On with the Show| February 24, 2021
Two very different people, and yet they are the same
The tension so thick, you could cut it with a knife. A hundred or more people, waiting expectantly. Waiting for her. Waiting for her to walk on and put on a show. She stands there, just beyond the wings, heart beating wildly in her chest. Her hands feel clammy, her breath comes in ragged gasps. She closes her eyes and wills her heart to slow down, breathing slowly, deeply.
This is it.
Removing her glasses, she picks up the mask from the little table beside her and touches it to her face, stretching the elastic over her head. At once, the mask becomes her — the plastic melds into her skin as though they are one and the same — and she is a different person completely. The clamminess is gone from her hands, her breathing becomes regular and her heart rate is normal. With more confidence than she previously thought possible, she steps out onto the stage.
This is her life. The wings are her comfort zone, where she can be herself, where few people truly know the person underneath the mask. The rest of the world only knows her as she is now — a different persona from her own. A character who has no inhibitions, who can be anyone she wants to be. The other person — the real her — is a little quieter, more softly spoken and gentle, with a slightly daft sense of humor and a tendency to keep things to herself. She is the girl whom no one really notices in real life. This person has learned the hard way that trying to be noticed for herself gives people the wrong impression about her. She’s learned that showing people what she can do tends to backfire. So she remains quiet, unassuming, continuing with her own life, waiting for the time to come when someone will notice.
Two very different people, and yet they are the same. There is the quiet, shy brunette who values friendship and loyalty above all else, and then there is the dynamic, witty, funny actress.
Two very different people. For the person wearing a mask captures her audience in a way that the quieter one never could. And there have been times when she has stepped out without her mask. Many times, when the members of the audience have been those who also worked backstage, and have already seen her without her mask, she has felt comfortable to leave it in the wings. And many times also when she has not had time to put the mask on, or misplaced it and must go on without it. Then her audience sees only the quiet, nervous person, struggling to get her lines out. A human prop, just standing there saying very little. That audience leaves the show with the impression that she shouldn’t be onstage.
Sometimes, when it is an audience that knows her as she is in her comfort zone backstage, she gets asked why she needs the mask at all. They have never seen those occasions where she has forgotten her mask before an unfamiliar audience. They have never seen how her mouth opens, wanting to speak, but her brain has forgotten how. They have only seen her when she is comfortable with her audience. They don’t believe her when she tells them that she cannot act without her mask.
But she needs her mask. That mask means that she can be someone else, just for a little while. The person in the mask captures the audience’s attention for a precious short time, and the association between her and that other person allows her to enjoy some of that warm feeling of being noticed by others. The feeling wears off in the end — it always does — but it is enough to keep her going until the next time she has to don the mask.
Her greatest dream is that one day she will be able to toss the mask away, rip it to shreds and declare it is no longer needed. Then she can walk out onto the stage as herself, and her mouth won’t dry up waiting for the words to come unstuck from her brain. Her mind won’t panic with the feeling of what am I doing here? and she will be able to perform naturally to her audience. The pressing need to run wildly offstage and search for her script will be gone. Perhaps it will happen, one day.
But not today.
Today, she needs the mask. Her audience is unfamiliar to her and she needs her mask. They wait, expectantly. The room is astonishingly quiet. As she gazes out at the silent crowd, she is struck by a sudden thought.
With the mask, or without, she is still the same person. Not two separate entities after all — just two sides of the same person. Two different angles. Two faces she can show to the world. And she can show that second face even without the mask. The mask helps, yes, but how much does it really help, after all, if she is unwilling to perform without it? And if she keeps telling herself that “one day” she will give up the mask, will that day ever actually come?
It has to be today.
With that realization, she reaches up with trembling hands and removes the mask. The audience gasps, but she barely registers their surprise. Reaching deep within herself, she draws on past performances, and begins her famous repertoire. Her performance is exceptional, the audience is captivated by her dazzling persona, and the applause is thunderous. The show draws to a close and the audience is on its feet. With an overwhelming sense of satisfaction, she takes her bow.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 850)
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