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Wednesday, November 25, 2009


As I mentioned in my description of Sleep No More, the entire audience is asked to don white plastic masks that cover the face fully and told to keep the masks on at ALL times.

The masks were my favorite device at work in the show, and I think it's because they were so simple, but multifunctional.

Who's Who
The first, and most utilitarian use of the masks is to separate actor from audience visually. In crowded dark hallways it is easy to find the characters, because they are unmasked. The rest of us fade into a non distracting (and dream like) backdrop of white faces.

The Audience as Aesthetic
The value of the backdrop of white masks goes further when you consider how eerie a constant presence of inexpressive faces really is. It's seriously creepy. What are those faces in the context of the scenes? We are the classical Greek chorus watching a tragedy but not stopping it. We are one lone character's invisible friend in a time of need. We are the demons pursing the tortured characters in their own nightmares. Or their guardian angels. Or maybe we're just part of the wall. The masks no longer simply delineate actor from audience but they blur the line between us at the same time. The masks are our own costumes and we become a tangible part of the show through them.

The masks also empower the audience to behave more boldly. With our faces (and by extension our identities) shrouded we were more free to follow, run, touch and explore, all of which was essential to the success of the play as a whole. Nobody has to look foolish. Because we're all Nobody. It similarly prevented anyone from actively disengaging (or cracking jokes or trying to "break" the actors) due to anxiety, which can often ruin intimate, interactive theater experiences. With their masks on, audience members are free to step closer or step back without self consciousness.

Sensory Deprivation and ASC
Our ability to sense air moving near our face an an important cue for sensing others near us in the dark, is restricted by the mask. So is peripheral vision, causing people to have to turn their necks further, and to focus more on what's directly in front of them. Loss of peripheral vision also makes a dimly room lit dimmer when the light source is beyond sight lines. Additionally, an altered state of consciousness (ASC) can be induced through the manipulation of sensory input, which in this case is achieved in a minimal way, through the masks. We feel different with the masks on because our brain is receiving information in a new way, and is sending signals back to our body that something strange is going on. In this state we are more susceptible to suggestion, creating a richer theatrical experience.

Every person, because of his mask, gets to react to the show as if he is seeing it alone. You could also say every person because of his masks has to react to the show as if he is seeing it alone.
Making the audience wear masks ensures that at any given moment individual members are reacting only to the deliberate cues within the show. Whether it's an entire scene or just a smell, no one can accidentally affect how anyone else perceives it.
Every person behind his or her own mask remains isolated, unable to seek information on anyone's face and equally unable to easily convey emotion to anyone else.

With our most effortless means of silent communication stripped away there is a loss of community, and of connectivity. But the same masks which taketh away also giveth. And in this instance what the masks provide is protection from the vulnerability that comes from losing your safety net. You're alone in the crowd, but the crowd will never know how you feel about that.

It's incredible what a plain white mask can do. The more I think about it, the more I am certain that the entire show would have been different, (and might not have even worked) without the very small addition of masking the audience.

I'm in awe of the enormous impact of such a simple thing.

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