Everyday Masks

I am a self-conscious actor, yet I sometimes work at it half-heartedly. Now and again. Half-hearted and hesitant—I blush easily, which makes radio the perfect venue for the experiment (and if you write for that type of character, a blushing, stammering sort, I’m your man).

Here is a recent example of “Mark Aldrich, Comedy Performer” from 2014 (I am the “secret housemate,” the third voice heard in this radio improvisation which was broadcast live while we were doing it):


 
(The next broadcast of the Magnificent Glass Pelican, the radio comedy show with which I have been associated for 25 years, will be in the Fall. Read more here: A Pelican’s Life. Back to my rant, already in progress.)

I was utterly free as a bird as a performer exactly once.

There is no audio recording or video of the single performance of the performance art group “Venus Effluvia,” which is because none was made, none should have been made, so we all remain spared. You’re welcome. I do not even know how I remember our name, especially since I only remember two of its three member’s names, and I was one of them. At least my name is one of the two I remember.

We performed two songs, neither of which I remember. For the sake of making things up, I will claim that one of the songs was “Tempted” by Squeeze, but that is simply because I wanted to listen to some Squeeze this morning. Back to 1990 and one correction: we did not sing, we sort-of lip-synced to a tape of two songs but we actually played our instruments, three ukeleles.

We strummed the ukeleles, and a ukelele strummed by performers who do not know how to play any other stringed instrument can sound better than many things, some might say.

(The whole thing was most likely inspired by Andy Kaufman’s famous “Mighty Mouse” lip-sync act and also by a genuine fear of flop-sweat that was created by the fact that none of the three of us had come up with anything until the night before. I was recruited to participate on the very day of the performance, because I had a car and thus could drive one of the performers to the venue. His is the other name, the other 50% of names, that I still remember. He is an educator now, gives TED talks. I am not and do not. As with many of the projects I have found myself in, the publicity preceded the creativity or was itself the creativity: We were on the advertised bill—in the local newspaper, even!—but we had not bothered to develop an act beyond the colorful name.)

It was a visual joke of performance art more than anything else, or anything at all: the three of us wore identical black suits and ties and each of us wore a plain cardboard box taped around our heads. That is why I said we “sort-of” lip-synched. No one saw our lips. I think someone’s girlfriend drew a smiley face on each box with a magic marker after they were taped shut. Her pen work is where art ended.

This was in the summer of 1990, I was 21, and our afternoon audience in a coffeehouse in Cold Spring, NY, ironically or honestly requested an encore, which we did not give. There is such a thing as an honestly ironic appreciation, or ironically honest, and I may have met it that day. Adverbs demand air quotes.

But that cardboard box was my friend. I could not see anyone’s face or reaction, so I clearly remembered our minimal choreography, which we had developed and rehearsed in an hour backstage, and I even soloed on my ukulele. (Plong!) I am certain our effort was an embarrassment of poverty, but I lost myself in that box of non-self.

We were paid $20, split three ways; to this day, that five bucks is the only money I have yet earned as a performer. Five dollars in a quarter-century, which is more than some people have been paid for performing and less than others. But that box-mask brought out a performer in me whom I have rarely otherwise met: a confident me.

* * * *
“Authenticity” is a word that is much used in contemporary life. It is most often used to compliment someone when his or her outward presentation appears to be happily close to what we think is an inner self. “He keeps it real,” is a phrase I think I have heard too many times. There is a reason I prefer writing to performing—and sometimes I even blush while I am writing—and that is the myth of control I am choosing to embrace; that idea that I am giving the world my authentic self when writing, with no pollution from other influences. Staring at a piece of paper or at a computer screen is like staring at the inside of a cardboard box, and the self-consciousness, my self-centeredness, my self, melts away.

But that may be something I tell myself. Where’s my box?

* * * *
Some of this first appeared in 2014 and then in 2016.

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