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  • Dor Atkinson

Meditating on Mouths

I have this problem with mouths. Or I used to.

When I was a young acting student attending college in the 1990’s, my beloved acting teacher, Marcia Taylor, spent a lot of time helping us spring chickens notice where we carried tension in our bodies.

Shoulders, jaw, back, butt muscles, neck, forehead. That wayward tension, that obstacle to a fully committed, impulsive performance, could hide anywhere, and would never completely go away. Once you figured out where your tension liked to hang out – and helped ease the problem through a lot of breathing, stretching, soaks in hot water, and gradual awareness – sorry, kid, but that tension was going show up somewhere else.

Tension. Like breathing, we learned, it was a part of being human.

One of the places my tension liked to settle was my mouth. When I had to stand in front of the class and start acting, my mouth would tighten. Then I’d laugh. Then I’d cry. And eventually, if I got through all that, maybe my mouth and jaw would relax, and I could act a little bit.

It didn’t help to be a young female college student who often got comments from strangers – and colleagues – like “Smile! It will make you look prettier!” What if I’m thinking? What if I’m in a bad mood today? Do I really need to smile to make you feel better?

I’ve been thinking about all this recently because we’ve been wearing masks for the past year. Indoors, outdoors, in all sorts of settings, I’ve become used to wearing a mask. Sometimes I walk around at home and forget I’m wearing one. Granted, I have a pretty comfortable mask. But part of it is a relief.

Part of why I don’t mind wearing it is because nobody can see my mouth.

Mouths are a vulnerability zone – or so I learned during my many years investigating the acting process. We humans have a lot of these, and they can be different for different people. Eyes are the windows to the soul, and the inner elbow might be as well. The center of our palms could be another. Actors can take advantage of this awareness of vulnerable spots in many ways.

I’m fascinated by mouths and how they are depicted in literature, theatre, and film. Take the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. What is the meaning of that broad, ever-present smile? I recently watched the new Pinocchio film (2020) featuring Roberto Benigni – which everyone should watch, by the way, except perhaps very young children. The man who leads all the young boys to become donkeys smiles broadly the entire time – a strong choice that makes him stand out as especially sinister amid a sea of other creepy villains. A mouth can tell the truth or lie – and this mouth is absolutely lying.

Samuel Beckett wrote a stunning play called Not I in which only a woman’s mouth is visible on the darkened stage. It's unsettling and mesmerizing to watch this mouth moving and speaking a monologue with no other stage elements or distractions. The mouth is vulnerable, spilling out a poetic, repetitive, distressed flow of words - forcing us to listen and not look away.

I often talk to my acting students about how some scientists have linked the smile to the fearsome grimace of animals defending themselves. It may be that the impulsive toothy grin we give to someone we don't like may be linked to fear and defensiveness. We are protecting ourselves with our smiles.

When I write, I’m compelled to describe what my characters’ eyes and mouths are doing. Again, I think this goes back to a certain intimacy I am interested in with my characters onstage and on the page. So much is communicated via the movement of the eyes and the twitches, twists, and quirks of the mouth. If the mouth tightens, I know the person is feeling very uncomfortable, maybe not wanting to reveal something. There’s a desire for self-preservation in the tightening of the mouth – a hope that someone will not see one’s terrible teeth or hear one’s terrible truth.

Now that I am fully vaccinated, I have discovered a new, rare impulse: to pull down my mask and reveal my mouth. This happens most often with friends or children – people I trust or want to be trusted by. I notice a surprising LACK of tension in my mouth – as if this year-long hiatus behind the screen has given my mouth some sense of renewal – a holistic mouth vacation.

Maybe my mouth, like me, has had a few revelations in this past year. Maybe it has become more discerning about judgement, and how much judgement I place on myself as opposed to the judgement placed on me by others. Or maybe I have become more comfortable with both listening – when it is best to shut my mouth and listen – and speaking – when it’s time to speak up and say how I’m really feeling.

Maybe when the masks are all gone my mouth tension will return with a vengeance - or slip away quietly, finding refuge somewhere else in my body.

How about you? Where do you hold your tension? How does your mouth feel behind the mask?


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