Neutral Masks

We have to wear plain black clothes to mask class so our selves don’t intrude.

People with hair that falls in their face must pin it back.

When you’re wearing black and have your face covered, it’s easy for anyone 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 formed our image of what is essential.

About the way we twenty-eight have been chosen for our potential to become what others deem neutral, and therefore invisible.


Illustration by Anna Hall

Things we will transform into:

A piece of paper.

The color green.

Stale air.

Chunky peanut butter.

Giraffes’ eyelashes.


Then, people.


Is the theater real because it has no inside?

There’s something hideous about that.


First, John teaches us how to watch.

Spines straight, faces 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 eight hours a day, five days a week, for three years.

Our job is to be present.

Our attention will not flag.

One day, a few months from now, I will sit in a theater 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, my only passing grades are in classes where I wear a mask or speak a language other than English.

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 a mask, 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 distance 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 it becomes impossible to tell which came first—the tenderness, or the gentle holding.


“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.

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.

About the Author

Eleanor Garran

Eleanor Garran is an Australian writer living in Minneapolis. They have an MFA in poetry from the University of Minnesota, and their work is published or forthcoming in Diagram, Hobart, Entropy, the Cincinnati Review, and New Orleans Review.

View Essays

Leave a Reply