tectonic plate than the one on which I stand. Seriously, it’s right there. Also, deer aren’t afraid of us, and they hang out and eat apples. Oh oh oh and there’s a hawk that flies around my part of the house, sometimes so close I can look into its eye.

And I’m lost. Whereas I had begun this retreat with a lot of enthusiasm for this project and eagerness to get it going, I’m now overwhelmed by the breadth of the topic, unsure of the degree of depth that is most appropriate, ignorant of the best practices for this kind of work, anxious about the unwise use of my time, and generally feeling beneath the task. I even think I broke the electric kettle in the kitchen.

I am being treated to more privilege than billions of people will ever experience, and here I am, angsty. I hope I at least get credit for recognizing the absurdity of my own hangups.

I know there is no right way to go about this. That’s really the point of this retreat, to give writers the space and time to take things at a pace and within a structure that suits the writers themselves. I’m so accustomed to stop-and-start times, specific formats and styles for particular written products, and an established approval process, that this freedom, this liberation, is bewildering.

But now that I think about it, I suspect that what’s really going on is very similar to the distinction I make between performing as an actor on stage in a play and giving a presentation on a real-world topic for my job. There is too much of me riding on it.

Let’s begin with the theatre/work-presentation distinction. Upon learning of my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, many people who know me from my theatre life are in disbelief. How can I feel anti-social, afraid of human interaction, uncomfortable in crowds, and oversensitive to stimulation and also thrive on stage? It’s a perfectly reasonable question (though I bristle at the skepticism of my diagnosis that it implies), and one that took some time to for me to understand myself.

When I’m performing a role in a play, there is no question as to what I will talk about. My words are predetermined, and not just for what I will say, but when I will say it. The play will also have been blocked, meaning that where I am in space will also have been set and rehearsed well in advance. Through the rehearsal process, it will be determined how I will say all these words, how I will conduct myself physically, and even how I will imagine my character to have reached those various decisions. There is always room for change, iteration, adjustment, and depending on the production, sometimes even improvisation, but the structure is always there, and it is firm. Most importantly, I am not me. I am someone else. Not literally, of course, but there are sufficient layers between me and the audience (and even between me and my fellow actors on stage) that the excruciating discomforts associated with my autism are, if not wholly eliminated, sufficiently dampened. The role is a mask.

But take me out of the world of the performing arts, and into the world of speaking on behalf of an organization or a cause, and those layers are stripped away. If I am, for example, expected to give a talk about communications work, I know I will be utterly exposed. Not only can I not play a character (try as I might), but the “real me” must also lay bare whatever degree of expertise I have, or claim to have. “I’m Paul, and this is what I know.” My words, my physical comportment, my inflection, my gestures, and even the very contents of my brain are open to public scrutiny. There is no mask. That is unbearable.

So let’s apply this basic idea to writing, and, in a way, the dynamics flip, with two different areas of my life producing opposite results. As I mentioned, my writing for work is routinized with established formats and processes. As with a public presentation, I am the one producing the words, but I am rarely writing them in my own voice. In a very real sense, when I write press releases, emails to supporters, and newsletters, I am writing “in the character” of the institution I work for. I’m playing the role of my organization. My job title and the institution’s logo, they are my masks. Those layers are sufficient, once I am settled into the given employers’ needs, processes, and, importantly, voice.

Here at the refuge, I am attempting to write a long form magazine article on a topic of great interest to me. But I am not writing or “reporting” it in the voice of my institution, nor in the voice of the publication in which it will appear, as one might do with a straight-news newspaper article. With this project, the speaker is me. The facts I present, the sources I’ve chosen to mine, the people whose perspectives I’ve sought, the conversations and quotations I’ve initiated, the things I’ve chosen to omit or gloss over, and the conclusions reached, they’re all me, in my own voice. Whatever is wrong or unsatisfying or weak about the final product is a reflection of me, with no mask to hide behind. That, I tell you, is dizzying.

Now, one might then wonder, hey Paul, you seem to have no trouble opening every one of your precious little wounds and examining them in detail on this little blog of yours. Too true! And I’m not certain why this kind of writing that I’m doing right now doesn’t make me feel just as vulnerable. But I suspect it’s because I’m rather sure of the topic at hand, that being myself. Even if I’m completely deluded about what is going on within my own tempestuous morass of a psyche, there’s no one else in existence who can claim a greater level of expertise or comparably intimate knowledge. There is relative safety in that. Whatever the reason, exposing my inner thoughts and struggles is far less perilous than claiming the authority to expound upon an external subject.

So perhaps a healthy approach, and even a more fruitful approach, is to lean into my own inclinations and preferences, and tackle the subject of this project through my own lens. In other words, rather than present facts and an argument impersonally, maybe I can chronicle my own experience of the subject as I absorb it, and recount for the reader my intellectual journey to better understand it. The cliché is that one ought to “write what you know,” but I really don’t know much. So maybe the best thing to do is to write what I am coming to know – of the project’s subject and of what it comes to mean to me personally.

Okay, maybe I can do that. Take it easy now, oh knotty neck muscles of mine. Let’s get a few deep breaths in. Let’s take in the vast scene of nature around us and indulge in its otherworldly peacefulness. Let’s let the brain soak up what it’s learning and let the new information bounce off the thoughts and values that are already there.

And then, let’s write.

(And pay for the kettle I broke.)

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creativity culture

Performing Artists, Kill Your Guilty Conscience

My amazing and talented wife Jessica recently did some voice work to help another actress prepare for a film, for which she was paid. She was told today, however, that the film project had been canceled. This, of course, happens sometimes, and it’s not has though Jess was going to be in the thing, so no harm, no foul for her.
But then she admitted to me that she felt a twinge of guilt for accepting payment for her work now that the film won’t actually go into production. When she said this to me, I think my eyes bugged out of my head, and I may have dropped whatever I was holding. Had I been sipping a beverage, I probably would have done a spit take over my laptop keyboard, necessitating a puppy-dog-eyed trip to the Genius Bar.

Guilty? For being paid for your work? I made the comparison to someone who might have built an object: If someone had constructed a set piece for the film, and the film was canceled, no one would think that the builder shouldn’t be paid. Work done is work done.

But somehow with artists, I think particularly performing artists, there is a feeling that what we do doesn’t really count as work, and that if we happen to get paid for it, it’s just icing. A happy coincidence.

Part of this is fueled by raw economics. The supply of performers (actors, singers, dancers, etc.) is far, far, far greater than the demand for them, which leads to performers doing ungodly amounts of work for nothing, and in many cases, actually paying to work in order to get “experience,” get “exposure,” and really, get “exploited.” (Say the word “showcase” to an actor and see if you can detect them dying inside.)

There’s also something about the evanescence of performance work, particularly live performance. You do it, and the work then flitters off into the ether, perhaps captured in recordings or memory, but now passed.

Finally, there’s the trope that’s related to the idea that one must “do what you love,” which can easily be misinterpreted as “since you love doing it, doing it is payment in itself.” Actors and other performers are made to feel that they are privileged just to be allowed to ply their craft at all, and that it is only a rarified few who should deign to feel entitled to compensation for it. It can feel to some as almost impolite to expect to be paid for performance-art work.

And I get it. I have been there. As someone who is usually drenched in self-loathing, I know what it is not to value one’s own labor. Adulthood and the oppression of debt and expenses has changed me a great deal, however, plus I’ve been out of the performing arts workforce for several years now. Raw necessity has hardened me somewhat when it comes to expecting fair compensation, even for work that I might do on my own time for nothing anyway. (Music, for example.)

Here’s the key difference: If I choose to do creative work on my own (and on my own terms) for no payment, all for me, that’s my decision. If you want me to do similar work for you, on your terms, you must pay me. The two are not related, but we sensitive artists types are primed to conflate them.

Back to Jess. Her work in this case was not even “performance” per se, but using her talents to help another performer with their vocal work. It was a kind of training. So it’s not even as though she got the chance to spread her creative wings and practice her craft at its fullest for the sheer joy of it. She did contract training work. And yet she still felt bad for accepting her compensation.

It makes me more than a little angry that our culture has been set up this way, so that my brilliantly talented and already overworked wife would feel bad for being paid for her services, done in her extremely scarce spare time. And it happens to all manner of creative professionals, not just performers but writers and designers too. Because it’s “creative,” it doesn’t count as real work.

Get paid. If you also happen to enjoy that work? That’s the icing. And it’s irrelevant. Get paid fairly for your work and treat it like the business transaction it is. Everyone else does.

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culture Essays personal

Robin Williams and the False Promise of Success

robin_williams_on_inside_the_actors_studio
I have no idea why he did it. I have no special insight into whatever darkness weighed on the heart of Robin Williams. I haven’t even seen a Robin Williams movie since Man of the Year, which was terrible. But he’s someone I absolutely idolized as a young comedic performer, someone whose career I would have done anything to emulate. He was an early example for me of a performer who was utterly beloved entirely for his performances, for his talent and energy, for the laughs and pathos he was capable of bringing about, as opposed to his looks or some veneer of “cool.”

And while I can’t know what haunted him, I can relate to him both as a comic actor and as someone who struggles with depression. I think, in the immediate shock of the news of his apparent suicide, that Williams’ death gives the lie to the idea that I, and I’d suppose that millions of others who also live with depression, tell themselves: That if we can just reach a certain level of success, if we can just cross this undefinable threshold of validation, our hangups and sadness will be cured.

I know I think this. I don’t think it intellectually, of course, but it’s there. Something deep in my own mind, where I can’t yet correct it, believes this.

Robin Williams embodied a dream I once had of who I would become. He had reached the pinnacle of that ideal. But it didn’t cure him. Whatever his demons were (and again, I have no idea as to what they were beyond what is common public knowledge), they could not be erased by popularity, acclaim, awards, a guaranteed place in our cultural pantheon, or the laughter and tears of millions – billions? – of people.

I was in the audience for his Inside the Actors Studio appearance during my brief time at that school, and it was one of those evenings where he could do no wrong. He had this huge room of self-obsessed actors (many of whom probably already considered him yesterday’s news) howling with laughter, absolutely adoring him for his sharp and quick mind, and for his humanity. Because while he was cracking us up, between the frenetic barrages of wit and energy, he would pause, and he would reveal a little bit of his true self, showing us how vulnerable he really was.

Success won’t cure us by itself. That’s not what’s wrong. We have to find another way. I’m sure he tried. I wish he’d succeeded.