Mask Work and its Effects

The mask has a long history in the theatre. One of the most iconic images of acting is the famous comedy tragedy masks. They symbolize the art form itself, and are inspired by some of theaters earliest history. Greek theatre is famous for many different things including the use of masks to show the different characters throughout a show.
            These masks made the actors must express in different ways what a character was feeling. The masks did not change to show the emotion of the character, and so this job was left upon the actor himself. This is when the body and the voice become the key to expressing the feelings of different characters. It also helps to create unique distinctions between the different characters if the actor is allowing themselves to use their full ability.
            Today the masks have obviously been retired to their rightful place in the development of modern theatre. They also have established themselves as a symbol, but they do still serve a practical purpose for actors of the modern era. Many acting schools and acting programs will do different exercises that involve the use of masks. These are meant to train actors to not only be talking heads, and to instead get in touch with their full body.
            The exercises can be anything from simple improvs, or full class exercises. All of them being used to help the actor find what they can create character wise when they are given only their bodies.
My first experience with these exercises was back in my first year of college. The theatre history teacher decided that it would be good for us to not just read Greek plays, but to perform them as the Greeks would have. This lead to two full weeks of the entire class bringing in masks and being randomly chosen to be one of the actors or the chorus. To begin the class, we would always start with a new exercise that would train us in the mask. After that it was time to act as the characters themselves.
Now what was so interesting about the mask work was how it affected us all as actors, and the change in our performances over the chorus of the work. When we began all of us were very unexpressive, and we kept trying to act as we normally did. Now this normally would be fine, but the problem was that we all were expressing with our faces. The one part of us that couldn’t be seen. This is when our professor would stop the class and send us back to the beginning of our scene. We all began to get frustrated because we kept getting sent back to the beginning, and we began to do whatever we could to please our professor.
People started going crazy and doing the most ridiculous movements and physicality they could think of, but they would get sent back. Then people were trying to modulate their voices to either be kooky and weird to make themselves comedic, or dark and deep and dramatic. This again would end up in all of us being sent back to the beginning of the scene.
Finally, one scene made it through the first hoop. The actors on stage didn’t go overboard with their choices. They didn’t play to the extremes to try and please the professor, but instead played with what their bodies told them to do. The performance was spectacular to watch because you could see the truth behind every movement. Their actions became motivated and had purpose behind them. They had a fullness to their voices and their emotions came through strong causing them to react with their full instrument. After the scene, our professor looked at us, and explained that they were not following what they thought was expected of them. All that was guiding them was what their body naturally wanted to do. The class then continued until we all finally achieved similar successes in our own ways.
The mask work of the Greeks still holds a value today, and it does take a lot of trial and error before you will benefit from it in any way, but it’s worth it. I highly recommended that all of you try mask work if you are offered the chance. It is a valuable experience, and it will give you a deeper appreciation of some of the earliest theater.

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