How Are Theater Masks Used Today: The Bridge Between Tradition and Contemporary Practice.

Modeled Monkey King Mask
The Monkey King

The phrase: “the mask reveals,” takes our discussion of masks and their important presence in performance, training, ritual and celebration in many directions. This post will focus on how the theater mask acts as an agent connecting the past and the present as if they existed together in the moment with a sense of immediacy and meaning. One might say the mask is the past present in the immediate moment being lead into the future through its discoveries of the now.

On a very basic level the character mask teaches us in the training environment how to manage what Eugenio Barba refers to as the “biological level” of performance; The level that exists in pre-expressivity and transitions to expressivity. For Jacques Lecoq, this would be the level of neutral mask transitioning to character mask. The character mask is drawing our attention to a singular perspective, what it means to look out on the world from that perspective and how a singular perspective based on a past experience influences our reactions to the moment we are in. The mask is the connective tissue between the past and the present. It insists that the psychological affect results in physical presence and a physical play that communicates clearly to the viewer why a reaction is what it is. The mask creates context.

Character Mask
Character Mask

The human experience is universal. Regardless of race, culture, borders, countries and political divides. The fact remains we all experience life in similar ways. Humans all experience love, anger, fear, lust, jealousy, pride and joy. The physiological experience of these passions is universal. The character mask reveals this to us in its rhythmic structures. What we find in our exploration of practice when reaching for specific cultural masks regardless of whether they come from contemporary practice or historic times is that they reveal to us our struggles, our needs and our relationships of today. One might say that the character mask is both universal and timeless in its expressive form.

Nunley and McCarty in their book, “Masks Faces of Culture” write,

“Masks transcend some of the limitations of the human condition and play out our deepest images of ourselves”

In the training environment the character mask reveals when a moment is filled with truth and when it is based in a lie. For the audience the mask provokes empathy and arouses primal understanding of self. One might say they show us who we are. This connection is what allows us to relate to the ancient practice as if it were contemporary. We suddenly recognize our own humanity in the expressive form of the ancient mask.

Said in a different way; if we have any work history, we have all worked for Pantelone at some point. We can relate to the need for great purpose and understanding of unseen worlds when faced with of the mask of the Shaman. We understand and empathize with the boredom of The Raven Boy and how his impatience with life and darkness leads to an impetuous theft of fire from the sun eventually resulting in the creation of life on earth. We like him for his naiveté and rebellious act.

Naropa Students 2002

Having taught mask making to hundreds of students in several countries I have noticed that the masks the beginning students make are similar if not identical to the primitive expressive form of masks from ancient civilizations. I would like to suggest that the masks reflect a connection between the now and what has already gone away. That perhaps they are one in the same. As Sweet Honey in the Rock sings in their song “We Are:”

We are our grandmothers prayers
We are our grandfathers dreamings
We are the breath of the ancestors…

The character mask reveals to us who we were and that is directly related to who we are.

Celebrate with masks, include them in your story telling and share them generously with an audience.