Masks unduly obsess me. The masks we wear to disguise, the masks we wear to protect and the masks we wear to oppress. And curiously, some masks perform all three functions at once. Think of as simple a mask as a stocking stretched over one’s features.
About 12 years ago I attended a mask-making workshop organized by Spandana at National High School and taught by Debu Mahapatra, from the National School of Drama. It was a lovely experience in craftsmanship, watching as he effortlessly made masks out of Plaster of Paris and fibreglass. Years later, during a theatre collaboration with the Trestle Theatre, St.Albans, I learned more about the lure and danger of masks. About why people use masks and then stop using them, about the folklore surrounding contemporary mask-work.
I hadn’t previously given the act of Mask much thought. I thought they were used intuitively, in play. Then I had a transformational experience while performing Shishir Kurup’s Skeleton Dance at the LATC in 1990. We used Butoh for our movement vocabulary, so our bodies were rubbed ash gray and faces masked with red paint. This unified the ensemble of men and women, turning us into something very potent. Later I used mask in My Children who should be running thru Vast, Open Spaces…a play about child sexual abuse. And again, while performing Dario Fo’s Medea, I used giant, white cardboard masks for the voice of the women. And yet again, as a part of a sinister role reversal, I used Venetian carnival masks in Jean Genet’s The Maids. I continue to experiment with masks, especially those of the invisible kind.
Trestle Theatre had built its reputation as one of the foremost non-speaking mask-work touring companies in Britain. In 2002 they experimented with a single non-speaking, masked character in a scripted play. The result was a seminal production of Rudolf Besier’s The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street. Placing a masked father amongst un-masked family members ruthlessly exposed the outcomes of such patriarchal control. If you go into Trestle’s basement workshop, you’ll be quite shaken by the myriad energies that spring out at you. From Neutral masks to Larval masks to hand painted Character masks, there they are, arranged in arrays of skin tones and expressions, these faces!
And therein lies the key for physical theatre training. For an actor, the face is both boon and betrayal. The visual impact of the face is such that it can be quite hard to get away from. This in turn results in “face men” – actors who are dependent on face and voice alone. The body becomes vestigial. Mask is fantastic during training because you are freed of your face thus allowing your body shameless access to your own truths. Losing the face is a step towards, what I call, self-unconsciousness. In fact the three acknowledged pedagogical functions served by mask-usage are that
· It clarifies and refines the actors movement
· It channels expression through the body
· It liberates the actor
But a mask cannot be treated as a toy. As Dymphna Callery writes “By their very metaphysical qualities, masks can possess their wearer.” This is well understood by all ancient theatrical traditions where the “shoeing” of a mask is a ritualistic act and not taken lightly. There is the famous story of Peter Brook’s actors being given Indonesian masks. As long as they approached them as toys, the masks were feeble and mildly ridiculous. The minute they were ritualized, both actor and mask was transformed. Theyyam of North Kerala is a mind-expanding example of this ancient wisdom. During the annual festival in Payannur, we were shooting some artists in their tents, on the days preceding the festival. Broke, in need of a drink, complaining about the state of the world and as lay as you and me. But God-like, transcendent and absolutely invincible once transformed into a screaming, orange, terrifying Kali theyyam.
If you’re curious about the aforementioned invisible masks, they are the one’s we wear every day in order to stay in charge, roll over and play dead, be attractive, be insignificant, be intelligent, be worthy, be honest etc. The ones we wear for survival. These are the most poignant of masks and also the most fragile. Hyper-real theatre and Moreno’s psychodrama make use of these masks to cathartic effect. By wearing the invisible mask and appearing as an archetype, the actor allows the audience emotional entry behind the mask. This opens a whole world of understand and empathy.
To end with something that a Commedia dell’arte stock character might have said, but is in fact a quote by Oscar Wilde “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”