I know that some people may think that this is evil or that I was being guided by demonic forces. I will ask you to set that thought aside for a moment, and simply consider what I have to say. If you read this all the way through, you may form a different opinion.
Taking off masks by putting them on: A journey into self-discovery via mask work
By K.T Klay
Within each of us is a side that we hide from others and may even be hiding from ourselves. This is something I have understood to be true, but recently experienced it first hand in a powerful and life-waking journey of self-discovery. This journey came in the form of the study, creation of, and then presenting of masks in my college Improv class.
In the spring of 2016, I enrolled in the “Acting Improvisation” class at my local junior college. Most people think of stand-up comics when they think of “Improv.” While comedy is often the result of these acting sessions, the main point is to teach the students how to react to odd “unscripted” situations in acting. Konstantin Stanislavski is considered to be the father of modern acting. He defined acting as, “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” Improv is part of that. Part of the class includes the study of Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) and Commedia dell’arte which is a improv acting style that involves the use of masks and certain “stock” character styles that go along with those masks. In preparation for the “mask” work, we are given an assignment to create our own masks. I want to note that while this is actually the second time I’ve taken the class, it is the first time I have been able to complete the “mask” project. This is where the real journey of discovery…and the point of this paper…begin.
When I first too the class, we spent an extended time studying masks, how they are created, the origins, how they are (or were) used in different cultures, and how they are used today. One of the common themes I heard from mask-makers of old and the modern creators of masks, is that the masks “came to them.” Now to be clear, there was not a knock on the door and then a mask standing there saying “Hello, I’m your mask.” Nor was there a phone call or text to that effect. What they said was that they cleared their minds and the masks would “come to them” in their cleared mind. Others said that the masks came in dreams. Still others said that they sat down with materials, cleared their minds and began creating. I took all this to heart as I looked, studied, and then prepared to create my mask. In the end, the mask …or masks…showed themselves to me and guided me.
“How could you be guided and called by an inanimate object? This is crazy…wrong…evil…” If you remember my opening statement, “Within each of us is a side that we hide from others and may even be hiding from ourselves,” you will understand (as I now do) that this mask came from inside me. It came from my life, experience, hurts, fears, and desires. As I blanked my mind, those items bubbled up so I could release them and (literally) face them.
What I saw when I blanked my mind, was a face with a mask. The mask was a half-face mask, much like the one you see in pictures for the musical, “The Phantom of The Opera.” The face under the mask was a twisted, contorted, monstrous, terrifying raw mess. I knew how I wanted to make it and what I wanted it to look like. I figured out the mechanics of suspending the “pretty” half-face over the “monster” that was under it. I researched to find out what materials I needed and what would work best. I then began my work.
Creation of masks, prosthetics, costumes and such are not really new to me. From the time I was young, I wanted to be in the movies. I studied special effects, costumes, and make up effects. I worked with them on an amateur level for a long time. Often, I won costume contests with wholly original creations and work. For a while, I even was one of those guys who went to the Star Trek conventions in costume, again, often receiving special recognition for what I was wearing. It was always a treat to have people come and want to take a picture with me, and I think I enjoyed that more than the contests that I won. Even with all that experience under my belt, the task I was beginning was like none that I had experienced.
One of the requirements for the project was that I was not to look at myself with the mask on until my appointed time in class. This was not easy, since the “under-mask” was created using the same casting material that is used in making casts for broken limbs. The under mask was molded directly on my face. Having studied Hollywood style masks in the past, I knew that I needed to have my face “greases” or the mask would become a more permanent cover. Even after generously greasing my facial hair with petroleum jelly, I still ended up with hair in the plaster. I guess I can genuinely say that there is more of me in this than just time, effort and creativity. When it came off, the monster was all I wanted and more. In the plaster, I saw muscle, and sinew, and bone, and blood, and hanging, rotten flesh; I painted it according to what I saw as I looked at it. I saw that it needed teeth. What perfect, monstrous teeth I found what I tore apart a pinecone. The teeth were painted white….but needed more so they got a layer of blood, and chunks of flesh form victims it had attacked and torn apart,; devouring their very being. That being done to my satisfaction, I moved to the “pretty face.”
The pretty mask was easy to create because it did not need to be on my face. Since the monster that would be the majority of it was fitted to my face, and since it would be suspended from that under mask, I was not concerned with fit. I took a store-bought mask, covered up the eye hole that would be on the side that would remain, and began to make it pretty. White, porcelain skin, a rosy, demure smile, bright, shiny eye, eyebrows made of feathers, and colorful hair made of the same colorful feathers. Looking at it, I fell in love. It was beautiful…but still was missing something; a small teardrop on the side that would be cut away so the ugly could peer through. This is where the masks really took over.
I prepared the drill, pegs, screws, and glue that would support the pretty mask when I suspended it over the ugly. I grabbed my precision cutting blade, and prepared to make the cut…..but I couldn’t. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to destroy the pretty mask. A mixture of emotion swept through me. On one hand, I needed to destroy the one to create the other. On the other hand….I had to destroy the beauty so the ugly could show….I couldn’t do it. I knew, however, that the masks belonged together; beauty over the monster. A thought I would have a year to contemplate.
As it turns out, I was not able to present my mask in 2016. I had been delayed in creating it because of finances. By the time I was able to bring it to class, it was too late to present it; I was heartbroken. The masks went up on my wall and then into a sealed box in storage. One year later, they came out as I returned to class to present them. I almost was not able to make my presentation as I had trouble getting to storage and retrieving them, but all things worked out.
In watching people with masks, I have seen an interesting truth: masks allow certain anonymity, and people often do terrible things while wearing masks. They also become things that they are not (or you wouldn’t expect) them to be. I too have experienced this in the past with costumes. When someone puts on a soldier’s uniform, they become a soldier…even if they are not. I’ve seen mild-mannered people slip into “alien” clothes and prosthetics and become loud, aggressive Klingon Warriors. Once, I put on a costume that was a hooded purple robe with a black mesh shroud for my face (think of a Star Wars Jawa but purple instead of brown) and found I could not speak. How many films have we seen where masked and/or robed figures commit atrocities. How many people do terrible things on Halloween (in costume) that they wouldn’t do normally? Watching people in 2017, and now in 2017, I saw some of the same.
There is a difference in the behavior of one who ‘allows” things to come out when they are “masked” and those who are closed and think it’s stupid. There is also a difference in those who throw a project together because it’s required and those who really pour themselves into the process. In this mask project, you are not allowed to see yourself in the mask until you stand before the class. In this process, the student sits, puts the mask on, and then closes their eyes. A mirror is placed before them and they are told to open their eyes. The result shows a lot about the person, and what went into the project.
Some people put on their masks, open their eyes, and are the same person wearing a mask. You can feel that (for whatever reason) they are self-conscious and don’t want to really let anything flow. Self-discovery is scary and is not for everyone. I can respect that. Other people put their masks on and there is a total transformation. Some people put on the mask and they are bubbly, funny, exciting, and energetic; they may or may not be that way normally. Other people put on masks and become something totally dark, strange, and scary. One classmate who was normally funny and energetic put on a mask and could not speak….could barely move. Others have turned into strange alien or animalistic creatures that grunt or move in strange ways. What I find interesting is what happens when the masks come off.
Within each of us is a side that we hide from others and may even be hiding from ourselves. When we allow it to, putting on a mask allows part of that which is within us to come out. Sometimes what comes out is scary, sometimes it is strange, sometimes it is beautiful, sometimes it is funny…but it is always powerful when it is real. It doesn’t matter what the experience brings out, when someone has been open (even a little) to what may or may not happen, they are changed when the mask comes off. When the created mask goes on, the “fake” masks….the masks we wear every day to hide from ourselves and others come off….we are changed. Sometimes people walk away happy, and feel freer than ever. Other times they got off sobbing with what they have experienced and released. There is an unknown future when you are open to the experience. This unknown can cause excitement or fear, and it was the latter I was feeling as I sat looking down at my masks.
In my left hand I held the pretty mask and the monster was held in my right. As I waited, I gazed down at the pretty face and noticed the sadness. I looked at the monster…and was fearful. What would happen? The mask terrified me. What was the sadness? What was this beast?
“Who’s next?” the professor asked.
“I will go.” The words came out of my mouth as if someone else had spoken through me. I took a moment to talk about my masks and the process of creating them. I explained that they were one mask even though they were two and explained why. The time had come. A year after the assignment was due, I was there to turn it in; I was there to find out what these were and why they had come to me. Terrified of what may happen, I sat in the chair, and donned the monster, and then the outer pretty face, and closed my eyes. “Deep breaths….deep breaths” I opened my eyes and gazed at the pretty face…the Beautiful face in the mirror. The mirror was small so it was hard to see, but I began to take it all in.
I started to laugh! I was happy. I was excited. I was beautiful. I was loved. I was nervous. I was scared….but it was time to celebrate! My guests had arrived! I’d greet them and make them laugh and be the life of the party….scared they’d see the monster underneath. I’d get them so busy and happy that they’d forget about their problems…I’d forget about mine….and we could all forget about the monster underneath….or so I thought.
“Why are you sad?” The question caught me off guard. I deflected it, “Oh…these are happy tears! I’m just so happy to see you all!” The fear inside me grew….”Don’t let the monster out! Don’t let them see.”
“I sense you’re holding something back,” the professor’s voice rang out from behind me, “Come and sit down. I’d like you to show us what’s under your mask.”
“I don’t want you to see! I don’t want to let it out!” I screamed in my head, but sat down and began to remove the Beautiful mask. As I loosened the laces that held on “Beautiful”, I trembled. “What will happen? What is this monster? Rage? Anger? Hate? Violence? The true moment of self-discovery and growth had arrived; I was about to find out what or who this monster really was.
Under the mask, my body began to tremble. I was cold, and afraid. My body shook with fear, sobs, and terror, but it was not terror of the monster and what it would do; it was terror of what the others would do. I wanted to run, I wanted to hide, I wanted to tear down the walls that held me inside. I make fun with a U2 song, but it sums up what I felt. Even as I write this, I cry and sob….I needed a laugh. This “Monster” was not a monster; it was not some raging beast, the bloody, gore covered teeth were not covered with blood and gore of victims, but rather “victim.” The blood was my own. The rotting flesh was my own. I looked that way not because I WAS a monster but rather because I had been made that way because of their jealousy, hate, and lies of others. I had been turned into a monster by their beatings, lies, and abuse because they were jealous of my beauty. This was me! This was the real me I had been hiding from. The “Beautiful” mask was the “me that was” before the “monster” was created and the monster had created the “Beauty” mask to hide its pain (my pain) and try to get back what was wrongfully taken. I was paralyzed by my own shame, fear and pain.
“You can put the ‘Beautiful’ mask back on or you may remove the one you wear now,” the professor said. For what seemed like 20 minutes, I sat unable to move. Then he told me to close my eyes, breathe, and then remove my mask. I complied. But the paralysis continued, I had to get help getting back to sit.
Was this manufactured? Was it made up? Was it created by demonic entities that were influencing me? Was it just an outcry for attention? I say “No.” This cathartic moment was an opening for a release of truths that I have hidden, partially from others and partially from myself.
I am fond of saying, “My life’s an open book.” And indeed, if you ask, I will tell. I have experienced atrocities, injustices, and attacks because of people’s jealousy and their own issues and insecurities projected on me. I have been in places and experienced things that no person should ever have to experience or be. These have made me seem like a monster to some, and some people use that against me even now. I hide the monster because some cannot deal with it, even as I had trouble with it. Yet, all I want is to be loved, accepted, and be seen as Beautiful, again.
I hide the pain, shame, and hurts from everyone…even myself. This mask project has allowed me to take off the mask that I wear every day, the mask I hide behind, and see what I hide from myself and others. For me the masks were a catalyst that allowed me to remove a “band-aid” and gaze at wounds that need to heal. There were no demons, no angels, no monsters, no saints, just me, my mask, my pain.
The time has come to remove the mask and pursue healing and wholeness for my wounds. By putting on a mask, I was able to learn to take them off.