Greek masks in historical theater have been each sensible and ritualistic; they allowed performers to alter roles and genders, and likewise to let an immortal howl out of a face that grew to become 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 nearly supernatural energy within the actor. However masked theater within the West is now uncommon, and the actual genius of most New York actors is they’ll make us consider that they’re revealing themselves totally whereas they’re actually masked by a job. So, two weeks in the past, we within the viewers sat in precise masks, in reverent silence, seeing the actors’ bare faces as soon as once more, feeling the unimaginable heat of communal theater.
Lastly being collectively once more in an viewers felt miraculous, and likewise — 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 be taught a brand new interest or two, and are available 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 one one within the theater group who feels oddly dislocated now; the quarantine itself was terrible however had a glacial readability about it; at the least one knew what to do — one stayed put. Now that theater, dance and music (our secular New York City worship rituals) are again, there’s celebration, and, I discover, a way of floating oddly — in a panorama that ought to really feel like dwelling.
If I believed there can be a knife-edged readability to the return to the theater, as if I might stroll within the door of my childhood dwelling and decide up proper the place I left off, the nice and cozy mug nonetheless on the desk the place I left it — I used to be mistaken. The liquid within the mug must be warmed. The mirrors must be dusted. Can we nonetheless acknowledge our faces in those self same mirrors we’ve been accustomed to utilizing, to verify our identities within the eyes of the folks we belief and work with?
I SUSPECT that, behind our masks proper now, a few of us don’t even really feel able to smile but. Methods to return to life after a protracted sickness as a person, or as a theater group, or as a physique politic, particularly when there’s not a transparent return to well being? And how one can acknowledge the losses, the transformations, the seismic gaps?
After I bumped into colleagues on the theater not too long ago, 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, within the final yr and a half, had had a wedding break up; or an adolescent going by a psychological well being disaster; or misplaced a dad or mum, an aunt, a cousin, a partner; who was affected by lengthy Covid; who may not be capable to afford paying the hire. So to ask “How are you?” 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 within 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 previous rehearsal rooms, studios, and places of work 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 within the coming months, allow us to be tender with each other. Allow us to be affected person as we relearn the attractive, and as soon as computerized, act of smiling nose to nose.
Sarah Ruhl is a playwright, essayist and poet residing in Brooklyn. Her new ebook is “Smile: The Story of a Face,” revealed by Simon & Schuster.