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.)
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.”