the thousand masks story
October 1, 1989 12:01 PM

When I was thirteen. Or so. I was one of the arty kids at my snooty school [Don't you love these adjectives? It's very middle school.] We slid between singing and riding in the back of the bus to orchestral competitions to theatrical interpretations of folk tales.

There was a choral director who looked just like Santa Claus, and a song made up to the tune of something that sounded much better in Latin than in German about same.

There was a boy. A boy who made you tingle three feet from your skin and stumble over your tongue in that way movies can never, never get quite right. Actually. There were two. And a girl with that otherworldly curly hair who might be half crush, half model.

There was a theatre director who wore Sally Jesse glasses and vests with his sleeves rolled up all the time, walking like an excited vintage cartoon. You could hear zig zagging lines popping up around his words as they bubbled over his head.

There was a girl who always played maternal characters, if she got to play anything at all, and wasn't much for singing and was pathetically bad at flirting. Who recalls being a particularly vicious Cinderella's stepmother. Who was maybe wicked after all.

There was a dancer who always seemed eight feet tall and made of molasses.

And there was an experiment.

I tried out for plays. Lots of plays. I was generally not cast. For thirteen, I was too full in every direction. But the aforementioned vintage cartoon was fairly experimental for someone directing middle schoolers in productions of spooky folk tales. [I kid you not. I kid you not.] And so sometimes I got to do something interesting.

This is where the thousand masks story starts. It was the experiment.

There was this educator's conference at my snooty school. Adults came and were told how to talk to kids. And so, as part of that, I was recruited into this odd little play/staged reading thing.

It started:
I wear a mask.
I wear a thousand masks.
Masks that I am afraid to take off.
And none of them are me.

It was a play about being in high school. It was, you can imagine, surreal in that high school theatre way. We wore black and carried shining, expressionless masks. It was cliched. Yes, but it was fabulous.

There were four of us in the play. The two boys, and another arty girl I played harp with. She had a large nose and grating personality, but was also lovely - it's hard to explain. For some weeks or months, we were exempted from gym. Not exempted - but special. We did things that were athletic, but they were dance things. We learned a hundred irksome power yoga movements from the man of molasses. Sometimes he made us run.

Most times, there were the four of us in rehearsal. We were allowed to decide things, sweeping things about how we'd do the play, for the first time in our short theatrical careers. And we were just four, special. I fell in love with those people. We were good, we were talented. We had an experience.

And then we did the play, and things went back to usual. Ish.

My mother loved it. It was, I think, the only theatrical work I was in that she loved.

Things never one hundred percent go back to usual after a play. Not if it's any good at all. That experience, despite my perception of myself as a better musician than an actor, is what led me to a theatre high school, a theatre major, a theatre job. And finally, the thing I'd been looking for all along: a theatre life.

Because it was stepping away from reality. That play was most meaningful juxstaposed with my awkward life [I think I was fourteen, after all.]. But even as an adult, with a not so awkward life, that artistic "out" is something I need.

[Consider this entry subtitled "or how I was well and truly hooked by theatre". It was the thing that kept sticking in my head every time I thought of this month's On Display topic: masks.]

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