Posted by: Janice | June 15, 2008

Expressive Masks

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about what it is that actors do, and how training feeds into the work. Of all the artistic disciplines, it seems to me that acting is the most vague, most mysterious, and one that people most often use the words “natural talent” to describe, instead of words like “craft”, or “practice”, or even “emotion”. Unlike dance, or painting, there is less of an idea of what it takes to be really good in the form. What are the actors’ equivalent of the daily ballet barre, the daily studio time in front of a canvas? What is the work that we need to do?

For the past eight months now, whenever we hit a barrier, or started struggling with something in class (usually something personal and private), Thomas’s response has always been “Now, this is where the work begins, for the next five years, ten years…don’t worry, theres plenty of time” I’ve always taken this statement to mean that we need to have time to get more life experiences, so that they may better inform our acting. After class with Thomas on Monday though, I think I was better able to understand what he meant.

We worked with the expressive masks with Thomas on Monday. These masks – very human, with eyes and noses and mouths, generous lines around the forehead and chin – are a lot more developed than the larval masks that we worked with last term. The faces are mostly asymmetrical, appearing at once world-weary and hopeful. Depending on how you play them, they can be extremely funny, or tragic. These masks don’t talk; they are incapable of speech. They either play in the moment before words, or the moment after everything has been said. Consequently, in our improvisations we have explored scenarios of everything from falling in love at first sight, to bitter unresolved farewells.

No mask is easy to play, but for some of us, this was especially challenging. Unlike the neutral mask or the larval mask, the expressive mask asks a lot more of us emotionally. The technicality of slowing things down and articulating everything is still there, but on top of that, you have to see and receive everything that is happening, let yourself feel what the events are doing to you, to your body, then let that emotional state charge the mask, and fill the space. And to trust that that is enough. It is like trying to let the body’s sub-conscious rhythms and natural responses take over. In some ways, I feel that this mask is like the music and paintings that we had in the second term – they were there to provoke a truthful, personal inner space from the performer. Unlike those earlier provocations however, in the mask you cannot let an emotional state overtake you and proceed to improvise in free form. There is a human situation that the mask is playing in, and the very existence of the mask itself imposes a structure and a demand for play. This need to both play finely and feel deeply at every moment was somewhat overwhelming to us, and after weeks of light-hearted character change last term, we were quite taken aback with the sudden depths to which we were asked to dive into again.

Thomas gave us a scenario of a son, or daughter, saying farewell to his/her family. It is not a peaceful farewell however, as the son is actually leaving the house to move in with his gay lover, which the family disapproves of. In the same vein, the daughter is saying goodbye in order to marry a person who does not come from the right racial and socio-economic background. Much has already been said and done between the family members, and at this moment, there is really nothing more to say. Yet tensions between family members and the departing child have hardly been resolved. It is into such a charged atmosphere that the child enters in order to say goodbye.

I went up there with the first group as the daughter saying farewell. Before I could enter the space however, Thomas spent some time working with the other people who were playing my family – the mother, the father, the brother, and the uncle. Thomas asked them to put their masks on, and first to arrange themselves in the space. Then they were to take a moment, and fill their bodies with a emotional state, in response to the situation and the other people’s presence. In subtle shifts of attitudes of the body or their places in the space, Thomas prodded them to play out their enmities and alliances, and collective apprehension of my arrival. Time and again, he reminded them to give themselves the time to feel what another actors’ action is doing to them, and to let that emotion flood the body. Then the reaction will happen. The reaction does not have to be big either – it just needs to sustain and build upon the level of tension in the room. The way the father looked at the mother, the way the mother sat down, the way the uncle turned and the rhythm with which he walked towards the brother, everything could be played to create the greatest imbalance for me to enter into. Thomas kept repeating this – if the space is too balanced, if the bodies are too balanced, then there is not enough tension to pull another performer into the space.

Finally, Thomas deemed the family set-up adequate, and asked me to enter. I walked in. I saw the sad figure of my father sitting in a chair beside my mother. I started walking towards him, then noticed my mother’s glance. I stopped. She stood up, then walked towards me. Then pulled her hands into fists and turned her face away. My brother came and put his hands on my shoulders. I looked at him briefly, then took a step towards my mother. I took her hand. She shook it off.

Here, Thomas stopped us, and asked Giuliana (the girl who was playing my mother) to really fling my hand away, to go with what she was feeling. “Just because you are wearing a mask doesn’t mean you have to make everything small….if you are really angry, what does that provoke in you? Go for it!”

He asked us to do it again from the moment where I take her hand. And again. And again. He told us it is important to know when to end a scene, either by someone exiting, or by someone starting to speak. If we carry a scene beyond the right length, then it will start to seem as if we are merely milking the emotions, like in one instance when Giuliana’s rage resulted in a stand-off between her and Brad, the guy who was playing my brother, someone who was on my side.

After about three or four times through, Thomas seemed satisfied, and asked us to try doing the scene again, but this time without masks. It was a strange sensation. With the faces of the other performers suddenly visible, the emotional reactions came on a lot stronger, and with it the urge make it big in the body. Afterwards, Thomas asked us to make note of when in the improvisation it felt genuine, and when it felt more like we were “hamming” it up.

At the end of the night, Thomas seemed quite inspired, more so than usual. He turned to us and said “An actor needs to become transparent, in order to bring his emotions into the space, to share with an audience” He continued “We train with masks not just so we can become great mask-performers, but so we can learn how to feel and play with those things deep inside…if someone can play the mask well, he or she can do anything.” As if on fire, he concluded “Don’t get bogged down by technique. The most important thing is to first train the imagination. To learn to feel. Then technique can come later”



  1. Hi, Janice,

    I just found your blog and am looking forward to going through your archives. I’m a history professor in the US, who also performs with a local amateur circus/theater troupe. I’ve been reading some Lecoq and other works on physical theater, and your blog looks like a great place to get further insights into some technique. I can’t want to read the details of your mask experiences…

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