Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Getting Out Of My Own Way

Click Here For A Mysterious Epilogue That Was Originally Meant To Be Read As A Prologue =-)

Screwing Up The Clay.

A week or so into the workshop we all lined up to be handed a slab of clay from Sue.

Sue literally had these towers of heavy gray clay which she divvied up by taking the kind of lace they attach to balloons and wrapping it around the top two or three inches. She'd then pull on it in opposite directions, easily slicing off a thick, moist, flattened cube. We took this and then chose a square of particle board to work on and found a place to sit. Then we took the clay and smoothed it around a plastic bag that was full of crumpled newspaper. It was clear why were doing this - to create the foundation of the eventual mask - to create a clean slate to build upon. The reason(s) behind the rest of the stuff we were about to do, that was still up for grabs.

Sue was then going to guide us through an exercise that included elements of others we had been working on the week before involving letting our bodies interpret different colors.

After everyone finished smoothing our their clay, most of them looking like the top of these eerily featureless three-dimensional ovals. Like a mannequin must look like before it gets its face printed on in the factory. Done, we all stood up and gathered in a circle. The mask that we were about to make was called One North. This was mask one of six. To face all directions of yourself at once, to see yourself from every angle, we had learned that this was the goal of clown.

Now we had to get our bodies to embody One North before we actually touched the clay. The mask was already inside us, already existed, now all we had had to was bring it out. To let our hands uncover its features. Or something like that. All I know is that we weren't supposed to have pre-conceived notions of what our masks would look like. We couldn't come to class that morning, for example, thinking today I'm going to make a happy mask and for my next one I'm going to make a sad mask. Or an angry one. We weren't even supposed to think about making a mask at all. All we had to do was follow our impulses. To assist with this, after we embodied the mask's sound in our bodies, from the moment we laid our hands on the clay to actually sculpt it, we would have to have our eyes shut for the entire process.

All of us standing in a circle, dried clay flaking off our fingers from all the smoothing we had just done, Sue guided us with something very similar to this:

"Put your feet on the floor. One North. The breath for One North is you breathe in through your mouth and out through your asshole. Yes. Let's do that. Breathe in your mouth and out through your asshole. Now choose a place somewhere in your body to make an opening to invite your Clown Gods in. To give yourself permission to take this direction. To be in One North. And it's happening. It's already happening now. Breathe. Good. Breathe. In through your mouth and out through your asshole. No associations with anything literal in One North. It's just a direction. It's just some words...."

Then Sue would walk around the outside of the circle, and would rub each student's back. More of a circular wipe than a rub, it was as if your back was being cleared of whatever image was there previously. Then she'd use her finger to spell first the number "1" and then the letter "N." She then blew a wisp of air between your shoulder blades. You felt this and then you were free to walk away, to move through the space with the breath of One North running through your body.

"One North in your feet and in your ankles. One North in your calves and in your knees. Breathe in through your mouth and out through your asshole. Everything is in One Movement. You don't have to push. You don't have to work harder, you have to work softer. One North. Breath. One North. You need to get out of the way so One North can fill the body up. Good. In our feet and ankles. Calves and knees. One North. Small of the back. Between the shoulder blades. Explore all possibilities. Whatever you come upon, you do it. Indulge yourself with whatever that is! Good! Beautiful! Beautiful everybody!

"In your hips, in your breath, in your chest. In your crotch, in your bum, in your genitals. Exactly! Good! Let it happen!"

By this point, everyone was moving through the space in very different, unique ways. To give an idea, for all these exercises, there's usually one person who cowers and is completely out of it, another who runs across the floor with life or death zeal, another who dances with abandon, and then someone who walks really really slow. It changes up. But at no time does anyone's movements ever look anywhere near exactly the same as someone else's. For this one, my arms were stretching into the air, pointed, the way gymnasts do when they warm-up. The way I saw it the air was coming through my mouth and bursting out my ass, pushing me higher and higher. Jumping between breaths to reach the ceiling, I had no idea if I was doing this exercise right but having really messed up Creator & Masterpiece, the least I could do was give it a chance.

"Now drop into a crouch and add the sound."

We had been told how to make the sound to this mask in advance - it was the same as its name - "One North." When it came time to say it out loud, though, we had to follow it with "Feh. Feh." Sue explained that we used one "Feh" to match each syllable of "One North." To make sure our abdomen was bound up in the exclamation. To get more of our body devoted to being one with the sound. So that however you said it, the words would always come out in this order, "One North. Feh. Feh."

"One-North. Feh. Feh. That's it! One-North. Feh Feh. Perfect! One-North. Feh. Feh. Yes! Thank you! Thank you!"

Once you thought your body was more or less aligned with "One North" you were supposed to wander up to Sue to have her check out what you were doing. If she told you you were good or gave you a super compliment like "Excellent!", you could go mold your mask.

After Sue had checked my movements, (I was good) I quickly made my way back to my clay and shutting my eyes as instructed, went to work. My hands on the cool moist clay the first thought that came to my head was to elongate the top of the oval outline I had made previously. That felt like it symbolized how I felt stretching in the air. North-like. Except it came out like a cute little top-hat. From there I started to build this ridge along the entire edge of the mask. When I got to the upper left and right side it just felt natural to pull outwards on the ridge, creating what felt like these cartoon character ears. Then I went in the middle and mushed together a nose. It was at this point I envisioned the mask looking like a standard clown face. Then it dawned on me that this was the exact thing that we were not suppossed to do. I suddenly felt really guilty because I realized I was building my vision of a mask and not letting my hands just do their thing. I kept at it, though, trying to reconcile the smile that I had irrevocably built into the clay because of the upturned curve on both the top and the bottom. Already, I really didn't like this mask but if I was going to make a cliche clown mask, at the very least I didn't want it to be a happy one. The thing was, though, that there was no way to make this guy frown! Even when I added a gentle upside down "U" it just made him look like he had this big gaping mouth. My eyes still closed, my fingers struggled to find a way to undo the clown face. To start over without really starting over. Finally, I settled on making the mask assymetrical and split his big mouth in two with another wavy ridge. He still seemed to scream happiness although it did make me feel a little better.

I was one of the last ones to finish. Getting up, my eyes now open, I went over to Sue who was finishing a lesson on what to do next. This included slathering the clay with vaseline and after that tearing and applying small pieces of newspaper alternating with brown paper lunch bags to build the layers of paper-mache.

I was a bit intimidated by the designs of other peoples' masks:

Walking around, I was immediately awestruck by Christina's mask in particular. She had studied at the School of Dell Arte and was a professional mask maker from San Francisco. The contour of her mask was flawless and its sole feature, a serpent that slithered up its center and whose triangular head exceeded past the top, was extremely powerful.

I told her how I thought hers was really awesome and she said thank you. I then told her how all I could think of was a silly clown face. Nose and all.
And she said something like, "That's totally fine - that's where you are and wherever you are is perfect."
And I said, "I don't know, I don't think I really listened to the instructions."

The other mask that really caught my eye was Gabriel's, who was sitting on Christina's left. His final product looked like all he had done was mush his fingers around in the clay until they had had enough and then called it quits.

His mask was completely non-descript and at the same time still full of so much potential. I felt like his was one of the only masks that was made with the instructions in mind. As if he just let his hands be the representatives of his body, free to do what they wanted without any thoughts or vision in mind. Not a mask as much as a free-associated creation of his hands that would eventually be worn.

The Paint Job.

A few days later, the paper-mache had dried and with various degrees of difficulty we pulled the clay out. With the hollow that the absent clay created, for the first time we could start to get a feel for where our faces would fit and how this really was going to become a mask we could wear. We then painted our masks with a foundation of acrylic white paint. Once the white paint had dried, it was time to add the colors.

To do this, we all had to find a spot in the space to lie down on. On thick gymnastics mats, on the carpeted stage, or on old couch cushions. It didn't matter. Next to each of us was our mask, a water color tray, a cup of water, and at least one paintbrush. We also had a piece of drawing paper with an outline of our mask with all its curves and ridges and some kind of writing utensil.

Similar to the process we had to go through before we could mold the clay, we had to be put under again before we could add any colors. I say "put under" because that's what it sounds like. But really, it doesn't feel like that at all. It doesn't even feel like day-dreaming. It just feels like relaxing for a few minutes before trying to relate to whatever Sue was about to ask to imagine. All of us lying down in the space, our eyes naturally closing due to the bright stage lights overhead, it was easy to forget where we were. To maybe leave our bodies or find another way to drift away. That, however, was not the point.

"Take a moment to feel yourself arrive here in this space. We want your body on the floor and in the space...You feel the total unconditional support of this floor under your body... You don't have to hold anywhere because the floor will hold you...Your skin will hold you...This skin thing holds you all together -- It's very nice and well-designed...

"Now make a space between your bones and feel that space loosen. Every place where your bones meet, feel that space loosen just a little bit. Feel yourself stretch. And make a little opening somewhere in your body. Let your clown gods in. Give yourself permission to experience this thing...

"Now take your colors through your body. You want there to be like a sun over your body. A very hot, warm sun. And there's going to be a beam of red light that's going to come down from the sun. It's going to touch your body. Connect to your body somewhere. Perfect red light. Your own perfect shade of red. However you see it, feel it, think it. Red. Bones, breath. Good. Inhale. Exhale. We receive the red, we exhale the red. Belly. Transforms itself to orange. Orange bones, breath. Vibration. Orange - inside, outside. Tongue, bones, feet...Transforms itself to yellow. Yellow. Yellow. Yellow ears, cheeks, bum. Yellow knees...

This would go on through four more colors: blue, green, indigo, & purple. Until finally we were awash in white. Whenever we were ready we could sit up and with our eyes closed move our hands over the mask. When we felt a color in our fingertips, we were supposed to write it down on our mask's outline. Then go back to the mask and search for more. Until we thought we were done.

What Sue had said was:

"We don't look at it like, 'Oh, It would be nice if this was a nice sky blue with a hint of rose.' It's what this is going to feel like..."

The thought passed through my head that I might not be able to pull this off. I wondered what would happen if when I touched the mask, I wouldn't be able to feel any colors at all. But that's actually the opposite of what happened. When I first touched the mask, I felt a color right away. It just happened to be the one color in the one place I didn't want to have anything to do with.

The first part of the mask I touched just happened to be the center - where the nose was. And the first color that came to my mind was red.

I already had a really bad relationship with my mask. While making the six layers of paper mache over the past day or two, I still couldn't reconcile that I had made a happy clown face. I was here to take a workshop on theatre clowning, not circus clowning. And a perfectly positioned unmistakably globular red nose would definitely get in the way of that! If only I had focused a little bit harder on the original instructions...When I touched the mask again, I placed my fingers back on the nose and told myself to focus. Maybe red was just me messing with myself. Or maybe just because it's the natural first thought and I should have been more prepared to let it go. It didn't take long before I swore I felt another color. Indigo. I immediately imagined what the nose would look like with that color and this felt like a dark, dreary, depressed clown. Too postmodern. Wait, but I'm not supposed to imagine what the colors would like. To let go off any vision of the final product. Ok, ok. What about a compromise? Violet. Sure.

The nose wasn't the end of my problems. Figuring out the rest of the mask, I spent so much second-guessing myself that people were already starting to paint when I was still stuck deciding on if my fingers were sensing green or blue. Was the ridge really all one color or was that just me looking for order? I think the eye-shield is yellow but that feels like something that would've gone with a red nose, not really a violet. Shoot. I kept snapping my eyes open to write colors down on the paper outline of the mask, only to write other colors right over them when I'd feel a different one on a separate run. Eventually I just opened my eyes and started painting. I looked at my map of the mask to guide me but it was completely useless.

I knew to paint the nose violet but when it came to the rest of the mask the only thing I could do was imagine what those colors should be without thinking about them aesthetically. I actually made an attempt at doing this before I realized that that was impossible.

After painting the eye-shield so many different colors that no matter what I did I couldn't get rid of the resulting brown, I gave up.
This is as far as I got:

Staring at my mask, I knew that giving up in the long-term wasn't an option I could take. I had already come so far - geographically speaking at the very least. I needed to give myself a second chance.

One of the girls in our class came up to me and saw me staring at my mask. It might have been Christina again but I can't remember. She told me she thought my mask was wild, and seeing all the white, asked if I was finished with it.
I said, "Not really. I'm just going to do it again."
She said, "You mean finish it later?"
"No, just put on another layer of white and start over."
"But you can't do that."
"You don't understand, I wasn't paying attention. I did a lot of things wrong. A lot of my colors were off-topic. My thoughts were all over the place!"
"But those were your thoughts so it's fine."
Maybe her mind wasn't so muddled that she couldn't relate. So I took my argument in a different direction: "My eyes, they were open for a good chunk."
She smiled, perhaps embarrassed for me. "Oh..."

I waited for the water colors to dry and then when class was over took what I now equated with a large bottle of white-out and began to undo my mistakes.

Mart was sitting at a table that was close by and feeling guilty, I went out of my way to explain to her what I was doing.
After I was finished, she asked, "Are you going to tell Sue?"
Not having really though about this, I instinctually said, "No."
She then she said, "Why? Because you're pretty sure she'd say don't?"
"Well, yeah."

Once the entire mask was covered in white, I took it and a clean piece of drawing paper to the back of the theatre. I also brought all the necessary water color stuff. I went up the stairs on the right and then went behind the huge black curtain which was draped over the stage. Behind the curtain, I was shrouded in darkness and all alone. All of which was perfect for what I was about to do. I laid down on the floor and shut my eyes. Then I ran all the colors through my head. Sue's meditation in an express version. Red in my bones. Transforms to orange. Yellow in my entire body. Blue belly. Green teeth. Flooded in indigo. Cells shining in violet light. I could do this. I wanted to feel colors. I was fine with my sense of touch giving way to sight. Or not. However this worked logistically, I was open and ready to just experience it. And the thing was, I was able to do this before. Now I just had to be less critical of myself. To let the colors come as they would and just write them down. And then move on.

I got up and sat cross-legged. I searched the floor with my hands until I found the mask and then picked it up, running my hands over it. The first thing I noticed was that the center around the nose was like this huge dark cavernous cave devoid of any light. I wrote down indigo.

I sent my fingers on a careful search of the inside of the mask for some light that might have escaped through until I found a small pocket of yellow leaking out from the crater on the bottom right. I wrote it down.

I traced the outside of the mask for colors, finding blue on the top and bottom of the left and red on the top and bottom of the right. Since my mask was kind of large, I was hoping for more variety of color along the edge. Perhaps two different colors on one side and another two different colors on the other. Like quadrants. But I wrote down the two I found, anyway.

I went back in the center and one of the last things I felt was the nose. At first, I felt indigo. Then, not letting go and perhaps still out of stubbornness, I felt a hint of something else. But it was just a hint. An orange which was strong and definite but didn't overpower the indigo. As if it just wanted to make it's presence known, to reach the tip with roots still in the base. I figured that meant the nose might have a few vertical stripes of orange overlapping. To double check, I sent my ring finger on a lone downward spiral of the nose. As my finger spiraled down the paper-mache, I felt orange the whole way. Confused, I did it again. And again I felt orange. So that was it then. An indigo nose sprouting out of an indigo face topped with an orange spiral. Whatever. I wrote it down.

I opened my eyes for good and painted the mask.

I was much happier with this version. More because I had done more to follow the directions than because of how it looked. For me, it still looked like the archetype of a happy clown face and I was still upset about that. But having finally finished with the painting, I finally felt a sense of relief. The kind you feel when you catch up with everyone else. This relief was only momentary, though, because it came with the realization that I had committed a significant sin. This clowning thing was getting a bit religious, with the mention of Clown Gods and with being guided through exercises, which once repeated, started to feel a lot more like sacred rituals than simple theatre warm-ups. Maybe my original mask, the one with the violet nose, was perfect as it was. I knew that's what Sue would have said. Maybe Christina was right, that the older violet-nose version was where I was and since you can only be where you are, you might as well be comfortable being there. By making an attempt to paint the mask alone, I had cheated myself of seeing myself. Moreover, I had broken Sue's trust. I hadn't shown her the older version nor did I tell her that I was going to paint it again. It was becoming clear that I was adding extra drama to this workshop that didn't need to be there. Even though I was now warming up to the mask I'd soon wear, this was at the cost of endangering my relationship with the guide that would show me how to wear it. The only thing I could do at this point was put these thoughts to rest and vow to focus on whatever it was that Sue would ask us to do next.

To get out of my own way and let the experience take over.