The Game of You
Facing the scary parts of your subconscious in search of new insights: A look at what you learn in clown school, a deep dive into the concept of "Masks", and a roadmap towards redefining yourself
I, Drew Schorno, am a proud graduate of David MacMurray Smith's 3-month "Creative Character Development & Personal Transformation Through Clown" course.
With my certificate in hand, I am now fully prepared to argue my qualifications to talk to you about a topic of deep gravity and importance—the journey of spelunking through the cave of the self:
> You enter the cave.
> It's hard to see around, you notice many branching paths.
> If you wander too far in any direction, you know you'll have a hard time finding your way back.
> However, the more time you spend exploring, the more familiar things become.
> And the walls are glittering with small treasures to bring with you back to the surface.
As I have recently argued, the purpose of any interesting game is to generate these treasures in the form of new insights. You would be hard-pressed to find a game with more at stake; poking around blindly through the territory of past traumas, redrawing the lines around what "you" are.
But who can resist the draw of new treasures in the depths?
Following the Canadian Pochinko style of clown pedagogy: over the course of the course I sculpted a series of 6 masks blindfolded, followed an elaborate process to discover their true colors, and learned to "embody" each of them as an almost fully separate consciousness (replete with their own personalities, priorities, and life histories).
Many indigenous cultures, as a part of their spiritual practices, have carved masks believed to possess the wearer with gods or spirits: external entities with their own personalities that take over the wearer's body. True believers are able to don these masks and completely submit themselves to the will of the character: displaying radically different personalities, performing superhuman feats of strength, and reporting large gaps in their memory afterward.
So like that movie "The Mask"?
Absolutely not. Well, actually… yeah.
In "The Mask" Jim Carrey plays Stanley Ipkiss, a pathetic "nice guys finish last" bank clerk who everybody makes fun of and takes advantage of. One day he finds a magical wooden mask that transforms him into a mischievous Zoot-Suited gangster with superpowers and a completely different personality. Taken over by this new persona, Stanley is able to comically take revenge against his tormentors, get up to all sorts of other mob-related shenanigans, and win the girl of his dreams (who loves him for him, without the mask).
It is… interesting that this is the most relevant cultural reference some people have for what masks are and how they work. Here’s Keith Johnstone’s take on the matter from his book Impro:
“We don’t know much about Masks in our culture ... because [it] is usually hostile to trance states. We distrust spontaneity and try to replace it by reason.” “…we don’t realize how much of our lives is spent in some form of trance, i.e. absorbed. What we assume to be ‘normal consciousness’ is comparatively rare, it’s like the light in the refrigerator: when you look in, there you are ON, but what’s happening when you don’t look in?”
The actual physical masks are (probably?) just a metaphor: the real "masks" are just pieces of software that run on the gooey hardware of our individual brains (and shared intersubjectively as cultural concepts). They take over your body in the place of your normal personality, which itself is just another piece of software: in the way that your Super Nintendo is normally possessed by the cartridge of Super Mario World, but can easily be swapped out for The Addams Family, Earthbound, or… The Mask
You might think that this doesn't have anything to do with you, and it is true that we are not often fully taken over by completely alien entities. But perhaps there is a cast of more familiar entities. Pay attention throughout the day and you will see yourself fluidly shifting into a state of possession by an incredible cast of "you"s: The you that screams at a baseball game, your "inner child" that comes out in moments of giddy excitement, you on the phone using your "phone voice", you when you're flirting. The you that looks up at the stars in amazement, the you that cries about the way you look in the mirror.
Another set of these familiar masks that you can easily shift into are decidedly not "you": Your impressions of Daffy Duck, or that Karen you saw at the grocery store. The voices of your mother, Richard Feynman, and God swirling around inside your head.
"Emotions" in Lisa Feldman Barret's work is probably a tightly related concept. It seems like for any potential situation, your brain has created a handy shorthand character for you to play: cobbled together from a memories of how you responded to similar situations in the past, and observations about how other people have responded (in real life and on TV). Entering into these characters sets into motion a cascade of physiological responses (my face flushes red), expressions, mannerisms, and even subjective feelings.
The Pochinko method of crafting a series of masks is a physical metaphor that externalizes an internal process. It is set up in a way that prevents students from trying to "invent" characters by helping them discover masks that already exist in some way. By focusing intensely on any of these fleeting expressions, you can begin to methodically poke and prod at it to gain a detailed understanding of your history with that mask. The mask feeds on the energy you provide it, and begins to grow and develop its own set of thoughts and feelings as a full-blown imaginary friend.
My clown mentor, David MacMurray-Smith, has some very interesting additions to Richard Pochinko’s mask method: in particular a type of floor exercise called "Biokinetic Release" that leads into an interpretation of Jerzy Grotowski's "Rivering" exercise (more on that later). These activities—together known as “lightening up”—take about 40 minutes, and are done at the beginning of every clown class and before performances as a sort of psychic palette cleanser.
The process begins with you lying on your back on the floor. You begin to direct your attention to various muscles in your body and allow them to "move in the way that they want to": by dampening any intentions coming from your conscious mind, and tuning into the random background noise of your nervous system, you begin a process of shaking, squirming, and flailing around (but in, like, a really specific way that's hard to teach and hard to describe.)
As it reaches the muscles of your throat and face you begin to produce odd noises, and contort into strange expressions. A particular focus is applied to the diaphragm: by interrupting the normal pendulum-like flow of your breath and replacing it with an irregular pattern, you begin to move in a way that feels like... wheezing with uncontrollable laughter.
Huh huh haaaaaa huh hee he hu huh huh
Your brain recognizing this begins to produce the accompanying feelings of ecstatic joy—it really is laughter now. You start to justify to yourself why you are laughing: “This is so ridiculous. Life is so funny”. As you allow yourself to move through the sensations without holding onto anything in particular, you can find yourself swinging down into intense sadness: the motion in your diaphragm is suddenly interpreted as "sobbing". Tears begin to run down your face, and you think of all the reasons you have to be sad: “Nobody respects me. I feel so lonely all the time. I’m not good enough”. But, perhaps, these are tears of joy after all: you swing back to joy once again.
At this point you might feel compelled to open your eyes, finding yourself in a room full of people writhing around on the floor giggling and making weird squealing sounds, and think to yourself:
"Who the fuck are these people?"
"What am I doing here?"
"What would my friends think if they saw me like this?"
"Why do I feel like I'm somehow not doing this the right way, and that I'm failing to do a good enough job wriggling around on the floor like a moron."
You could try to suppress this feeling, but it might be more interesting to take the opportunity to examine it more closely. What do you notice about wearing this particular mask: observing and judging.
This whole process summons and flexes really intense emotions that are buried somewhere inside of you as you writhe around, locked in your muscles and posture. In a way it feels like opening up a line of communication to a whole different part of your subconscious mind that you don't normally have access to.
On a purely physical level doing this process regularly for a few months produces large changes in your body: to the extent that you can gain inches of height, and notice suddenly that your tailored suits no longer seem to fit right.
This process is similar to an "emotional workout". In a normal workout, you push yourself slightly past your limit and create micro-tears in your muscle fibers, which make room for new muscle to grow as your body heals itself, stronger than ever. If you push yourself too far into the territory of "injury", you have no choice but to stop exercising completely and lose months of progress. Similarly with this type of exercise, you can feel yourself extending further and further into new emotional territory over time as you progress, and it can also be easy to go too far and hurt yourself.
When you do push things to the edge, it can surface feelings and memories that make you instinctually lock down and go numb. It takes extreme patience, caution, and bravery to push through the feelings of numbness to address the fear and sadness underneath.
You do this carefully, bit by bit.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
In these floor exercises, you're reaching past the world of your “narrative memory” and wading through the soup of your emotional/kinesthetic memory fragments. This is the territory where unintegrated and unaddressed trauma lives, but there's also all sorts of unexpected and weird shit down there for you to explore.
There is a certain part of your conscious mind that is constantly monitoring what your body is doing, and trying to figure out a narrative to explain it. David nicknamed this "Mickey" after the character from the fantasia short "The Sorcerer's Apprentice": Mickey mouse, after initially setting things into motion (enchanting a broom to help him carry buckets of water), frantically chases around after forces completely outside of his control (hundreds of brooms carrying a torrent of water that floods the entire workshop), gesticulating furiously and helplessly until he is saved by his master.
Simply by moving and making noises in an unmotivated fashion, your brain naturally begins to form fantasies about what you are actually doing. The process of "Rivering" is allowing yourself to follow along with these fantasies: you begin to speak in full sentences towards imaginary characters, and evolve from your position on the ground into a standing, running, leaping, and dancing experience. You easily slip in and out of radically different masks as you please, and act out strange scenes: are you wandering around the north pole in a sleigh? Furiously kicking a living Furby doll off of a cliff? Maybe you are on a tightrope, high above the world, and terrified that one false step will send you plunging to your death—which, of course, it does. What happens after you die?
If you are working with a group you can begin to see your bubbles interact with their bubbles, negotiating a shared reality out of widely different fantasies. This is sortof like a much more extreme version of how life works normally. You are extremely likely to find yourself suddenly pregnant, being stabbed to death, or sacrificed to the devil in a satanic ritual.
This "waking dream" can easily become a nightmare, and it's not terribly uncommon to have to exit the river is a state of distress and chat with the neutral facilitators about your feelings while you calm down. However, it is mostly a joyful experience of play.
This river of images allows you to gain valuable experience working with extreme masks that are normally suppressed.
The Clowning Masks
The really interesting thing to realize about masks is that you can, and usually do, have more than one mask going at the same time. It is possible for one mask to form a dialogue with another, and it's possible for one mask to imitate or "play" another mask.
The masks captured in the Pochinko sculpting process are full-fledged characters in their own right—with joy and sadness, peculiarities and sensitivities—but on their own they are not actually very funny. It is, after all, the purpose of the clown to amuse: in order to find humor we must filter those true masks through the distortions of another.
Basic clown work is a 3 mask setup:
The [ Ringmaster ] oversees the
[ Clown ] playing the
[ Character Mask ]
The Ringmaster mask is the master of ceremonies, responsible for managing the "arena of play". It always asks the question "is what I’m doing safe and appropriate for this particular context", and clears the way for the play to happen. It's certainly possible to work without a strong ringmaster mask going but also dangerous and irresponsible. Keith Johnstone talks about completely losing yourself into masks, creating gaps in your memory: this is usually made possible by outsourcing the role of the ringmaster onto a third party handler. Acting without a ringmaster runs the risk of hurting other people and yourself.
The Clown mask, also known as "the body of delight", is the part of you that's looking to manipulate the situation to find the most fun, and bends everything into a performance for the audience. Clowns are usually some combination of a "Joey": looking to trick and bully people for the audience's enjoyment (like the trickster mask from "The Mask", or throwing a pie into someone's face); and an "Auguste": radiating pure, naive, childlike innocence and joy (more of a Stanley Ipkiss figure, who receives the pie in the face... but somehow likes it). These are ultimately both approaches towards advancing the secret clown agenda—crossing boundaries, exploring taboos, and questioning our shared assumptions—by either making a mockery of them, or naively crashing through them.
The Character mask is the mask that is outwardly presented to the audience—though no matter how sad, angry, or otherwise wretched this mask is, the clown mask always peeks through from behind it as a certain joyful glimmer in the eye. There are all sorts of traditional stock masks for clowning: a whole pantheon of Italian Commedia dell'Arte characters, and a broad set of traditional American clown characters (that we often find to be problematic looking back today, including blackface characters). Pochinko style clown, however, is focused on taking the masks of everyday experience that betray real-life character flaws of the performers, and amplifying them to allow the audience to recognize themselves in those masks.
As an example of these three masks in conversation, imagine you're playing some sort of horny pervert character onstage with a female colleague (or perhaps it's a "man in a dress", playing a sexualized female character):
(3) is obviously lewdly and inappropriately turned on by this other character.
(2) thinks that it would be funny to externalize this otherwise invisible internal feeling for the audience by turning it into the physical action of honking on her breasts.
(1) makes the call that, in fact, that would not actually be an ok boundary to cross (either being too shocking for the audience, or not explicitly cleared with the other performer beforehand).
(2), working within those parameters, decides to pantomime the action from a distance instead
It is actually a really revelatory experience to recognize your own masks and then allow yourself to "play" them in this way. The first mask I crafted became this character whose backstory was that he was cursed by a witch to live forever, and had been wandering around aimlessly for 500 years. This mask was deeply shocking to me when I first discovered it: it seemed to give a solid concrete shape to an extremely specific sadness weighing on me for years that I had never acknowledged directly. It perfectly captured the feeling that I often get when I am wandering around a city in a fog, completely lonely, killing time.
Playing that mask as a clown: I amp up the cluelessness and confusion, the sheer patheticness, and the extreme self-doubt in ways that keep me on the edge of bursting out laughing. The feeling is still there sometimes, but I am able to get behind it and see it for what it really is. By playing with your own masks, you can change your relationship to them, and rob them of their power over you. Instead of feeling scared of this mask, I feel amused and sympathetic: poor little old man.
As they say in clown school: "If you can’t laugh at yourself, you're missing the biggest joke of your life"
Some masks that we encounter almost every day of our lives are incredibly difficult to recognize as masks. The voices of insecurity that creep in at the edges... "am I doing this right?", "I'm not good enough". Voices of extreme moral judgement: "If I were a good person I wouldn't be doing this", "I need to be trying harder", "I need to be stop wasting time and be more productive".
Near the end of the course a classmate told us that she thought that this was literally the judgemental voice of God in her head, but upon reflection it had turned out to be a mean nun mask.
These masks are Joeys, focused on bullying YOU. If you’re not careful, they have the power to completely throw you into an incredibly dark fog, or a state of pure fight or flight response that ends your play completely.
Many people's first line of defense for masks like these is to just ignore them. It is easy enough to disassociate from our feelings: in fact, it is an essential skill of adult life. If you walk into a bank and are denied a loan, it's important to be able to suppress the feeling of wanting to throw a chair, or burst into tears. Many traumatized people come to rely on this skill too heavily, and go through the rest of their lives in a state of disembodied numbness masking an underground river of extreme angst, anxiety, or anger.
On the other hand, through a process of slow poking and prodding, you can get to know these masks a bit better.
They are not super-villains. They are usually masks that have sprung up around trauma as a defense mechanism and are trying in their own twisted way to protect you. By predicting what the bullies on the schoolyard will say in advance, these voices give you the opportunity to act defensively. By making you feel scared, and getting your heart pumping, they are preparing you to be able to run away.
It is possible to form a new relationship with these masks. They will never leave you completely, but it is possible to see and acknowledge their concerns without letting them completely take root: to loosen the hold they have over you to allow for a new level of flexibility. Perhaps you can even invite them out to play.
Nobody said the process of becoming "embodied" needs to be a gut-wrenching tragedy: learning to be kind to yourself is just as much letting go of sadness as it is allowing yourself to feel it. The process can also be fun and joyful.
So, if you have the capacity to embody pretty much any mask imaginable, and the way you interact with the world is through a series of masks, where do you draw the line between "being yourself" and "acting out of character"?
Image management is the concept that the way you see yourself, and the way you want others to see you, and what you really are, is something that you actively manage on a day to day basis.
Maybe there is no real you underneath: what you really are is just a series of masks tailored to different situations. Once you can see these masks clearly, you can learn to work differently with them. Maybe some things that you thought were set in stone parts of your personality are actually just patterns of choices that you can learn to make differently.
The image that you present of yourself is just a story, told by Mickey, that makes you easier to understand. "Hi I'm Mike. I work as an accountant. I'm a republican. I like football. I go to church on Sundays".
You can always change the story: how is it that you really want to be seen? What is it that you value, and what are the parts of "yourself" that you want to distance yourself from? Are you one of the characters from the breakfast club, just waiting to break out of the limitations you and society are putting on the way you can see yourself?
Are you just one haircut away from being a brand new person?
It's not possible to be happy all the time. You need to deal with the wide variety of situations that life throws you into. You need to get angry sometimes, you need to run away from danger. You still have limitations you need to work inside of: maybe you have seasonal depression, or you hate the body that you're in. It's still possible to reevaluate the relationship you have with yourself. It's still possible to learn to treat yourself with kindness.
David, in his clown classes, often says "This isn't therapy, this is just life"
So who do you want to be?
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