Neutral Masks

Eleanor Garran

Eleanor Garran

Eleanor Garran is an Australian writer living in Minneapolis. Their work is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Passages North, Hobart, Creative Nonfiction, and The Cincinnati Review. "Neutral Masks" was originally published in Creative Nonfiction magazine's, Sunday Short Reads series. It is now a part of Short Édition's series, The Current.

We have to wear blank black clothes to mask class so our selves don't intrude.

People with hair in their face must pin their hair off their face.

When you're wearing black and have your face covered, moving in front of people, it's easy for those watching to see your idiosyncrasies. A hunch of the shoulders, a loping walk. A tendency to tense up the little finger and stick it out.

We are identifying our idiosyncrasies in order to eliminate them, in order to become essential, that we may then transform.


We do not speak about the centuries of molding that have made what we now consider essential.

About the way we 28 have been chosen for our potential to become correct and therefore invisible.


Things we will transform into:

A piece of paper.

The color green.

Stale air.

Chunky peanut butter.

Giraffes' eyelashes.


Then, people.


Is the theatre real because it has no inside, like Charlie says?

There's something hideous about that.


First, John teaches us how to watch.

Spines straight, facing forward, hands resting gently in our laps, mouths slightly open.

He says, this is how you receive.

He says, whether you are acting or watching, you are working.

We are here for eight hours a day, five days a week, for three years.

Our job is to be present.

Our attention will not lag.

One day, a few months from now, I will sit in a theatre auditorium and lift a can of Coke to my mouth.

From the other side of the audience, John will catch my eye, raise his eyebrows, slowly and deliberately shake his head.

I will sit immobilized until the end of the play, drink undrunk in my hand.


At acting school, the only classes I pass are the ones where I wear a mask or speak a language other than English.

While both acts present a clear device through which to abandon yourself, their embodiments are distinct.

In the scenes I perform in Japanese or French, I feel present and alive on the stage, as if I've taken full possession of a small, safe corner of myself.

I remember that speaking is something the body does.

But everyone knows that masks aren't allowed to speak.

With masks, it's as if I've scooped the flesh out of myself, created a mindless, guiltless figure I can manipulate like a marionette. The joy in the temporary loss of self!


"A certain distance should be preserved between the face and the mask, for it is precisely this difference which makes it possible for the actor to play." (Lecoq)


The idea is that putting on a blank face gets you to some essence of yourself.

I want to know why it does that.

What is it about our faces we have a desire to shed? Do we?

I mean, I do, does anyone else?

Some people are fond of their faces, I think.


We learn to pick up the mask gently, cupping its sides as if it were a person's face, one we feel tenderness for.

The gesture itself brings tenderness, and the origins of the two—the tenderness, the gentle holding—become impossible to distinguish.


"When you consider how grateful things are normally for tenderness..." (Rilke)


You may never put on or take off the mask when anyone can see the moment of it joining you or cleaving from you.

You must turn your back.


For a moment after the performance, it is dark.

I can say anything I want to in the dark, I can grow tendrils, I can reveal my face.

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