Masks can be tricky creatures with a mind of their own! Sometimes disruptive, sometimes unruly and unpredictable, nearly always endearing, magical and adorable; masks require a delicate level of understanding and careful handling in order to get the best out of them and maximise their potential.
Mask Theatre Terminology
An extremely important notion, particularly relevant in full face mask theatre. In the absence of text, and with pin hole eyes, the mask performers must know, and control where possible, where the focus of the audience is directed. If the performers know which character has the focus, then so will the audience. Actors must be able to retain the focus, pass the focus, steal the focus, and GIVE the focus to and from each other!
Many pre-mask exercises are designed to work on this skill, and are excellent training for an actors' awareness of fellow actors on stage; to work as a team.
The act of putting on a mask and getting into character, or 'embodying' the mask.
Rules of the Mask
Guidelines, or 'do's and don’ts' of mask theatre.
Rules of the Mask explained
- Never put a mask on, or take it off, in front of anyone
- Don't touch the mask when wearing it; it destroys the illusion.
- Never speak or make sound when wearing the mask (full face); it also destroys the illusion
- Always remain 'in character' whilst in mask
- Handle the masks with respect and never put them down face-down
- Maintain a distance of six feet minimum between the performer and the audience
- Not suitable for an audience of children under the age of six, as they can find masks frightening.
- Don't use a mirror, work internally ( this varies from one practitioner to another)
- Turn your back to everyone/find a private space to work
- Now pull the face/copy the expression of the mask as accurately as you can. Take your time with this process to really study every detail. It might help to imagine you are looking in a mirror as you look at the mask. The more time you spend with the mask at this stage, and the more accurately you take on the exact expression, the better the mask will work.
- Put the mask on. Make sure it fits well, the elastic is the correct tension, and that you can see. You will experience tunnel vision through pinhole eyes. Arrange your hair, a hat, wig or hood to cover the mask/hair line where possible.
- Keep pulling the face of the mask whilst you are wearing it at all times. This will ensure that you stay in character.
- Still working alone and with your back to the audience ( or off stage): Let the face 'melt' down into the body. Experiment with different ways of standing/ moving on the spot. Think about the state of tension in the body. Are there any particular physical characteristics to this mask? Try to inhabit the mask with your whole body now, taking the impetus from the face.
- Face your audience in the character of the mask
A tip for anyone new to mask performance is to try simply 'being there' for your audience, in character, without trying to 'do' too much, or entertain in any way. The illusion of the mask is so strong when performed well, that it is not necessary to do anything other than fully inhabit the character.
Provoking the mask
The term used when a director of mask theatre/the facilitator/or another participant speaks to the mask with the aim of 'provoking' the mask more fully into character. Questions must be in closed form (yes/no answers) and can be designed to slightly agitate the actor into the emotions appropriate to the mask character. This is particularly useful when an actor is working 'against' the mask rather than with it.
For your audience
Refers to the particular style performance where a mask constantly refers to, checks out, or simply looks at the audience. This adds effectiveness to the mask, as it will always work most strongly when looking directly at the audience. It adds a child like quality of performance, as if the mask were constantly saying 'did you see that?, did you see how I just tied my shoelace?' This technique adds poignancy to every movement and appears to magnify every 'thought'. Great training for the actor in audience/performer awareness.
Is there more?
Masks love props/real things. This term refers to a pre-mask exercise where an actor is given an object. They must 'do something' with that object, not necessarily the thing that the object was intended for! Each time they do something the director of the game asks 'is there more?' to which the actor must always reply 'yes!'. The actor must keep inventing new ways to use the object. Excellent for the imagination, lateral thinking, spontaneous improvisation.
Entrance and exits
Very important in any masks performance. A mask must always give a direct first and last look to the audience as they enter or exit the stage. The 'last look' gives the audience a lasting impression of the mask as it exits, and the 'first look' an important extended first impression.
A pre-mask exercise to highlight this technique is to work with a door. The director asks actors to demonstrate different styles of entrances and/or exits, on a scale of 1 to 10. This scale can relate to confidence/shyness or 'status' in its various guises. The group should try different versions of a number '2' for example, until they are satisfied with the accurateness of the scale. Particular attention needs to be given to a number '5' as a neutral entrance....potentially the most difficult one to achieve.
A physical theatre term which relates to the physical state of muscular tension in the body, regardless of character traits. The system of five tension states can be accessed with these 'keys' in mind. Each tension state number carries more tension than the last.
Tension state no. key word/s description
1 slob floppy, relaxed, very little muscular tension
2 cool relaxed, some rhythm in body
3 efficient upright, direct and 'staccato' movements
4 paranoid high tension, jerky, some spasm
5 total tension rigidity of muscles. Squeeze
'Internal Dramatic Monologue'. The inner running commentary of thoughts that goes on in the absence of script or underneath script. A mask character need to be thinking 'in character' at all times. This keeps the mask alive and gives accurate motivation for movements and action.
The overriding thought preoccupation at the essence of an archetypal character. Can be repeated by the actor as a 'hook' to discovering the archetype.
The place in the body where the impetus for action stems from, where gestures are focussed and move out from.