I Wear the Mask It Does Not Wear Me: A PAR performance in response to “Two Amerindians Visit…”

Research Question

 Upon reading “The Other History of Intercultural Performance” by Coco Fusco, I have become a little obsessed about several of the ideas Fusco and Gómez-Peña brought forward in their performance of Two Undiscovered Amerindians visit….  In particular, I find the relationship of both performers and audience to the site and situation of the performance event and how those factors encourage an audience to step into a role (whether knowingly or unknowingly) extremely fascinating.  Ruminating on the interconnectedness of site, situation, and relationship to an event inspired me to play around with these three elements in my third micro project, I Wear the Mask. It Does Not Wear Me.  

To some extent, I have incorporated site, situation, and relationship into all of my mirco-projects so far.  However, I Wear the Mask. It Does Not Wear Me. pushed me out of my comfort zone and into the center of the piece into the role of Performer.  As Performer, I was curious about returning to the question from Something to Chalk About?: how explicit does the invitation need to be for an audience member to engage in a participatory art event? (Friedgen 2020, “Something to Chalk About Portfolio” p. 6.). As a Director, I was interested in subverting audience expectations and creating a nebulous space where the 4th wall usually lies in a traditional, proscenium style performance.  In my pre-performance journal, I write: 

Sketchbook notes planting the seeds of the idea for I Wear the Mask. It Does Not Wear Me

The connection between the 4th wall of a play with the bars of the cage [in the Amerindians performance] intrigued me.…  I found myself asking, “What barriers do we place between ourselves and our audience? How do these increase safety or risk? For whom?”  

As a researcher, I wanted to explore how the “rules” or assumptions about behavior dictated by a specific site and/or situation shaped the audience/performer relationship.  I also wanted to observe how the audience responded to their role in this scenario as the rules of a traditional performer/audience relationship shifted. 

These interrelated goals organized themselves into the following questions:

  • What communication strategies, outside of speaking, are most effective in encouraging guided audience participation?
  • How can a performance create safe discomfort for its audience?  What reactions might an audience have to a safe discomfort?
  • How do site and situation communicate the role of an audience in traditional performance?  How does an audience react when one or more of these elements shift?

In playing with these questions as a performer, director, and researcher I hope to illuminate some hypotheses and further questions around active audience engagement in the context of a clear theatrical event.

Project Design

After reading Fusco’s piece, I began to imagine aspects of a performance that would eventually become I Wear the Mask. It Does Not Wear Me.  I wanted to create a situation in which the audience believed they were watching a traditional performance and then reverse the gaze mid-performance by breaking the fourth wall and revealing that the audience was the “real show”.  With this basic premise in mind, I imagined and sketched out a first draft of the show (Figure 2).  

I decided to incorporate the use of masks as a way to “other” myself from the actual audience.  In reflecting on the Fusco piece, I wondered how many audience members when looking back on their interactions would distance themselves or not from their behavior?  Would they say that they were just stepping into the role that the scenario and lifetimes of white-dominant patriarchal, colonial conditioning have instilled in them? Or would they react in the same way if they knew now that this piece was satire?  

Initially, I envisioned the performance would consist of the masked performer sitting and facing the audience with chairs behind her.  After watching the audience and playing some of the tactics listed (observe, mirror, admire, etc.), I would recruit an audience-performer to join me and reveal a second mask.  After placing the mask on their face we would watch the audience in a similar manner.  This premise would continue until the entire audience of our class had entered the playing space and I, as the performer, sat in the original audience space.  However, as I sat down to write a script for the performance, new ideas came into my mind. 

Sitting down to put my ideas onto paper, I experienced the crystallization of some of my ideas.  Having limited experience in playwriting, I found this a very effective way of visualizing each moment beat by beat.  It definitely helped me to refine the design of the performance.  I began to think about what behaviors and elements I could incorporate to reveal to the audience that they were the performance to the performer.  Writing in the pre-show announcement voiceover allowed me to make this clear.

As I wrote the script, I decided against multiple masks.  Part of me had always wanted to transfer my mask to the audience-performer, but this wouldn’t be possible in the original idea that would incorporate all audience members into the playing space.  Additionally, I was concerned about germs and audience comfort that might become an obstacle to full audience participation.  However, as I scripted my ideas I decided that transferring my mask to the audience-performer and limiting this micro project to only one audience-performer would be more evocative.

I then designed a one-on-one intimate experience for the audience-performer.  In this moment (featured above), I knew that I wanted to speak some words that would set up the language of the coronation, but I am a terrible dialogue writer.  On a lark, I googled “mask quotes” and came across the following quote from Jim Morrison:

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”

Initially, I dismissed it as too dense but then reflected on it in light of Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s work.  If the only “right” response to the Amerindians piece was for someone to let them out of the cage, then Morrison could be correct in stating that to have a social revolution, there must be thousands of individual revolutions that build to a critical mass and evolve into change.  Whispering these words to the audience-performer would frame their perception of the physical invitation which would initiate the second half of the performance.

Figure 3. The invitation.

The Invitation – Because I  decided to use only one mask for the performance, I felt like I needed a way for the audience to clearly give consent.  Stealing directly from Complimentary Currency, I designed a notecard with washi tape and hand wrote the invitation to proceed.  I debated about how much detail I needed to include in the invitation.  I had to balance this ethical consideration with the desire not to give too much away to the audience-performer.  I went back to my notes and Fusco’s article to find inspirational text.  Reading her statement, “Imagine that I stand before you then, as did Kafka’s character, to speak about an experience that falls somewhere between truth and fiction” I typed an idea that jumped into my head: “Will you join me in the place between truth and fiction?  I then added Picasso’s quote “Art is the lie that makes you realize the truth” (Figure 1) which continued to haunt me as I returned time and again to the Amerindian piece and the design of this micro project.

Figure 4. Excerpt from my notes on Fusco’s article.

Devising the Ending – 

Initially, I wrote the ending without the clown nose.  The audience-performer would be crowned with my mask, we would sit together and watch the audience and that would be the ending.  The night before our class a clown nose came up in rehearsal for The Crucible.  This shook another layer loose as I realized that I could continue to keep a mask on for the audience, even though I would allow myself to be revealed to my audience-performer.    The clown nose would also allow me to preserve my otherness and maintain the intimacy that the audience-performer and I would share since they would be the only person to ever see my full face.

In the final moments of rehearsal, I discovered a lovely bookend moment to end on.  I brought in some lifesaver mints for the audience and planned to struggle with opening one when the pre-show announcement invited people to open their candy wrappers.  I realized however that when I was wearing the neutral mask in my rehearsal before class I didn’t have any way to eat the candy.  However, by the time I switched into the clown nose, I would have use of my mask.  That felt like it would make a suitable ending for me – enjoying a snack as I watched the audience watch me.