To play mask

The mask demands in itself vast energy. If the actor doesn’t “fill” the mask it doesn’t come to life. Everyone who has seen an actor act in a mask without the energy it demands, with movements just like ordinary life, in a normal pace, has also seen how the mask just become something annoying that is in the way for the actor’s face.
At the same time as we must give full energy in the mask, it is equally important not showing the effort to the audience. Then the tensions of the actor take over audience’s interest and don’t see the endeavor of the mask, but of the actor.
It is all about controlling one’s body and respiration. Every gesture or movement must be “clean”. In other words, it must be the essence of every movement and it is important that we only do one movement at the time. When we start doing two or three things at the same time or come up with ca lot of complicated and naturalistic ways to move, the audience ceases to understand what we are doing.

When we work or just move in daily life, we try to reach the most possible results from the least possible effort – we try to keep in balance. (See HERE) But comedy emerges when we are out of balance and, above all, in our endeavor to regain balance, both physically and metaphorically. The actor can naturally be out of balance or be uncertain if he will fall on his face. Neither can he spend a performance regaining balance. He must all the time be in perfect balance, physical and psychological, but his mask must be permanently out of balance, continually trying to regain the control over his body or/and situation.

Already the fact that the mask is covering the larger part of the face demands that the rest of the body works bigger and more distinct. What we normally express with the face will now have to be expressed by the body. (See HERE) The body is in that way giving the expression to the mask. Even if we know that the mask doesn’t change form or looks, the actor can, with his body, make the audience perceive the mask as if it had various expressions.
“To learn how to move ones limbs and torso with untouched elegance and consciousness should be the most important element in an actors training. An affinity with movement oriented techniques and with respiration all the way to the execution of acrobatics should be the corner stone in our profession, even more important than voice training.”
This demands a distance between the audience and the masks. The mask “dies” when it comes to close to its viewer, since the latter cannot perceive body of the mask. All that the viewer see is a dumb mask, without the possibility to enunciate bodily. There is no exact rule for how near a mask can be its audience. It is an individual relationship between different masks and actors, but the audience must at least be able to see the shoulders and chest of the actor.
The bigger and rougher the mask is, the bigger its movements have to be, so that the actor plays in the same world as the mask.

Finally we must talk about the temptation to work with mirrors or video. It is easy to want to see oneself in mask in the mirror. We see how the others change when they put on the mask, but one can’t see one’s own change.
But it is foolish to try to see what one look like in the mirror. First of all one only see oneself looking in a mirror, not see one reacting to things. Second it makes us self-aware. We see ourselves from the outside and start to think about what we look like doing things on stage, but in fact we are not doing anything, we are just showing what it looks like doing things.
Our only real mirror is the audience and our fellow masks reactions.

See also:
What is a mask
Grotesque as an Acting Style in Commedia dell’Arte
Micke’s Physical theatre workshop

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  1. Pingback: The end of the heydays of Commedia dell’Arte (Part 3) - Commedia dell'Arte & Vulgar ComedyCommedia dell'Arte & Vulgar Comedy

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