We started school again about two weeks ago, on March 17. In this term, we will be working on characters, developing them through the use of different physicalities and different articulations of the body. Unlike last term, where the teachers kept provoking us to dive deeper within, this time around, the work feels a lot more technical, more outside-in. Instead of the darkness of our psyches, we take up the lightness of play.
In week one, Thomas introduced us to the larval masks (above). Inspired by carnival masks from Basel, Switzerland, these masks take on many different shapes and sizes (http://www.themaskery.com/Basel.html). Many of the masks we worked with had no holes for eyes – we were essentially blind when we put them on. Even those with holes sometimes left us with reduced vision. Why would the teachers want us to work with masks that didn’t let us see? Is it some sort of stage trick we’re learning?
As Thomas explains it, when we put the mask on, we become blind, but the mask that the audience sees is not blind, so, as actors we have to play them as seeing creatures. To avoid stumbling around the stage then, we have to take things slowly. Do things one at a time. Instead of turning your head while walking, you turn your head, then walk. Even something as simple as sitting on a chair can be broken down into ten different steps. The mask forces us to stop relying on our faces and our eyes to communicate, and to start tuning into the sensation of seeing with our entire bodies. Not only can we connect better with our stage partners – we also have a much stronger physical presence. The masks are the limitations within which we can find physical freedom.
With these masks, we did several improvisations during the course of the week: being otherworldly creatures that came out of boxes stored at Terminal 5 at Heathrow; interacting with different objects like yo-yos, cards, and slinkies; folding the laundry with a group; breaking into a house as a band of bored teenagers. Though the situations were different, the basic principles were always the same: slow down, articulate, one thing at a time. Big and simple. Even though the masks have recognizable facial features, they are still simple creatures without a great deal of intelligence, so as performers, it is almost as if we need to have a running inner monologue, and play it one line at a time, both action and reaction, so that the audience is able to register everything that the mask is thinking and feeling at the appropriate speed. For example, walking into a room and seeing a chair might go something like this: I enter the room. I stop. I look around. I see a chair. I did not expect to see a chair. I am startled. I look left to see if there is anyone. I look right to check the same. No one. A pause. Slowly I turn my head to look at the chair again.
When put down in writing, this all seems a bit dry and technical, more thinking than feeling. This is true, and further more, we often fall into the trap of either becoming robotic, or becoming a generalized mess. But when done well, trust me, the larval masks are so surprising, so delightful, so gloriously funny, that I felt I had reverted back to the age when I believed stuffed animals could talk. I could probably spend hours watching these masks interact – and still I would believe that they were real.