The Smallest Mask: The Art of Staying True to Oneself
The too-large yellow rain suit seems to stand up on its own without the help of the actor inside. And yet, in this short solo piece, the man protected by an impermeable costume breaks through, and breaks the theater’s fourth wall too, establishing a connection with the audience.
Through his vulnerability, actor Roblin Davis draws us in. The audience laughs. They can relate as he stands alone on a blank stage and confesses to the audience that he is an “Umbrella Man.” In the rainforest of southeast Alaska, getting wet is a badge of honor that differentiates locals from tourists with their wind-bent umbrellas. So when Davis reveals his giant golf umbrella, he gets immediate laughter from the audience. They are not simply making fun of umbrella-users along with Davis, though. They laugh because, like his character, Juneau Joe, they all really want to be dry, too.
Juneau Joe is a theatrical clown — a traditional genre of theater character with a deep history. “It goes back to the red nose character coming out of the traditional European circuses and the commedia dell’arte.” Davis says clowning is about “looking at how we are all human, and subject to folly, stupidity and ignorance, and embracing those qualities of our experience in life, and recognizing that we don’t know it all, and we make mistakes.”
Through the persona of the clown, the artist isn’t afraid to reflect and examine himself and the world. He’s not afraid to shed light on the absurd. Laughs from the audience may come from the nervousness of self-recognition as well as the humor inherent in a performance.
Theater has been part of Davis’s life since childhood. “My parents were very supportive of the arts and encouraged my sister, brother and myself to try all sorts of things. They took us to performances of all kinds and I saw some incredible shows as a child. But it was as a student at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp that I came to love the stage and I was inspired to delve deeper by the teachers and my fellow students there. In high school, the theater department took me in, and it became like a second family.”
Davis has been intrigued by the theatrical clown since his early 20s. “The first performance that blew me away was performed completely in gibberish — but you could understand each thought and feeling of the characters throughout the whole show. That was amazing. And they were funny, lovable and emotionally generous while fighting against the tragic nature of this world. They created a fantastic, imaginative world and I wanted to play in that space. … I went to the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre to see if I wanted to pursue it all more seriously and at the end of that experience, I was fully immersed.”
Not one to avoid hard work, Davis says that he also found the work of the theatrical clown to be the most difficult thing to do well as an actor. He relishes the challenge of having “to craft and to really dig deep inside of myself, and be truthful with my audience, because of course, with comedy, the more honest you are, the truer you are, the better it works. I found just pursuing the world of the clown to be a significant task, and it’s taken me a long time to enjoy that journey. I don’t feel like I’ve come to the end.”
When Davis was a young actor, he gave himself a goal. “When I was 25 or so, I dared myself to do a solo show by the time I was 50.” Davis’s new solo show was the culmination of that decades-old dare. “So hey, it was time; I was turning 50. I thought, I gotta do this. I also had found I was in need of pushing myself as an artist to clarify my aesthetic and my opinions about creating original work. … I was looking to become more authentic as myself in the creative process of making theater. And I thought maybe a challenge like this would give me that opportunity.”
Davis’s career in theater includes acting, teaching, directing and creating many pieces of devised ensemble work. The rehearsal room is his favorite place to be. He thrives on collaboration with fellow actors, directors and the artists who make the visual and sound worlds that create the layers of live theater. He says the journey “is so rewarding, having those conversations and exploring the ideas that may be in a story or around a show or part of a project, even sometimes more than the performance.”
And yet, all that collaboration created a gap in Davis’s extensive résumé. “I have created a whole bunch of original material,” he says, “but it’s mostly been in collaboration with other fantastic artists. And so I can’t really do it without those people.” Davis says one of his visions for having a solo show was to create material that he could do on his own, anywhere.
Davis has been developing his solo show, which has a working title of “Soaked” for about three years. During his grant year, he was able to take the time to work on the show and seek the consult and feedback of fellow artists. The resulting piece has five parts. Each in some way reveals a part of himself. He said as he worked on “Soaked,” he realized that his creative process was partly “one of continued existential questioning about who I am. Who I thought I would be in my life right now. And discovering it’s not who I had hoped to be.”
In theatrical clown work, actors use makeup, masks and often what they call “the smallest mask,” the red nose, to create enough distance between themselves and their character. In Davis’s case, the character is often a result of deep self-examination. In spite of decades of preparation, skill and artistry, perhaps the mask was not enough. “The afternoon before I did the show, I almost called it off because I was so afraid of what was going to happen. And I felt so ill-prepared.” He went through with it, though, and found the audience warm and receptive. The conversations he had afterwards with audience members were important too, he said, because as an actor, it can be hard on one’s own to see the underlying themes in an improvisational work.
Davis still feels that creating his solo show was the hardest thing he has ever done. And yet, he says, “it was deeply satisfying, both to take the risk and then say, ‘Oh, right, it really wasn’t that bad.’”
And what of the existential seeking? Davis is the introspective clown both on and off stage, ever curious and asking questions. And yet, he says of the show, “it also really liberated something inside of me… to become more of the person I do want to be in my own life.”
In Davis’s work as creator and performer, he moves through introspective and intellectual parts of the creative process into the tangible live performance space, and he inhabits both with vibrant curiosity. In describing his work, he explains the theatrical concept of “the poetic body.” He says “Masks inhabit a space larger than the performer wearing the mask. In order to effectively play a theatrical mask, a higher level of energy is necessitated than our everyday, private sense of being in the world. This imaginative space around the masked body is alive with whatever composes the ineffable magic of theater. This poetic, imaginative moving space affords the actor-creator a space to creatively express personal themes but transformed into the public space of a performance. That’s a big concept. But it is an idea that became very tangible to me through working on the show.”
Davis hopes the big ideas of clowning extend beyond the stage and into the lives of his audience. “I have always put my faith in the creative flow that comes out of deep improvisation, out of what we call “the clown state:” a resilient, flexible, buoyant, positive, fun and funny state of being. This project affirmed how profound and rewarding it is to open myself to that poetic space and I believe it is an experience we all need more of in our lives.”