Jed: Where does theatre fit in with martial arts?
Mason: I think it fits in in a big way. I became interested in it as a spiritual practice. We had this directing class in high school and on our first day of class we had this assignment to write the definition of art. And everyone writes these smart, interesting things and I was like, "I think everything is art. Art is a verb or an action. It's a thing you do. It's a lens." Would it be good to consider certain things art? Probably not, but you could. I was being influenced at that point in time by all my very Zen readings. Things are so shaped by how you look at them and your experience of the world is constructed and an illusion. Even in high school. And the teacher wanted us to come to a group agreement because we were supposed to be making these plays together in this group directing class and I would not concede. I was like, "Respectfully, I don't think I agree with any of these definitions." This assignment that was supposed to be a day went into the whole week until eventually we decided to just move on. People were a little bit frustrated with me. They were like, "It needs an audience." and I was like, "I don't think it does." So that was intense. I was already thinking about art and theatre as a way of exploring these mysteries.
Jed: How does the high school Mason Jedi decide to do NYU Atlantic theatre school?
Mason: I was pretty sure I was going to go to my state school, University of Illinois, which has a great theatre program and would have been ridiculously cheap in comparison. A high school friend at the time was really excited about NYU and I went to this college thing at the Hilton Hotel where all the colleges show up and you audition for all of them. On a whim, I made the appointment because they were there. I did my NYU audition for Rosemary Quinn, who at the time was the head of ETW, the Experimental Theatre Wing, and she had asked me what studio did I want to be in. And I was like, I want to be in the Experimental Theatre Wing because I already knew I was interested in working with theatre in these different ways and I wasn't interested in commercial theatre. I wanted to make my own stuff. I had this great interview with her and she said I'd be a great fit. And so I was surprised when I got my letter of acceptance -- I didn't think I'd get accepted at all, but when I got accepted and was put in Atlantic I was a little bit puzzled. My parents said, "This is great. We're really proud of you. You can't go. There's no way we can afford this." We had a family meeting and they were like, "We looked at our money situation and we can't afford it, but let's have another meeting next month." And then we'd have another meeting. I think we had three or four meetings where they were like, "I'm sorry. We tried to figure it out, but it's just not possible." And after four of those meetings they were like, "Okay. Student loan rates are really low. You can take out all these loans in your name and we'll take out a couple." They said I could go. But I was already pretty much not pushing for it. I was pretty set on U of I. They really surprised me, but my parents have always been very supportive. Anyway, I ended up at Atlantic and I just loved Atlantic so much. They had very strict script analysis and heavy intellectual scene study -- which I also really love, thinking of theatre as a craft. But the voice and movement teachers were very strong and really experimental in their approach. I met Rosemary Quinn when I was there and she remembered me by name -- which is an amazing thing about this woman -- and I asked her why I ended up in Atlantic and she was like, "I don't know. I thought I put you in ETW." But I stayed because I liked it a lot. And then I taught there, which is where I met Katie Bull, my voice teacher, who was the daughter of Richard Bull who was big in the Judson Church dance movement. He had coined this term Structured Dance Improvisation. He was a jazz pianist and he would play in jazz classes and thought, what if dancers could improvise around a tune the same way jazz musicians could? He started working with dancers and through Katie I met George Russell who was a movement teacher at the Atlantic who I hadn't studied with, but met when I just started teaching there. He sort of took me on as a mentor, which I am very grateful for. I don't think many people have mentors, especially men. Having another man as a mentor, that's not a thing that happens. That changed my life. George is an amazing teacher and very close friend. They threw me into teaching, and thought that having watched some of these master teachers I would know how to teach, and I had no idea how to teach. George taught me how to teach. Even though they invited me to teach acting technique and script analysis, I was really learning more how to teach movement and voice through Katie and George. I became more interested in that and less interested in script-based actor-training. George eventually introduced me to David Brick who was a student of his and ran Headlong along with Amy Smith and Andrew Simonet. David offered me this position as a teaching fellow at Headlong where I would teach and also study. And that's what caused me to move to Philly. George does dance improvisation, but for him it's a very personal and spiritual practice. George does improvisational dance as a way to investigate who you are as a person.
Jed: What are you looking for now? What's your quest at the moment?
Mason: I read this text called The Genuine Heart of Sadness when I was in college by this monk, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He's not really a monk. He's a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who founded Naropa.
Jed: I read a book by his wife.
Mason: Right. He was also a drunk and having sex with all these women.
Jed: And taking acid. He's a fascinating dude.
Mason: I read a chapter in his book in college with this Buddhist teacher and performer and I was like, "This describes something I've felt my entire life and never had language for." It's interesting to think about in the context of Sans Everything and melancholy and Jacques [from As You Like It] and everything. It's about how the practice of being human is actually a revealing of your heart. It's allowing your heart to be exposed and for everything to touch you. The genuine heart of sadness is so sad, not because it's been mistreated but because it's so tender. It's so open to the world and that state is a state of sadness. The kind that comes with being receptive to the world. I thought that was amazing because I was always a sad child. Not unhappy, but like, sad. Like a tender little thing.
Jed: Do you think that's where Jacques is at? Or do you think he's pushing it?
Mason: I think he's pushing it, and they all poke fun at him. But I think there's something there -- that state of being melancholy. The shambala text talks about how a real warrior is tender. A real warrior isn't like, "You hit me I'll hit you back." It's about being open to receiving to what the world is giving you and still being there for it. Fearless is not not having fear. It's going beyond fear. He talks about these two metaphors: that it's like a deer's antlers. When they first appear they're these soft bloody sacks and they must first feel so useless. But over time they become these 30-pointed, hard weapons. I think that has a lot to do with my martial arts practice and is also my quest. Now I'm getting even deeper with it. I'm thinking a lot about forgiveness, especially in the context of things like the church shootings in South Carolina. When that happened the families of the victims came out and forgave the shooter publicly like, immediately in this very Christian way. I thought it was really interesting and also felt the social media response being, "I could never forgive this person. We should never forgive this person." And so I'm thinking a lot about forgiveness and acceptance in the context of privilege and progressive values. What does it mean to forgive and allow? Is there a time that not forgiving is a way of avoiding social change or action?
Jed: Do you like hypothetical questions?
Mason: Oh yeah. I love hypothetical questions.
Jed: If you could give your life to make the world non-violent, would you do it?
Mason: I don't know that I would. Non-violent is a tough one. What does that mean? It seems like it could be bad in a cosmic perspective. Violence is a force. A vital force. Certainly the world is too violent in many ways. . .
Jed: Let me change it. If you could give your life to ease suffering and regret in the world, would you do that?
Mason: Maybe. It sounds like Jesus. I don't know. I'm such a subjective person. I'm often thinking about morality as entirely subjective so it's hard for me to make a big moral decision like that. There's an essay I love that is before the John Patrick Shanley play, Doubt. He says, "Doubt is a more powerful place to be, as opposed to knowing or conviction. From the place of doubt everything creative comes." It's hard for me -- even though I said I like hypothetical questions. I don't know, but I think I probably would sacrifice my life. That sounds like a good thing to do, right?