How are theater masks used today? Or perhaps the better question is How is the use of theater masks important in todays worlds of training and performance?
I find it wonderfully reassuring that the mask, its expressive form and the power it has to reveal remains as contemporary and applicable as it was 35,000 years ago. This ancient practice of masking has much to teach us and is still being used to help answer deep important questions.
I was recently watching “The Neutral Mask with Jos Houben” on the Routledeg Performance Archive and learned something new about the origins of the neutral mask and how that knowledge correlated to masked choral work being done here that I would like to share.
My previous understanding of the origin of the neutral mask involved the development of a tool that could provide a fulcrum point around which an understanding of the actor (self), the space, the world and the character could revolve. The neutral mask has been simply understood as a place of beginning. A definer of the universal and the provocateur of the humanity we have in common.
I saw the neutral mask in a new light when listening to the words of Jos Houben. He mentioned that the research and continued development of the neutral mask that is now used widely throughout the world to train actors, that originated with Copeau at the Vieux-Columbier in the 1920’s , truly began in Padua Italy with the meeting of Lecoq and Sartori and their reach to develop a profoundly effecting tool for the training of actors.
The world events of the late 40’s and early 50’s surrounding these two men influenced their reach and their need to find answers to deeply important questions. Italy had just experienced the fall of Mussolini and with him fascism. For over twenty years the fascist government in Italy had created a narrative by which the Italian people identified themselves. When the fictional story that had been created by the Fascists disappeared the Italians were left with with the question, “who are we.” This question of self identity fueled the research around the creation of the neutral mask. The reach was to create an entity that lived with a simple calm curiosity, had no defining past, no psychological baggage and could simply live the life that it was in. A life life with out preconception. A life without the need to judge. A life that was not fueled by a desire for power, position, wealth or accomplishment. At it’s core a being that saw the world as it was in the moment and from who the being was only in the present.
The mask needed to be its own story not the story of others and at the same time possess within the story of all. In the end when we strip away the outer flesh the skeleton of a woman and the skeleton of a man are essentially the same across the planet. The assumption was that the human experience at its core is universal and the search was for a mask that represented that.
Houben’s comments on the quest to answer the question of “who we are”, for me correlated to work done at Ball State University in the acting program with chorus masks and the work with text for Greek Theater. The connection of the chorus mask to the neutral mask was profound and seemed to complete the reach toward an understanding of the mask in its revealing of the universal.
The chorus work was approached from an understanding that the voice of the chorus is the voice of the audience and that the Greek theater mask of the chorus reflected the audiences experience of the tragedy back at them.
The actors, in support of the mask, worked to speak through the voice of another and move through the body of another. The chorus was at once the fire, the suffering, the burned and the sufferers. This reflects the work in neutral mask where the body is the world it is in. For example, when the mask sees the mountain it is the mountain. One breaths the mountain in and then breaths it out
In the choral training the authentic voice of the actor is found in the act of speaking as if one is the voice of many and by trying to sound into the world through the voice of another.
The mask insists the actor reach a state of being that is, greater than. A state that is extra-ordinary. This greater state is then connected to the others in the chorus creating a single mask that through the work of the individuals that make up the chorus reflects the more universal experience that belongs to all. The actors must be in the present moment looking into the world with a singular shared perspective to accomplish the task.
The choral research revealed that when the individuals within maintained a neutral sense of individuality their collective work revealed a point existing between them that reflected a more universal experience. The mask, in this case the Greek theater mask, is helping to answer the question of “who we are” through a celebration of differences, or it could be said, a highlighting of the specifics of the individual.
Coming back to the neutral mask one discovers when the individual finds him or herself in the present moment connected to a physical instrument devoid of the impositions and definitions of the past; in a body that is truly authentic to the person, that the mask suddenly becomes neutral and is as Lecoq suggests, “the mask that is common to us all”
The learning to understand through living in the moment, through being led by discovery without judgment, through connecting to the other, through speaking through another’s voice, through listening and reflecting, related to Houben’s mention of fascism and the need to find Truth in the answers of who we are rather than a fictional narrative created to define us is especially pertinent in todays world as we struggle to come together in our differences.
The theater mask can help us celebrate humanity, both our own and that of the other. Perhaps we should reach more often toward this ancient practice both in the classroom and in performance. Do that! Take a workshop. Pick up a mask and try it on.