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The Actor's Life

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Our giant new television came with high definition. While my husband marvelled at the crispness of the picture and the exciting quality of the sports events, I noticed something else. 


The illusion of reality had disappeared.




Watching “Agents of Shield” and “Elementary” became a startling and complex new experience. The familiar characters and situations were all there, but thanks to something called “enhanced frame speed” so were the actors and the sets. Suddenly I could see the make-up on Coulson’s cheek and the fact that Ward’s gun was a plastic toy. Even when Sherlock and Watson went outside I could sense the presence of the camera crew—and I was standing beside them, mildly embarrassed to have to watch these people trying so hard to pretend convincingly, and suddenly not succeeding.


Eventually my techno-savvy son went into the depths of the television’s software and adjusted the picture quality. “Reality”, at least the one I was used to, returned. But I was left with a newfound respect for the difficulty and sweat required to fake it with such dedication, and for the poor souls whose job it was to pretend to be real.


They reminded me of myself. And possibly of everyone else. Every now and then I am aware of how hard I work at the performance of myself, fitting into the roles of who I think I am, who I would like to be, or who I have to be in certain contexts. I have to stop and ask, “Who am I taking myself to be?” Kind teacher, worried parent, injured innocent, pushy pedant? I have a script for each, tripping off my tongue.


But every role I take on limits both my freedom and my perspective. And there seems no way out. Our roles are self-perpetuating: people expect us to “act” accordingly, and we can only really communicate—even to ourselves—within the confines of our part. We are all forced to walk the stage. Occasionally however, we intuit that there’s another reality, lingering in the wings.


Consider that Dionysos, theatre’s god, was worshipped in the form of a mask hung on a stake. Looking into His eyes was to look into nothingness, a space that could not be defined or understood. Similarly when a sudden, inexplicable silence descended on a gathering, it was taken as a sign of Hermes’s presence. He was the messenger of the gods, and silence was both his herald— and the entire content of his message. 


And yet a world of meaning seems to throb in that emptiness. Silence forces us to listen. When the god arrives, we are called to presence, to a deeper awareness of what’s really going on, and ultimately to compassion. We are asked to see through others’ roles, and our own.


“It is often in the moments when we stumble, hesitate and fall silent that we most reveal ourselves to one another.” (Sherry Turkle) In those charged instants there can be a mutual recognition that we are each more than we can say — and less free than we suppose. For the gods themselves don’t follow any script. Rather they play a terrifying game of improv to which we all are vulnerable. The masks we wear in response to life’s vicissitudes may speak of what we fear to be or wish to be, but not of what we really are. That is a mystery we must approach with the heart and not the head.


May I have the courage to look beyond the mask, to drop the script, to dare the silence and meet the gods on their own ground. May I tread the boards knowing darkness lurks offstage. May I see it in its beauty and its terror. And may it rouse my care and not my fear.





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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Tuesday, 06 October 2015

    Dear Archer: I really love this post. I, too, saw the makeup on the actors' faces when we got our HD TV. This was especially significant for me, since I had been an actor in my salad days (when I was green in judgment)! We all knew that you had to use different sorts of makeup for stage lighting than you did for movie lighting, than you did for TV lighting…even different techniques for film vs. video tape. It seems that these difficulties now have to be figured out again, for a new era of technology.

    You are right about the void of emptiness that can exist offstage, which is why the more emotionally fragile performers have no idea how to behave when they are not employed in playing somebody else. (This ties in with your description of worrying how people view you when you're trying to fill different roles in real life. As you say, people almost force us to behave in certain ways, which is why they become so indignant and hurt if we fail to live up to their expectations.) And actors throw so much of their vital life force into building a character when they do get work, that their most loyal fans think they know and love them intimately…when the uncomfortable truth is that they never knew the actors at all, they just fell in love with the personae they so convincingly created for their entertainment. As you have intimated, It's easy to be brilliant or resolute or heroic when all your lines are written-out for you ahead of time by somebody else, and when you can thoroughly rehearse each life-changing encounter before you act your way through it with perfect timing.

    On the flipside, however - in a very real sense it can be a sacred calling to be an actor, which is why it all started with priests as a religious ritual. When I had the privilege to be an apprentice company member in repertory with the Stratford, Ontario Canadian Shakespeare Festival in the early 1970's, it came to me that playing all these different roles - some speaking, some spear carriers - in all these different productions was a metaphor for the many lives our soul personalities inhabit as we reincarnate from lifetime to lifetime…which, in my humble opinion, may be the deeply secret reason why human beings are so fascinated by actors in the first place. When the actors come offstage, of course, the costumes and makeup are stripped away, as are the heroes and villains, the clowns and the lovers, the murderers and the victims - and each performer must stand once again as the naked soul personality he or she really is. There is a camaraderie in the dressing room, as we hope there is a camaraderie in the afterlife.

    Did you ever read The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault? One of my favorites.

  • Archer
    Archer Tuesday, 06 October 2015

    Wow, Ted what an interesting life you've led!
    I'm intrigued by your theory that we honour actors because an intuition that we wear different roles through our many (reincarnated) lives. I am also interested in the idea that we can find a way to stand in "our naked soul personality"--some would say we are simply hollow masks (or an assemblage of them) but I think there is a reality behind the mask. However it is not an easily definable one...

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