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.
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.
(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.