Masks are liberating – having something physical to “hide behind” can really free the actor or the student. That’s why they are such great training tools. Jacques Copeau used masks during rehearsal the first time when one of his actresses seemed completely unconnected to her body. During an emotional scene, her physical expression just seemed… well, wrong. Copeau threw a sheet over her head and, voilá, her performance improved and the first use of the theatre mask in training was born.
Working with the students reminded me how much performers often rely on words to express themselves and convey meaning. This is not at all a bad thing – but it’s difficult to know how to create a new language when words are removed. Somebody asked me if mask work involved a lot of “mime” – it depends on how you define mime, but if you mean replacing words with gestures which depict objects and actions, no. If, however, you mean, using the body to communicate with other performers and the audience, then yes.
It is difficult. The instinct of many performers when they first try to communicate wearing a mask is to find a direct substitute for words. Watching it is fascinating, and I found myself coaching from the sides saying “Don’t try to speak, don’t try to speak.” I think many of them understood what I was going on about as by the end of the week, many of them found an ease to communicate which involved a different way of thinking. A less literal way, a simpler way, as they let the mask find a language of their own.