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Unmasking

By Gwendolyn Schwinke, GCFP


I recently heard the great stage and film actor Ben Vereen speak with the students at the university where I teach acting and voice for actors. One of the things Mr. Vereen said to our students was that in live theatre, the audience doesn’t come only to hear the story, they come to see the actor’s soul. Mr. Vereen’s comment resonated with me, and reminded me of what my wise and demanding acting teacher used to say:  the actor’s job is to explore and reveal.

When I meet the freshmen who are entering our professional actor training program, I find they often assume that acting means acting “like” someone else: putting on a character as if putting on a mask. But quite the opposite is true. Moshe Feldenkrais pointed out we all wear “masks of personality.” In Awareness Through Movement, Feldenkrais writes, “The great majority of people live active and satisfactory enough lives behind their masks to enable them to stifle more or less painlessly an emptiness they may feel whenever they stop and listen to their heart.” That pain and emptiness is just as common an experience for actors as it is for the overall population, but, for actors, to live behind a mask means never fully revealing the soul – never doing the work one is meant (and hired) to do.

The good news is that discovering and unmasking the true self can be thrilling, an act of risk and intimacy that makes live theatre truly unique. In working with actors, from accomplished professionals to beginners, I find that the greatest assistance I can offer is to be a supportive guide or witness who helps with that process of exploring and revealing the self.

I recall one actor whom I’ll call Beth (not her real name). She was a tiny, beautiful woman with impeccable hair and clothes. And a perfect smile. Beth had become so successful in presenting a pleasant face to the world, that not only did she smile when she was happy, she smiled when she was sad, she smiled when she was angry, she smiled all the time! We had several conversations that went something like this:

Me: What are you, as your character in this scene, feeling right now?

Beth: I’m really angry in this moment in the piece.

Me: Then why are you smiling?

Beth: Darn it! Am I smiling again?!? Why am I smiling?

Beth began a brave and diligent exploration of herself, motivated by her desire to be an actor who could live in a wide range of roles. I don’t have the space here to do justice to her process, but a key component for Beth lay in giving herself permission to be something other than perfect. As part of our work together, I talked with her about something I had learned from the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education: that if we can become really interested in what we are doing instead of being interested in whether or not we are doing it right, whole new worlds will open. Beth was able to explore this concept in a practical way through the Awareness Through Movement® lessons we did in my class. One important lesson for Beth involved subtle movements of the mouth and face—she was able to feel what she was doing in a way that allowed her to relax her habitual smile. Afterwards, her classmates told her that she looked like a different woman. In that moment, she was no longer “perfect,” but she was even more beautiful than before, because she allowed her inner self to be seen. Beth continued exploring, applying this lesson and others to her acting and by the end of our class, she was tackling emotionally challenging roles with ease—but not always with a smile.

Sometimes a “mask of personality” can be a full-body mask. One summer I was at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts—a place that has contributed a great deal to my understanding of acting and teaching. I was teaching voice for actors and helping coach actors’ scenes and monologues in the Summer Training Institute. One of our students (“Sherrie”) was playing Kate in a scene from Taming of the Shrew. Sherrie was lively and funny with an engaging, sunny personality. Physically, she presented herself in a very contemporary posture. Her knees were hyper-extended (what people often refer to as “locked”), her pelvis was thrust forward but tilted back, her upper spine has an exaggeratedly rounded curve and her head was thrust forward. This curving, super-casual stance reflected her delightfully wacky image. It was her mask of personality—she seemed to be saying to the world, “I’m fun and I’m harmless; don’t take me too seriously.” This way of moving through life was satisfactory enough for Sherrie—but it wasn’t serving her as Kate. In her approach to the role, she kept banging up against a particular wall: Kate’s remarkable combination of strength and vulnerability. She could rant and rail at her Petruchio, but she could never truly stand up to him. And when she allowed herself to be affected by Petruchio’s boorish treatment, she just gave up—and became, not as Shakespeare would have it, a “bonny Kate and Kate the curst,” but a depressive and most bathetic Kate. 

I had a hunch that if Sherrie could explore a more natural skeletal alignment, it could help her expand her acting options. In one rehearsal, she played the scene with her partner while I stood behind her and followed her around. I gently touched the back of her knees, reminding her to keep them available for movement; I lightly touched her hip bones, encouraging a more neutral use of her pelvis; sometimes as she stood or walked, I supported her skull so that her spine could find its full height. Near the end of the scene, I stepped away and she continued acting, incorporating the awareness she had been discovering. She stood tall and free—finally this Kate met her Petruchio as an equal. At the end of the scene, the actor playing Petruchio reported his amazement and delight in this new Kate; not only was her physical and mental presence stronger, but the scene was more fun, more engaging, because she was more present in it. I asked what she had discovered, and she replied, “I found Kate’s spine.” We discussed how a natural spine is both supportive and free. And how Kate, secure in her strength, her sense of self, can allow the vulnerability that makes this play more than just a physical romp. Best of all, Sherrie gave herself permission to borrow “Kate’s spine” for her own use.

If Gwendolyn’s article piqued your interest, consider exploring these themes in her upcoming workshop, “Behind the Mask” at the 2013 Feldenkrais Method® Annual Conference in San Mateo, CA on August 31, 2013. For more information, go to:
http://www.feldenkrais.com/events/conference/2013_public/conf_event/5660

Gwendolyn Schwinke, MFA, teaches voice for actors and acting in the BFA program at Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, SC. She is also a professional director, voice and text coach, playwright, actor, and a proud member of Actors Equity. She has been a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Teacher® since 1997 and a Designated Linklater Voice Teacher since 2007.

Oxford Shakespeare Festival pictures by Jordan Berger.

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