The Dopey State: Full Face Character Mask as Psychophysical Cleansing

Guest Blog Post 1

This following blog post is what I hope to be a long series of posts by guest bloggers articulating how theater masks are used today in their world of practice, teaching and students of life.

Jon Stancato
Jon Stancato

The following was written by Jon Stancato, a long time client and collaborator in the design and creation of masks for teaching and performance.

 The Dopey State: Full Face Character Mask as Psychophysical Cleansing

“Oh, good!”

“You all have the most deliciously dopey faces right now.”

“ That means we did something right.”

Full Face Character Mask, Series 3, Number 1, Modeled, View 1Each time I watched a group of students doff the ridiculously magical trio of full face character masks that Jonathan custom designed for me (inspired by the Messerschmitt busts), I was transported to the first time I wore a neutral mask nearly 20 years ago.  As I pulled that mask up over my face, sweat evaporating as my heart raced with the discoveries of the prior hour of exploration, I realized my face had never felt so soft, supple, and relaxed.

Over the last 20 years I’ve seen thousands of recently masked faces mirroring that same soft, supple relaxation, an experience that I’ve always found, as a teacher, as thrilling as watching the mask play itself unfold.  It was such an easy litmus test for me to ascertain a student’s engagement with the theater mask.  When I saw the dopey face, I knew the student had begun to let their ego fall away, if ever so slightly, in the service of letting the mask breathe for/with/in/through them.  When the dopey face was missing, I knew that the student had coasted by on craft or technique, and that the work would be superficial at best unless we could plumb more deeply.

In time, I also came to realize that some of the best conversations I’ve had with actors (children, adolescents, undergrads, grad students, and professionals) about what it means to embody a character, to be present on stage, to connect to an audience or scene partner, have come in those dopey moments.  I began to see this softness as a highly desirable state in itself, a via negativa in which truth and flow were possible and where the acting process could actually begin in earnest.

Jon Teaching Voice in London

As I have, in my own personal life, begun exploring the power of experiences like CranioSacral Therapy, tarot, and float-tank immersion, the dopey faces have followed me there.  And, as my teaching career has drawn me deeper into extended voice work (in the Roy Hart and Grotowski traditions) and, sadly, away from regular work with Jonathan’s beautiful masks, I have come to understand the dopey state even more fully.  I now know that the true work on the self that is the actor’s fundamental craft can only begin in such a state and have figured out ways to “induce” it sans mask as the start of any private vocal session or group singing class. Though I am sure it’s only a very short matter of time before I start bringing Jonathan’s masks into my singing studio to facilitate this further.

Full Face Character Mask, Series 3, Number 3, Modeled

Most of us in the physical and psychophysical theatre worlds believe mask work should be a cornerstone of any actor’s training. I’m beginning to feel ever more certain that mask work should probably be a cornerstone of everyone’s life experience, as well. It offers one of the most playful, joyous, and exhilarating portals to the dopey state; A state that is perhaps our most powerful precursor for developing presence, compassion, intuition, self-love, patience, effortlessness, and grace.

Reach for masks and explore.  Open new worlds and live a little