Two blogs in one day, this has never happened before.
We did some full Mask work a couple of Saturdays ago at The Bedford. I was using full face masks from Trestle Theatre company. They’re really excellent actually, I’d recommend buying some if you want a set to play with.
I teach Mask a little different from how it’s written in Keith Johnstone’s book, probably because I’m using silent full face Masks rather than the talking half masks.
So here’s steps I take, largely influenced by things I learnt from Kevin Tomlinson:
1. Get an improviser up in front of the audience.
2. Get them just standing relaxed in front of the audience. Make sure the class has an expectant hush with focus on the stage.
3. Select a Mask for them. Don’t show them the front of the Mask.
4. Improviser stands on back wall with back to audience, both hands on the wall.
5. Put the Mask on them, don’t show them what it looks like, don’t let them look in the mirror.
6. Retreat in line with audience, leaving improviser with back to them.
7. Mask removes one hand from wall, turns to look at audience. Return.
8. Repeat with other hand.
9. When ready Mask turns fully around and walks into space. Ask them to look at the audience, the whole of it and also one by one.
10. The improviser doesn’t deliberately do anything at first, they just turn round as themselves and then look at the audience. They go with the audience, and also with how they feel. If the audience make them feel warm, they are warm.
11. Ask them questions (they can’t talk, so they answer with movement). Also sometimes give them props (Masks love objects). Whatever they do they need to keep clocking and checking in with the audience, it’s when we see their face that they become alive.
Some people playing the Mask were surprised that they could tell what Mask they were playing without actually seeing it, just from the reaction of the audience and the feelings it produced in them.
At first though some of the others weren’t getting anything from the Mask, and felt they were faking it. This brought to light an interesting block that is perhaps summed up by this real conversation:
“I was frustrated, I felt like I was faking it.”
“What were you frustrated with?”
“I was frustrated that I wasn’t getting an emotions from the audience.”
“The audience were giving you frustration.”
“Oh, so I should play frustration?”
“You don’t have to play it, just be it. If you’re frustrated, be frustrated. If the audience are pissing you off, be pissed off with them. There doesn’t have to be a gap between what you actually feel and what the Mask should feel.”
Funny enough the Mask in question for this conversation is known to be a bit of a bastard, so playing it frustrated and pissed off with the audience would have been perfect and lots of fun.
Later on we moved on to multiple Masks on stage, with them interacting in set scenarios or around props. An important step in this became the use of focus and checking in with the audience. At first I had to shout from the back where the focus was, and eventually the actors intuitively understood where the focus was.
The beauty of Masks is that they give focus very clearly. If all the Masks look in one direction at one thing on stage the audience will tend to also look there. We also experimented with passing around focus to different Masks, and we found that having them look direct at audience as they got passed focus was very effective.
Also constant clocking and checking in with the audience was essential, as this is when we get to see what the Mask is feeling and when it comes alive.
When clocking they seem to take the steps of:
I’m about to do something/interact with someone
Hey look I’m doing something/interacting
This is what I feel about the thing I’m doing/interacting
I’ve done something/interacted
This is what I feel about the thing I’ve done/the other person
Next step I’m going to buy a load of half masks, or make some, as there’s loads more I want to try.
Lots of love,
Improv classes and shows