Redefining Theatre: We Wear the Mask

“What makes something theatre?” That is the very question Ms. Washburn considered when she began writing this year’s play. Is it the lights, the actors, the music, or the performance? But the truth is that the definition of theatre is constantly changing, a reality Ms. Washburn has had to face this year more than ever.

After months of hard work and preparation, The Grace Theatre Company brought “We Wear the Mask” to the Grace community through Zoom. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, in-person plays could not take place this year, so Mrs. Washburn and the cast of the show had to re-envision how to present the play virtually to the Grace community. Despite the challenge, the Company’s Zoom performance of We Wear the Mask was nothing short of spectacular.

We Wear the Mask, written by Mrs. Washburn, was composed of five short plays: “Camp Longview,” “Baby Reborn,” “Runneth Over,” “Paint’N Sip,” and “The Red Sweatshirt.” Mrs. Washburn found inspiration in Maya Angelou’s poem “The Mask.” “I wanted to explore the way in which masks, physical and metaphorical, can help us survive dangerous situations and how taking off the symbolic mask requires trust and a whole lot of love,” she said.

Mrs. Washburn has been involved in theatre since she was in third grade. “From the first play that I [performed in] that year (The Trial of Hansel and Gretel), I have never stopped. I was hooked,” she recalled. One of the things that drew Mrs. Washburn to theatre was the ability to step into a character’s skin and, as Mrs. Washburn puts it, “embody things that I was once too timid to be in real life.”

While Mrs. Washburn loved acting, she always knew that she was capable of more in the theatre realm. In fifth grade, she wrote a sequel to The Trial of Hansel and Gretel and has been writing ever since. She has spent the past few years focusing mainly on playwriting.

Over this past summer, Mrs. Washburn took part in a virtual playwriting retreat where she was inspired to write We Wear the Mask. Since she knew that in-person plays could not take place, she wanted to take the framework of a video call and use that to write about different relationships and circumstances. While the play was designed to be performed over Zoom, there is no doubt that Zoom rehearsals are not ideal.

James Prud’homme ‘21 stated that “The pandemic certainly impacted our rehearsal and performing processes. A typical rehearsal is full of hard work, but also replete with humor and connection, which was challenging at first.” However, the Grace Theatre Company’s dedication to each other, to the school, and to theatre proved to be strong enough to overcome all the obstacles they faced. “In times of crisis, we must seek and find connection wherever we can, no matter the impediment,” Prud’homme said. 

Although it is easy to dwell on the challenges of performing during COVID, the Company chose to view these challenges as an opportunity to explore a new type of theatre — one that makes use of technology.

In order to extend the world of the play beyond the performances, Daryl Embry, the tech director at Grace, suggested that the Company send out emails to immerse those who bought tickets into the lives of the characters. The emails that the audience sent provided a window into two project partners organizing a Zoom call, three long-separated camp friends organizing a time to reconnect, and a daughter writing a letter to her mom who struggles to adjust to the distance between them.

Mrs. Washburn stated that “We have entered a phase when even emails can be a part of a theatrical experience. It was a cool experiment… tech is such a central part of the performing arts right now.” This was the first time the Company implemented interactive emails into their performance, but hopefully, it won’t be the last as the emails allowed audience members to connect with the characters even before seeing the play. At the end of the day, the Company proved that, despite unprecedented obstacles and setbacks, they can always put on an excellent show.

The bond that the Company has formed over the years is what holds them together. Frankie Rogerson ‘22 said that “In theater, especially in high school, there’s this hunger to be taken seriously. If acting and performing is something that you’re really passionate about, all you want is to be given the chance to do it well. And I think what the GTC —  and Mrs. Washburn, in particular —  do so brilliantly is ensure that there is never a time when you’re not being taken seriously for the work you’re putting into a show. That feeling of company and family is so apparent at every moment, and that is so validating. Everyone is welcome, and everyone has a place.” 

We Wear the Mask showed the Grace community what can happen when you have passion, drive, and a strong community to fall back on in difficult times. 

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