Friday, July 25, 2008

Persona vs. Personage

The Ancient Greeks during the classical period used without differentiation the same word for the mask and the human face, the word Prosopon. The word Prosopon is etymologically composed by the preposition pros- which means towards or for and the word ops which means variously hole, eye, opening or voice. The relationship of the two parts of the word create another meaning hidden inside the word and that is the idea of reflection. So for the Ancient Greeks, who held no distinction between mask and face, the mask was not a covering, but a reflection frozen in time.
So its only in modern times that the mask is used as a barrier to hide behind. In its original usage it seems masks were used as projection screens for the easier delivery of a theatre not based on personalities, but on actions. In his Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as a representation not of men but of actions, The tragic masks did not represent any specific identity/character. They only denoted things like sex, age, status and dichotomies like human/divine, alive/dead. This together with the notion of emptiness and the nature of the mask being frozen in time creates Ethos. Aristotle believed Ethos was one of the essential elements of Tragedy.
The Etruscans
The word persona comes from the Etruscan phersu- a person in a mask. In latin, persona denotes a mask or a face or a role or a personality.
In almost all of the theatre I have done over the course of my 28 year career as a professional actor- (Jeez! has it been that long? Gods, I'm old. I just had a birthday here and I'm still waiting for every damn birthday that suddenly comes along every July not to depress the hell out of me. Ugh.) -I have been for the most part toiling in the realm of psychological realism. In other words creating personas. But now here in Greece, the cradle of my art form, I am being challenged to look at my role as a personage. A representative archetype. And fulfilling that parameter with clarity was probably more familiar to my thespian forebears working under hardwood masks in the 4th century.
So how do you summon that clarity? First you have to really see its opposite. Here's how: Draw a dot on a piece if paper. You can see the dot clearly. Crinkle the paper, and the dot almost disappears. Too much acting and the one thing you want to show actually disappears.
And that emptiness that the mask brings turns out to be the right expression for tragedy, Can you say the word "awful" and express "awful" at the same time? The difficult answer is No.
There is this theory that they have. That it goes both ways, I play Hamlet, say. But Hamlet is also playing me. Is he enjoying being played by me? Does he think I'm worthy of his personage? I can do his persona; the facts of him, my “take” on him but his personage, the concept he represents is a shared thing with me, the character and all of humanity. How do I honor the big archetype that's floating out there independent of me and my specific choices that only bring attention to myself and may indeed not be serving theatre's ultimate goal: Catharsis?
Kicked In The Hips
So now I'm in Greece playing the Shepard in Oedipus. It's the scene where he tells Oedipus who he is. He's been living with this horrible news his entire lifetime. Our version of Oedipus has the Shepard getting beat up- by both the messenger and Oedipus, who is played by a guy that could easily play linebacker for the Oakland Raiders. Lots of getting kicked in the hips and rolling on the hard tile. But through all this is the idea that the challenge here is to not make him a separate and distinct and specific- character; a persona, (goals I've striven for in my work my entire life)- but to summon ethos through the creation of an archetype or personage. So I'm trying to use the lessons of the mask: the notions of emptiness and being frozen in time being chief among them. Yes, the mask is a frozen expression but its still got to be alive. So how?
The small eye holes of the mask reduce the optic field until the actor actually can only see one eye hole, a kind of “third eye” that creates for the actor behind the mask a hypnotic and meditative state and forces a more conscious feeling of the body's axes, spine and pelvic placement, angle of head and chin, drop of shoulders, etc. The actor is now all extrovert in the service of the mask. There is no room for personal behavior. You feel it under there. This awareness influences the control of the voice because all of the above are so closely related to vocal production. This taken altogether leads you to a state of conscious and active physical listening. A kind of following- not acting -which is a kind of doing verb- but following. Letting the mask take you where it wants to go. This mask induced heightened state is what the Greeks call Akroasis. It's real. I got a dose of it last night
One of the pieces in our performance is a Mask piece I devised using four different masks. I start in the Cycladean mask as a kind of blind shaman from two thousand B.C., move into a classic Greek Chorus mask, (Prince Davon) then the tragic clown mask I sculpted. (Arlechinos) and end the piece in a death mask I've made complete with little pebbles for teeth and a gold filling for detail.
So towards the end of the piece I'm wearing the death mask. Its a dark moment.
A little kid in the front row laughs. The mask- not me- goes for him. Interrupts the show and goes for him. Caresses his head. Its like its not me. The mask is the performer. I am the servant.
So then- completely uncontrolled by me- The death mask cruises the front row, stops at an old man. caresses his bald head. This was not Ron trying to get a laugh, I swear. It was death. Death sizing up its future customers, young and old. I went back to the kid. I "smiled" with the mask. The audience was absolutely silent. They turned on me. But in a very elemental way. When I finally broke the spell, I pick up a little statue of the Cycladean mask that has the final moment- the kid- who I've seen around the village- let out a sound that was like a child waking from a bad dream. really chilling for all of us in that space at that moment. Akroasis.
Brush Up Your Sanscrit
The Ancient Greeks used the word Theatron for the area where the audience sat, what we call the “house”. Theatron means “the place of seeing” or actually “place of perceiving.”
Therapia was their word for therapy. And Theos equaled God. All these words have the common etymological roots in Sanscrit. Roots that mean air, breath, soul, pulse and life.
Thank you, Theos, for all the therapy. Thank you for breathing new life into both my persona and my personage. Thanks for sticking that kid in the front of our Theatron. And Happy Birthday to me!

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