I tend to forget a lot of things (The things that I don't know could fill a million volumes / and the things that I do know I often forget / And the things that I haven't done could fill a million volumes / and the things that I have done I often regret). I don't recall a lot of the particulars of my semester abroad in London back in college (though it wasn't very long ago), but one magical realization from a class with Mick Barnfather has woven itself into the fabric of my understanding of the world. My abroad program was a drama intensive and Mick's class was the absolute best part. He taught us clowning, physical comedy and improvisation. Everything he taught was wrapped up in these incredibly fun games that showed the importance of PLAYing in a play (or living life for that matter). Having fun was usually the objective in class. Mick showed us how watching people have genuine, spontaneous fun on stage is captivating.
In one class around the midpoint of the semester-long program, he brought in these funny looking character masks with bulbous, reddish features that covered the top of the face until just above the mouth. Mick explained that each of us would select a mask, then go up in front of the group and develop a character based on the mask we were wearing. There were no actual words allowed, just sounds and movement as he asked us questions to guide the improvisation. Getting rid of the verbal part was a relief--no need to come up with witty one-liners to see who was funnier than who, because I certainly didn't fancy myself much of a comedienne! I was feeling brave that day so I volunteered to go first.
The mask I chose looked like an aged, ruddy-faced Pinocchio (the nose was about five lies long) with super chubby cheeks, perhaps from drinking a bit too much over the course of a few decades. I saw the mask-man as the type of guy who would wear a propeller hat without irony, was very shy, and loved his mother very much.
As I slipped the mask over my eyes I felt this funny-looking man take over my body and a clear cut dissociation from my own Jenni identity. I felt compelled to glide lightly back and forth on my tip-toes and make falsetto "OooooooOOOoooh!" sounds. I felt the mask-man's shyness in front of the crowd and his magnified desire to touch and cover his body out of a strong desire to be very proper. I was magically someone else, and un-funny non-comedian me was making my classmates laugh. A lot! Whenever I started thinking, "Wow, Jenni, you're being funny, this is crazy!" I started to lose them. As I sank back into the mask-man persona and became present with Mick's directions in the moment, the magic started to flow again. The mask had a power over me! It was a freedom from myself. By the end of my turn, I was euphoric! One by one, I saw all of my classmates transform behind their chosen masks to the point that I would forget who they actually were.
When I started doing open mics with my original songs, hosts usually mispronounced my family name, Lerche, when reading it off of the sign-up sheet (we pronounce it like the Adam's family character although the German pronunciation is much prettier). I decided to start going by Lark ostensibly because it was easier to read and say. It's the English translation of Lerche and my great-grandmother even did something similar for her upholstery business decades ago. What I only half-realized at the time but I now seems pretty obvious is that Lark is the alter-ego, the mask. The insecurity and vulnerability of performing with my birth name felt very naked at the time and I wanted to separate one me from the other me while tapping into the mask power.
Of course lots of singer-songwriters (and artists of all kinds) have assumed stage names, from Bob Dylan to Alicia Keys to Elton John to John Legend to Meat Loaf for goodness' sake. I can't see into their souls to understand why they chose to identify themselves the way they do, but putting on a name before standing on a stage has been as freeing for me as putting on that mask in Mick's class. It has been my invisibility cloak, my defense against Google-ability, and a way to hide the shamefulness that comes with the desire to be an artist when the world tells us that you're an idiot for wanting something so frivolous.
What mask do you wear?