Smalltalk through masks is hard; I really was glad to see so many familiar upper halves of faces at last night’s six-theatre Sondheim tribute

If you said hello to me recently and I didn’t seem interested in smalltalk, but just raised my eyebrows, made friendly sounds, and drifted on, I hope I didn’t seem indifferent. I really was glad to see so many familiar upper halves of faces at the Lamp Theatre last night, but it was also kind of overwhelming.

I wouldn’t say I’m particularly bad at recognizing faces (see this Post-Gazette article on my colleague Lee McClain), but I’m definitely not as good as I was in my youth, when I spent more of my day around a flow of people whose names weren’t on a roster and who weren’t on a seating chart.

Last night at a Steven Sondheim celebration that was produced by six different local theaters, I saw a large number of familiar eyes (above their masks), but because this was a co-mingling of six different theater companies, my brain struggled to attach names to, or supply any context for those familiar eyes. Though the masks, above the noise of the crowd, it was very difficult for me to engage in smalltalk. After the show several people called me by name, and I was just at a loss; but the fact that my daughter was in the show and her name was in the program and I was in the third row center section whooping enthusiastically might have reminded people what my name is.

The summer after my freshman year in college, I had a job working at the stage door at Wolf Trap Farm Park. There I had to remember which of the random people walking past was a member of the visiting production team for that night’s show, who was a fan trying to sneak backstage, which of the visiting production team members had told me that this or that particular fan was or was not permitted backstage, and who my boss or the visiting star performer told me I should or should not listen to. It was pretty chaotic, but a great summer job.

I got to see performances by the Kirov ballet, Bobby McFerrin (who made an effort when he arrived to learn all the staff member’s names, and when he left that night said goodby to several of us — mostly the women, as I recall), Bernadette Peters (who I remember made an effort to thank us on her way out), Rob Goulet (who held a chair for me when I kicked off my shoes to stand on a barstool in order to tape towels over a ceiling speaker that was blaring announcements while he was trying to nap between the matinee and the evening performance of South Pacific), Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis, (link goes to a video of their performance that night; they stayed and partied in the dressing room for Dizzy’s 70th birthday until 1:30am and I got a nice overtime paycheck), Roy Orbison, Ella Fitzgerald (I remember she glared at me from stage when I was in the wings reporting something to my boss and he made a clever joke that made me burst into laughter), Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie (I was off that night but took a girl to see the show and gave her a backstage tour; we mutually friend-zoned each other soon after but I’m glad we gave “us” a shot), Tony Bennett (he asked for a Band-Aid, and the only ones in our first aid kit were too pale for his olive skin, so he went onstage with an uncovered paper cut), Peter, Paul and Mary (I was off for the first day of their two-day run so sadly I didn’t recognize Paul when he asked for his messages the next day… that was embarrassing), The Beach Boys, and many more.

A few years later I was interning as a news reporter for a local radio station. Although some of that work involved calling sources over the phone, I also brought my microphone with a “WINA” nameplate out to events at city council meetings, the jail board, trials, protests and demonstrations, zoning board hearings for a situation where a couple bought an old farm and got all the permits to turn it into a campground but neglected to mention in their initial proposal that the campground was “clothing optional,” and I even did a bit of ambulance-chasing.

Along the way, I got pretty good at recognizing faces, putting names with faces, putting voices with faces, and so forth.

In grad school, my skill at face-recognition atrophied. Most of my classes were very small seminars, and it was the same people every week. After a few years of classes, I spent my time in a writing center, where the students signed up by name, and I met them mostly one at a time, so I didn’t really have to memorize their faces. Writing a literature dissertation is very solitary work, but I still remember the faces of the Indian man who ran the local copy shop and the Polish woman who ran the sausage stand outside the library.

In grad school, of course I went to conferences, and began putting faces to the names of scholars whose work I followed, and putting names to the faces I saw in the audience at sessions devoted to topics that interested me. But at those conferences everyone wears a name tag, and we all practiced the art of casually looking down to check out the name tag of the person we were standing next to in the elevator.

Although last fall masks were not required on campus for the vaccinated, most committee meetings now still take place over Zoom, and there are fewer in-person social events, so if a co-worker was hired just before or during the pandemic, I may only have seen them during Zoom meetings.

After almost two years of pandemic, I’m just out of practice at a cognitive skill that I relied on much more in my youth.

Here’s a well-written story (with beautiful photos) focusing on a young woman from the other end of the spectrum — she’s unusually skilled at recognizing faces.

As a child, Yenny Seo often surprised her mother by pointing out a stranger in the grocery store, remarking it was the same person they passed on the street a few weeks earlier. Likewise, when they watched a movie together, Seo would often recognise “extras” who’d appeared fleetingly in other films.

As a child, Yenny Seo often surprised her mother by pointing out a stranger in the grocery store, remarking it was the same person they passed on the street a few weeks earlier. Likewise, when they watched a movie together, Seo would often recognise “extras” who’d appeared fleetingly in other films.

Her mother never thought this was “anything special”, Seo says, and simply assumed she had a particularly observant daughter.

Seo too was unaware that others didn’t share her love of the private game she played, where she’d spot a person on a bus or the street and then flick through the vast catalogue of faces she kept in her head, trying to place where she’d seen them before. “It’s always been quite fun for me,” she says. “Especially as a child. I remember just really enjoying looking at different faces.” —The Guardian