Mask and Counter Mask

An expressive mask, like the classic archetypal Commedia masks, has complexity and range. The mask is the essence of the true character, which is established early in the scenario. But characters in Commedia are contradictory, and can change in an instant. This allows the performer, at a certain moment, to play “contre le masque”: against or opposite the mask. The counter mask reveals the character’s fantasy or repressed feelings.

Pantalone is a tightwad, old, greedy, gullible and mean-spirited. At a certain moment, though, he can take a fancy to an attractive woman, and somehow imagine that he could charm her. As he dreams or fantasizes of youthful prowess, he can “act” those traits, in denial of his true character. We laugh at his foolishness, as the counter mask causes him to over-extend himself in fatigue and folly.

The mask of Capitano has duality at its heart. The braggart soldier is a cowardly liar in reality. He dreams of being a great hero and lover, and believes his own boasts until Arlecchino or one of the clever serving maids exposes him with frightening jokes or pranks. So we see him flip from braggart to coward in an instant.

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Alastair Sim’s remarkable performance in Scrooge defies the rule. Scrooge’s true character is the light-hearted, generous man we meet on Christmas morning after his long night of visions. His counter mask, formed by emotional trauma and deprivation, is the ungenerous soul we think of when the character is mentioned. Throughout the 1951 film, Sim lets us see glimpses of Scrooge’s true mask, sometimes with only a twinkle in his eye, or a wry smile when he shakes his head at the thought of the Cratchits enjoying Christmas on the meager salary he pays.

Playing the counter mask from time to time allows for variety in a character, and reminds us of the complexity of human nature.  In this performance, the tension between mask and counter mask becomes the essence of the story.

Mask or Puppet

Through years of teaching, I have talked about the notion that when you wear a mask, you are both the character and the puppeteer, manipulating the character. This is a way of approaching the fact that donning a mask requires self-awareness, and the development of a “third eye.” You must ensure that your movement is right for the character, your stance is right and your rhythm suits the soul of the character. So it has become fairly common to talk as if an actor wearing a mask is like a puppeteer controlling the physicality of a puppet character.

A recent conversation with my old friend Erhard Stiefel has made me wonder whether it is more accurate to say that working with masks and working with puppets are opposite sides of the same coin. Erhard, a fellow Lecoq graduate and a world-class artist, has been the mask maker for Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, among others, for decades. He contends that a mask must possess the individual actor – so the soul of the inanimate mask imbues the actor with the right physicality. With a puppet, it is the puppeteer who must imbue the inanimate puppet with life.

One can see this in the tradition of Bunraku in Japan. This is an ancient art in which stories are portrayed by puppets (some of the themes originating in Kabuki). Seated to one side of the action is a single narrator, providing all the voices of the characters as well as singing and narrating the story. He is seated next to one, two or three musicians.

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Each puppet is animated by three puppeteers. The lead puppeteer controls the head and right arm of the puppet, the left arm only by one other puppeteer, and both feet by a third. The sequence of learning these positions is long: ten years learning the feet, then “graduating” to the left arm for another ten years – and then finally attaining the responsibility of animating the head and right arm. The puppeteers are dressed and hooded in black, making them effectively invisible to the audience. Sometimes the lead is not hooded, but to see him is not to see him, as he is in a kind of trance. The head and arm are constantly expressive and emotional, much like a ventriloquist who tries to appear invisible while the doll speaks. But in this case the voices are coming from the narrator at stage left, in full view of the audience. Everything is tightly coordinated with movement, voice, texts and musical accompaniment.

This extraordinary ancient art has an undeniably spiritual impact. I first witnessed it in Ottawa in the early ‘70s and have never been the same. Some recent companies, like Handspring Puppet Company, also invoke the magic of collectively bringing inanimate puppets to real life. This is different from a single performer animating a mask, but the magic of “possession” is the same.

Neutral Mask as a Gateway

How does a performer move beyond the constraints of his or her own physical habits and armor to successfully embody a character? One of the most powerful tools available to assist in this journey of transformation is the Neutral Mask. Devised in the 1920s by Jacques Copeau, director of the famed Theatre du Vieux Colombier in Paris, the mask captures the essential human, free of personal history.

The Neutral Mask covers the entire face – one does not speak under the mask. It helps the actor emphasize the use of the body, without his or her own inherited mask of origin, and de-emphasizes the spoken word as a means of communication. Under this mask, one rediscovers the state of innocence, naivete and vulnerability of the child. It is a return journey, arriving at one’s own state of discovery, free of learned and inherited psychology. With this miraculous and deep process, our daily armor melts away and a kind of rebirth ensues.

The mask below is a copy of a prehistoric stone mask discovered in the Pacific Northwest. Here one can see the dawning of awareness and wonder, and a consciousness that is directed out into the world, not engaged in introspection. (A version of the modern Neutral Mask is pictured in the post entitled “Supporting the Mask.” Another can be seen in the hand of Jacques Lecoq on the About Page.)

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Each performer is a complex and unique individual, physically and psychologically stamped with personal experience, whether by nature or nurture. The Neutral Mask illuminates these unique characteristics of our personality and then enables – and ennobles – us to harness them as tools of creativity and imagination. Although this is a private and personal journey of self-examination and self-expression, Neutral Mask work takes place in the presence of others who are also seeking this “way” to become more versatile, free, expressive and flexible performers. In my teaching, I like to introduce Neutral Mask as a means “to rid yourself of yourself… to find yourself.”

Why I Don’t Have Masks on My Walls

The masks in my collection are from all over the world: Africa, Japan, Korea, Italy, Bali, Mexico, First Nations masks from Canada and the U.S. Many of these masks are used in ritual and story telling. They partake of the shamanistic power invoked in their cultures. In contemporary North America, we only find masks worn on Halloween or on our favorite superheroes.

When we encounter masks from a deep tradition, however, we must meet them with grace and reverence. Each has a spirit and a soul, placed there by the artist that created it. That spirit lives continually in the mask, waiting to be released by the wearer as he/she revives and reawakens it. Call it a rebirth of the spirit that is always there.

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We are never so rude or unfeeling as to place a mask face down on any surface. It’s disrespectful and hurtful to the character living within. And Commedia artists who have played a mask during a performance will hold it at their side as they take their bow: performer and mask together.

My mentor Carlo said one day, simply in passing, that the Commedia masks are made from leather, the skin of a living creature, and we must breathe life into the mask to bring the creature to life as well as the ‘creature’ created by the artist. It’s a kind of reverence or respect that the heat and sweat of our faces and the breath we expel inside the mask also breathes life into the character.

These are not decorative objects, to hang on a wall.

Masks Reveal, not Conceal

The most important mask we encounter is the one we see in the mirror. We glance there to see whether our hair is in place, or our makeup looks alright. But if we take the time to truly study our own mask, it will reveal much about our character – the features we inherited from our parents, the experiences we have lived, and our habits of mind and feeling.

Eminent psychologist Paul Ekman has made a deep study of how emotion is reflected in our faces (and how some emotions are hardwired in our natures at birth). His work on micro-expressions has been used to help law enforcement agencies tell whether someone is being truthful (and inspired the television series ‘Lie to Me’). Ekman’s work suggests that our faces, our masks, reveal our character and our feelings.

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The same is true when a performer puts on the mask of a character they are portraying. An expressive mask will call on the performer to lose their own “mask” and lifelong habits, in order to portray a character who is very different. With beginning actor training I have often said, “No playwright has written a play or character or story about YOU!” So the performer must use their training and imagination to reveal a different character.

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(One reveals, one conceals…)

This is not the same as putting on a mask like Batman, the Lone Ranger or Zorro – masks designed to conceal their identity. Halloween masks and Carnival masks allow the wearers to revel anonymously, for fun and fantasy. These masks, though, tend to be rather flat or even abstract in their design, and lacking in the details of true character.

We often hear that someone is “hiding behind a mask” or that they need to “take off their mask” in order to reveal their authentic self. But only the simplest kinds of masks actually conceal someone’s identity. Theater masks reveal a character, and our own masks reveal ourselves.

Supporting the Mask

We talk about supporting the mask by embodying the character from head to toe. The performer must also support the mask with a heightened energy – still grounded in truth, but slightly more elevated than a performer without a mask.

The phrase in French is “porter le masque” – the same word as “carry.” (In the early days of travel we had porters to lift our bags for us.) You have the obligation to lift the mask – keep it supported – so the energy of the character is emitted from the mask, like the beam of light from a lighthouse. An unmasked actor is free to stare at the floor, brooding or musing, if that is what’s right for the character in that moment. But a mask looking down at the floor, or worn by a performer with no physical presence, has lost its expressive power.

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The energy of the mask is larger than the physical mask itself. It is a kind of aura, reaching at least a foot out from the face of the performer. Two masked characters must stay at least two feet from each other, or their energies collide and cancel each other out.

Even in a photograph, one can see whether a performer is supporting the mask. The character is alive, the mask sees – the energy is actually visible.

The Mask Doesn’t Stop at the Neck

We think of a mask as a covering for a performer’s face – fashioned of leather, wood, paint, fabric or some other material – and expressive of a character. (The mask may cover the face, but as Carlo always said, “The mask doesn’t conceal, it reveals!”) In Commedia, the characters were referred to as masks. This acknowledged that the entire performer was a mask, from head to toe. The physicality of the whole body was synonymous with the mask.

Pantalone’s face features heavy eyebrows over a hooked nose – but you cannot play the character without the tilt of his pelvis, the bent knees and the shuffling gait. The mask on Dottore’s face is little more than a forehead and an impressive nose – but the rest of his mask is his prominent belly, his narrow base (feet too close together to support his girth), and the index finger he waggles to make a point. Arlecchino’s face features a child’s button nose, and the actor supplies the large tongue and the wide-mouthed expressions of wonder. And the feet! Arlecchino’s feet – prancing, skipping or planted – are very much part of his mask.IMG_1211

One of the greatest challenges in teaching physical theatre is to get the performer to support the mask. The mask over the face is only the most distilled part of a spirit that informs every element of the actor’s physicality, movement and rhythm. While we may bemoan the ways in which film has concentrated our attention on the actor’s face in close-up, this total physicality is something that good performers have always instinctively understood. The great English actress Wendy Hiller used to say that she needed to get a character’s shoes right. Once she had the right feet, she could inhabit the character properly.

Physical theatre is alive and well in actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Joaquin Phoenix, Tracey Ullman and Johnny Depp – who instinctively understand the power of supporting the mask even on film.

Isn’t All Theatre Physical?

In the strictest sense – yes, because it involves bodies watching other bodies perform. As Peter Brook famously said, in the opening of his seminal book The Empty Space, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is required for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

For centuries, men walked across bare stages – with large physicality, large voices and, often, masks to help convey character, situation and emotion to spectators who might be sitting hundreds of feet away. Eventually they were joined by women on stage. And, some time after that, by scenery.

One can say all that changed when motion pictures came along, but the shift was far from immediate. Silent films are full of physicality, often expressive gestures left over from 19th century theatre, designed to convey meaning to the back row. It was when the talkies arrived, and the camera learned to capture close-ups of the human face, and reveal the smallest flickers of internal emotional states, that performers appeared to start acting from the neck up.
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There has been a shift in clowning as well. The jester was the one person in a royal court who could speak truth to power. He had the license to tell the king that the monarch himself was a fool – but he also had to sing and gambol and entertain for all he was worth. His descendant, the stand-up comedian, merely needs to pace the stage with a microphone, and sometimes offer up an impression or two. And those who are speaking truth to power now, the late-night talk show hosts, may simply wear a suit and sit behind a desk.

Does that mean that physicality in theatre, or in clowning, is dead? Far from it.

Is Commedia dell’ Arte the godfather of physical theatre?

Yes – but it is one of many!  Theatre has always been physical.  The naturalistic style of drama, with people sitting around in a domestic setting, talking earnestly or perhaps shouting at each other, is relatively new.  And, for all the great plays that have been written in this vein, it is relatively limited.

From everything we know, the Greek theatre that gave us Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides was something like opera today: large in gesture, vocal intonation and spectacle.  The Romans added spectacle of many kinds: chariot races, gladiators facing off, sporting events.  Not theatre?  Are you sure?  Even today, the largest audiences are drawn by the improvisational passion of sports events.  They feature trained ensembles, strong objectives, live interaction with the audience, conflict, high stakes, heroism, dastardly fouls, and epic failure or redemptive success.

Shakespeare is thought of as a verbal writer, one of the greatest poets in the English language.  Yet his plays could be viewed as a series of crossovers: they are always on the move.  And he made sure that different classes, contrasting characters, and contrasting emotional tones would jostle against each other.  Just as they do in the Commedia dell’ Arte, the Italian style of improvisational street theatre that arose around his time.

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In cultures around the world, we find masks, puppetry, storytelling and “total theatre,” invoking the physicality of dance, acrobatics and animal movement.  And this theatrical spirit is unquenchable.  Just when naturalism and “eyeball-level” acting seemed to predominate in theatre and film – lo, the Superheroes are now in the ascendant, with their masks and contradictions and extreme physicality.

The Commedia dell’ Arte is one instance of the spirit of theatricality bubbling up – in this case, in Europe in the late Middle Ages.  Physical, bawdy, transgressive and funny… the spirit of Commedia is still alive in the clowns and standup comics of today.