Jed: Here we go. We’re at Nam Son. No. Wait. Are we at Tram Son?
Mason: I think this place has a different name. There’s a really nice one [Vietnamese restaurant] in the same complex with Nam Phuong and they have live frogs and lobsters and all sorts of fish — eels in a styrofoam box with a metal grate on top.
Jed: Have you ever bought any live things to eat?
Mason: Oh yeah. Here’s a good story. Have you heard this one before? For Go Long Big Softie we created all these trials and one was a trial of courage and we were like, what should happen in this one. And — do you remember the part when Scott drank the blood of his ancestors? It was just a silly moment. But I think there was something where maybe at first Scott thought we should kill a live chicken on stage during that part. We have a friend named Matt Lowe who has a farm and he kills chickens all the time and has killing cones —
Jed: Killing cones! Yeah. One time I killed a turkey.
Mason: Yeah, they take the chicken and put them upside down in these cones and they’re constricted and upside down and you cut their necks. If you do it correctly they die very quickly because they bleed out because they’re upside down. What we were told is that they still thrash around and freak out and then projectile poop. It’s not a pretty thing. We went so far as to talk with Matt about it and actually meet with someone in the Italian market near to where we were rehearsing where they sell live chickens and rabbit and duck. Charlotte Ford [the show’s director] was really excited about the idea and I was like, “we can’t do this.” Not because I’m morally opposed to killing an animal or even killing an animal in live performance. I was just like, then the whole show will be about that and our show wasn’t really unpacking what that meant. You can’t just, as an extra thing, kill an animal.
Jed: Like a special effect. All anyone would want to talk about is that chicken moment when the piece is about way more than that, and you would be like, “All anyone wants to talk about is the chicken.”
Mason: Right. We were like, Oh we’ll kill the chicken and then send it to this other farmer friend who will pluck it and we’ll eat it and I was like, “Fine. I don’t feel bad about that, but I do feel bad about putting that in a performance piece and then not thinking about it.”
Jed: Are you from New York?
Mason: I’m originally from Chicago. From Skokie, Illinois actually. I was born in Chicago, but when I was very young my parents moved to the suburbs to Skokie, which is North of the city. And then I moved to New York for college. For NYU.
Jed: Did you do plays as a child?
Mason: I did. My mom had a friend, Sue Pector. And Becky Pector was in these community theatre play things and my mom would bring me to see Becky Pector when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade to see these plays. I saw Alice in Wonderland, I remember seeing that. I really liked it and apparently — I recently asked my parents about this. I was like, “Did you sign me up for drama stuff?” And they insisted that I asked to be in these drama production things after I saw Becky in them. We didn’t do faithful productions. Even then they were weird adaptations. I remember being a weird kind of Wizard in The Wizard of Oz. I remember being a Heffalump in a production of Winnie the Pooh, but I was a hip hop Heffalump. So I started doing theatre early, and my mom started taking me to commercial auditions.
Jed: Was that your decision?
Mason: I think it was my mom’s. She had a photographer friend who took pictures of me. I think it was very exciting for my mom. But I enjoyed it too. I was a funny-looking kid. I had glasses and was adorably nerdy. I remember auditioning multiple times to play Rick Moranis’ son. I was almost the lead character in Freaks and Geeks. I’ve never watched that show.
Mason: Yeah, I met with the producers and the directors and stuff like that. I think I was among, like five people who were in consideration. They did a lot of casting and producing in Chicago.
Jed: Did you book any commercial stuff?
Mason: I did some print things. And I was the understudy for all the kids’ roles in a production at the Goodman Theatre called Randy Newman’s Faust. The music was by Randy Newman and the book was by David Mamet. And later I went on to study with Mamet. They hired me knowing I’d have to go on a bunch of times and it was really intense because I had to go on for all the kids’ roles. In that play they show Lucifer and God as children so there was a kid Lucifer and a kid God role and I understudied both of those. I don’t remember exactly how old I was. Maybe 5th grade. Later I went to a public high school that had a really great arts program, but when I was younger I went to a private Jewish day school that was half in Hebrew and half in English.
Jed: Can you speak Hebrew now?
Mason: I can. [speaks Hebrew] I speak Hebrew, but it’s not so great because I don’t speak it actively. I did a Birthright trip and I was like, “This is so great. It’s all coming back to me.” I feel like if I spent a good year living in Israel it would all come back to me because I have an innate sense of the grammar from studying it as a real young kid, but in high school I studied Spanish. So, I went from a Jewish day school to a public high school with an amazing arts program. We put on tons of productions and had a directing class and advanced scene study class. I did Kabuki with a living national treasure of Japan who was my theatre director’s teacher. It was a really big deal. He did Kabuki MacBeth and Kabuki Medea, along with Fiddler on the Roof. But we also did, like, Zoo Story.
Jed: Earlier, full disclosure, we went to a boxing gym, and I took a class with Mason.
Mason: What was that like?
Jed: It was fun. I feel like the initial learning experience with any kind of physical discipline for me is always tied up with my difficulty in processing names or numbers or sequences and my dyslexia and frustration with those things. But then my enjoyment with any movement things get me excited just to move in the end. There was just enough repetition that I was able to have some fun. But I was curious now, you’d said you’d done all kinds of martial arts. Did you ever try Krav Maga?
Mason: I’ve never tried Krav Maga. I know a little bit about it, but I never took intense self-defense martial arts classes. As a very little kid I took Taekwondo at the Skokie Park District. I took judo with my dad and brother for a while for a couple years. Not very long, but my dad wanted a practice — something to do with me. A lot of it was that my vision is so bad and it wasn’t so bad as a kid. But like, I thought I was really bad at sports because the sports you play as a kid are like, baseball or like, soccer or tennis or all these things that require hand-eye coordination. All these things to track these balls and I’m like, “clearly I’m a nerd and inept with my body.” But then I started doing theatre and gymnastics as a kid, and martial arts and I realized, no I like moving. I even like competitive sports. I just can’t do these more common sports because I have really bad vision. That’s part of why I got into martial arts. My dad had always been into it as well. I was also obsessed with Star Wars as a kid. My brother and I were written up in the local paper for our Star Wars toy collection. My mom pulled me from school the day the Star Wars movies were rereleased in the theatre. I became obsessed with being a Jedi. My dad was a philosophy major and he’d read all these Eastern spiritual and philosophy texts on Zen Buddhism and all that. So at a young age I read like, Zen and the Art of Archery and all these spiritual texts and was obsessed with being a Jedi. Meanwhile I was going to Jewish day school and I was like, not into that.
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?
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?