I noticed I was feeling rather anxious as the weekend of 16th May approached. I’ve learnt over the years that, even if my head tells me that I’m calm, my body tells the truth. I admitted to myself that I had that undeniable feeling in my shoulders and my chest that I was unsettled or worried about something that might happen. I’d dabbled with mask work very briefly a few years back at a Keith Johnstone workshop and I’d found the very brief 15 second experience quite challenging. I remember that I’d tried really hard to act into the scary looking mask but it seemed it hadn’t been good enough and Keith had said “OK, take it off.” At least it was only 15 seconds of feeling like a mask failure. But now I was facing three whole days learning masks with acclaimed teacher Steve Jarand and a bunch of strangers. As I got off the train at Waterloo and wandered towards the venue (ridiculously early as usual) I felt a surge of anxiety that, whilst unpleasant, I have learnt to embrace as a sign that what I am about to do is something that is delightfully out of my comfort zone.
Three days later and I was feeling much happier having made a new friend. I think his name was “Mormo” – a guy with big bushy eyebrows and a black beanie hat. He looked to me like a Norwegian fisherman. I’m not sure how old he was or even if Mormo was his name. It was difficult to understand him because he sort of shouted rather than spoke and he only said his name once at some point during day two, so I may have misheard it. It was one of only a few words that he could say but I was astounded at his progress over the weekend. Mormo moved from being only able to stand and shout, to being able to sit and interact with Steve, to feeling some basic emotions, to eventually having a rather bizarre but sweet ‘date’ with a young lady called Susan. It was as if I was watching a brand new personality being written from scratch as, in short burst of 3 or 4 minutes Mormo learnt new things. Mormo was my mask. The only mask I had managed to ‘turn on’ over the space of the weekend and he now fascinated me.
What surprised me most about working with Mormo was that the experience was nothing like I had imagined. Previous experiments (eg. The masked innovation workshop I mention in Can Scorpions Smoke?) had got me curious as to the different levels of permission a mask can give the wearer to tap into their innate, spontaneously creative self. I’ve also written previously about my experience wearing a 6.5 foot lion costume in a corporate headquarters and how this experiment with identity altered my perceptions of power and status. But this work with the often-bizarre looking half masks (referred to by both Keith and Steve as “trance masks“) was something altogether different. I can only describe it as an experience of pure spontaneity, as if I was gradually building up layers of a brand new identity in short but intense spells. This process seemed to help bypass my habitual, ingrained patterns and beliefs about who I am and how I should be in the world much more than my previous mask experiments. My fear of the workshop soon evolved into a sense of excitement and liberation as, even after taking the mask off, I felt like I had given my sense of identity a good workout and dormant, creative parts of me had awoken.
There is a procedure in working with trance masks in this way that feels very important. It begins by witnessing yourself/the mask in the mirror, making an intuitive mouth shape that fits the face and then allowing a spontaneous sound to come. Over time one can turn these sounds into words, the jerky movements into fluid actions and eventually, with much more practice than a 3-day workshop allows, fully interact with others as a totally different person. I realised that my previous experience of failure with trance masks had been because I was trying too hard. Steve taught me that, at any point in time if I suddenly found myself in my head wondering what to do next or becoming self-conscious about what I was doing, I was to take the mask off as my own personality with all its boundaries and restrictions had leaked in causing me to overthink and thus diluting my spontaneity. Learning how not to ‘fake it’ was a big breakthrough for me in being able to tame and work with Mormo. As Keith Johnstone suggests in Impro “The mask dies when it is entirely subjected to the will of the performer.” In a similar way to meditation practice, each time I became aware of the subtle ways in which my own personality would creep back in I was able to return to the mask state for longer periods of time. With practice over the weekend I was eventually able to work with Mormo for up to 3 or 4 minutes before my cognitive self leaked back in. (It could have actually been 1 minute or 10 minutes – it’s difficult to track time in that state!)
I spent some time with Gestalt Psychotherapist, creative collaborator and friend Simon Cavicchia making sense of my experience. “What sounds really powerful is the way that the mask both highlights our familiar unconscious ways of organising our sense of self and reality and, at the same time, offers a doorway into freer and more spontaneous expression. From a Gestalt perspective this would potentially allow parts of our selves that have been lost under layers of social conditioning to be rediscovered, experienced and integrated – ideas about how we should be and learnt responses to various stimuli for example. The simple act of becoming more aware of this would extend our repertoire and range for responding more creatively to life’s challenges, freeing us from fixed and habitual responses. In this way, fixed and habitual patterns of self doubt might be supported to relax and hitherto constrained possibilities for creativity, freedom and expression might be found.”
Simon continued “A particular interest of mine is shame and how this can be kept in place by our inner critic – Freud’s “superego” – the part of our personality which observes and monitors how we are, finding fault and driving us to strive for ideals that often leave us feeling like failures and deficient in some way. Experimenting with masks could give expression to the superego part, taking on its character and energy, experiencing directly its tone and preoccupations in order to become less identified with it by seeing it for what it is. Fritz Perls was fond of inviting clients to dialogue between different parts of the self and mask work would allow for different parts to be taken on such as the superego and the more spontaneous part that is oppressed by it – what Perls called the “underdog”.
I continue to reflect on my mask experience and have come to realise that working with Mormo gave me an experience of allowing pure spontaneity to arise from somewhere other than intellect or thought, without an idealised image of myself (my top dog) to keep it in check. At some level I knew that that my absolute core values and ethics were still present (ie. I know I would not have done anything to compromise them) but the temporary absence of an idealised self-image meant that, in those moments, I did not inhibit myself through fear of experiencing shame. Simon and I continue to experiment using masks to explore different aspects of the personality: our top dog or superego, our underdog spontaneous creative selves, our habitual projections, our strengths and shadows (etc) and the thought of eventually bringing Mormo into the corporate environment gives me that familiar feeling of anxiousness that I had en-route to the workshop. An anxious feeling that Fritz Perls describes as being simply “unsupported excitement!”
On November 9th and 10th 2015 Steve and Simon Cavicchia are running an experimental workshop using creative techniques, including masks, to explore the personality and our “Inner Critic” and its effect on realising our full creative potential. Further information on this workshop can be found here.