MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — For Jonathan Becker, theater was never a game, just a job or a social club. It was a complex, sophisticated art form that had always tugged at him, and he had a deep desire to understand it.
The love for the arts started when he was growing up in the small town of Hiram, Ohio. Becker was always imitating people in front of crowds, starting with the preacher on Sunday mornings.
While other actors’ first plays were “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Cinderella,” Becker first stared at Ejlif in Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People.”
Later, he’d move from northeastern Ohio to cities all over the world as he perfected his craft as a movement specialist, working with theater masks in various productions. From New York City to Paris, he’d travel for workshops and as a performer.
In 2005, he landed in Muncie as an employee of the Department of Theater and Dance at Ball State University.
Here, Becker would also open his own freelance studio in the Charles Over Mansion, making thousands of masks in a 17-year period.
“Masks are expressive form, they’re a dynamic sculpture,” Becker said. “They’re a rhythmic entity that animates the negative space around them, so that as they move through space, they appear to change expression, or as the body moves beneath them, they appear to change.”
That all came to a halt in March as COVID-19 was spreading throughout the United States and around the globe. Becker felt the impact immediately as the theater industry shuttered worldwide.
At 56 years old, he had dedicated his entire life to something that now seemed to be gone.
“The emotional roller coaster is significant,” Becker said. “When you’ve dedicated literally your existence to the development and practice of excellence in a particular art form, and you’re faced, on a daily basis, with the potential loss of that, it’s a big internal struggle.”
Becker remembers moment-by-moment of the performance that drew him to masks.
At 14 years old, he was attending a summer workshop held by the National Clown Mime and Dance Puppet Ministry at a college campus in New York.
He had never seen anything like it, and his ribs hurt from laughing so hard at the man’s performance. Later, while walking through a dormitory, he saw the performer talking to a group while wearing a neutral mask.
“When he put the mask on, it was as if the fabric of the air in the room changed,” Becker said. “When he shifted the mask just a little bit, the world shifted with it. Everybody in it shifted with the mask.”
Intrigued, he needed to know where the performer learned his craft. Ultimately, that’s how he ended up in the International School of Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris from 1986 until 1988.
There, Becker learned that masks are a tool for actor training that help one to understand through kinesthetics, the study of the perception, both conscious and unconscious, of one’s own body motions. It was more of an intuitive response to surroundings rather than an intellectual one.
As a teaching artist, he needed these sophisticated tools to teach with, but as a young person, he couldn’t afford them. So, he began making masks himself.
When Becker first began making masks, it was labor intensive, working with water-based clay, petroleum jelly and buckram fabric, he said. As the years went on, he began using neoprene instead, which is how he currently makes his masks.
The liquid was originally a bonding agent for adhesives to help them stick better. Now, it’s made exclusively for artisans like prop, mask and puppet makers.
“The process is, in terms of how materials work, is very simple one. I sculpt it in a water-based clay and then create a plaster mold, a negative, that the clay is pulled out of and then disposed of,” Becker said. “The neoprene, which a liquid, gets poured into the mold and it sits then for, in this case, three hours.”
Then the masks are removed and sit on the curing shelf. Once ready, they’re trimmed, sanded, painted, strapped and padded.
Currently, Becker has masks in about 50 countries, with close to 10,000 masks being shipped out in the last 15 years. He’s worked with all levels of the theater industry, from the top actor training programs of the world to local productions. The client list goes on and on.
“For me, whether it’s a huge celebrity in a commercial production, or whether it’s the civic theater down the street, for me it’s all the same,” Becker said. “The work has integrity and it speaks for itself. It doesn’t need a commercial venue to validate it.”
When he first opened his online store at theater-masks.com 17 years ago, Becker said there were probably only six other mask-makers in the world with an online presence. With social media, that has now changed.
“When I see mask-makers who are just emerging and I look at their sculptures, I see in them where I was as a sculptor 35 years ago,” Becker said. “There’s a growth in that as time goes by.”
The process of making masks can be taught within 30 minutes, Becker said. The real challenge is teaching the skill sets of creating dynamic form.
At the end of his 11-year teaching stint at Ball State, Becker had an image of a space for artists and a place for performance research where he could work.
It took him two years to make that decision, as he worked with accountants and business consultants before resigning from the university in 2016.
That dream became a reality when he stepped into the Charles Over Mansion on Washington Street, which was built in 1903. The home needed plenty of renovations, but when he saw the ballroom space upstairs, Becker knew he could transform it into a workshop.
“I was always imagining a place where artists could come together to create new work, to learn from each other, teach each other. And it would also be a place where they could stay together while they worked together,” Becker said. “I just never contemplated me being the person to provide the space for that. This place was the opportunity for it.”
He purchased the home and created the North American Laboratory for the Performing Arts. In the last five years, more than 3,000 people from nine different countries have walked through its doors.
While Becker worked tirelessly on renovation to both the outside and inside, students and theater professors were already coming to take week-long workshops with him in the summer.
He tried to do classes back-back-back, so those participating could stay for weeks at a time and learn from him. The home also functioned as an Airbnb for anyone wanting to be inspired while staying in Muncie.
All three of those endeavors would be greatly impacted as COVID-19 made its mark.
The impact of COVID-19 on the theater and performance industry was felt immediately, especially for Becker.
Before the shutdown, he was planning a trip to New York City in order to explore becoming a creative director. But that plan, mask-making, the laboratory and the Airbnb all have come to a halt.
“When the shutdown happened, the entertainment industry was just shuttered, instantly,” Becker said. “Everyone was put out of work in the entertainment industry, and we still are out of work.”
Becker said even at the top end of the industry, where people make a decent amount of money, it’s a hustle to stay employed and relevant.
Although, right now, there’s a reasonable income stream coming into the studio, it doesn’t cover his overhead costs anymore, and certainly doesn’t help build a financial foundation.
From March to April, there was absolutely no business and no revenue. At times, Becker considered eliminating his health insurance, the most expensive of his bills. But that seemed risky in a pandemic.
His clients are often artists themselves, and they, too, have tight budgets. About 40% of them are international clients, and because of how the United States handled the pandemic, Becker said it’s made his business even harder.
He has thousands of dollars worth of product lost in customs, because in March, countries began refusing shipments from the United States. If those shipments aren’t delivered eventually, he’ll have to refund clients.
“The irony is these spaces were intended to build a community and bring people together so that they could share their humanity and celebrate it,” Becker said of his studio. “It’s these types of spaces that are the first ones lost in this pandemic due to the fact that people just simply can’t care for somebody other than themselves.”
To make up for the loss, he decided to sell his historic Washington Street home.
“There’s no path forward for those of us who have dedicated our existence to the entertainment and events industry,” Becker said. “We look into the future and nothing that we’ve actually considered is there right now, and certainly not for the foreseeable future.”
With the sale of the house pending, Becker said he’ll essentially be homeless when it sells.
He isn’t too concerned about where he’ll sleep, but he is concerned for his business. Orders are slowly starting to trickle in as the rest of the world opens back up, and he needs a 1,000-square-foot space with running water to operate.
Last weekend, Becker sent out a message to the national community, asking for a temporary place to stay. If he can’t find one, the studio will end up in a dumpster.
“Until the house sells, I can’t really do anything about next step issues,” Becker said. “I have to actually be homeless first, otherwise I don’t have the freedom to move in any direction I need. There’s something exciting about it, but it is a little unnerving.”
As a visual learner, it’s hard for Becker to picture himself doing something else. How is he supposed to reinvent himself when it isn’t his own choice, in his late 50s? He said it’s a weird thing for him to consider.
He’s currently working with a career coach, trying take the skill sets he has and move them into another industry. It’s hard for him to get excited, but he’s engaged.
In late August, he began packing up the studio, throwing away about 300 plaster molds for masks.
“Putting stuff in boxes and trying to make decisions on what to keep when you don’t know where you’re going is a tough thing,” Becker said. “Yesterday was a hard day. Today I’m back working on stuff for clients, so it’s a good day.”
What’s been getting him through the days is support from his family, his dog, Gertrude, and the artists all over the world that he’s interacted with.
There have been random calls and emails on a daily basis, with people wanting to see how things are going. They often want to help, but they’re not sure how. Becker isn’t exactly sure either.
“The way I’m getting through it is to live in the present moment, this moment right now. Because in the moment we’re in, there is nothing else,” Becker said. “There’s no past, so I don’t have to think about it and let it affect me. I don’t have to let it make me sad or angry or frustrated.”
“The future isn’t in this moment either, so I don’t have to worry about it or get stressed out about it either,” he continued. “As I am working on diligently every day trying to be in the present moment, I’m finding more and more peace in that.”
Theater mask maker Jonathan Becker works on a series of masks in his Muncie studio Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2020.
Becker’s driving force has always been to share the value of what he has learned with others, in hopes it helps them understand their own humanity.
While it’s hard to answer what his future holds, he hopes he can still do that in some capacity: to continue working with people and be part of the community.
“I might not have to do it. Things may pan out in exactly as I had anticipated they would. You get to choose the vision but you don’t get to choose the path,” Becker said. “This is how I’ve understood the way life works out. I don’t think is life to meant to be easy, it’s meant to challenge so we can become more conscious.”(backslash)
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