For John Wright, award-winning theatre-maker and teacher, using masks can be liberating for an actor. His new book, Playing the Mask, explores what masks do, how they do it, and, above all, what they can teach us about acting. Here, he explains how he first became interested in masks, and some surprising discoveries he made along the way…
I first became interested in mask-work in the early seventies when I realised that there must be more to acting than watching people sitting around, talking to each other and behaving as if they were on television. I like theatre when it’s alive and kicking, like a football match, where the actors and the audience are unmistakably in the same room. Both these ideas immediately become a reality the moment I introduce masks.
I had no experience of mask-work when I started using them. All I had to go on was a story that the French actor and theatre director Jacques Copeau had once covered an embarrassed young actor’s face with a handkerchief, and that this had enabled her to overcome her self-consciousness.
I’d tried the handkerchief approach some weeks before with a group of novice actors, and it was a disaster.
In fact, as I later realised, I was being too formal in my approach. I asked the actor I was trying to help to turn away from the audience and put the handkerchief in place, before turning round to look at us when I told her to do so. This simply raised everyone’s expectations, and the resulting action was hopelessly inappropriate. When she turned round, one bright spark immediately put his hands up and cried ‘Don’t shoot!’, and everyone laughed. He’d decided she looked like a bank robber. Her reaction was to pull the handkerchief off her face and refuse to continue.
Some weeks later, I was passing a toy shop and saw that they had some plain white plastic masks in the window. They were being sold with coloured pencils for children to colour in the faces for themselves. I wasn’t interested in the coloured pencils. It was the blank white faces that interested me.
Mindful of my previous disaster, I decided not to take charge and, rather than formally introducing the masks in any way, I simply put them out on a table and let the group try them out for themselves.
It worked. Once they’d played them and watched others play them, they soon became their own experts.
‘The faces are the same but everyone looks so different when they put them on,’ somebody said.
‘I don’t look at the face so much,’ someone else said, ‘I’m more interested in how they stand and how they look at me.’
I developed my approach to mask-work through watching the reactions of generations of students exploring masks for themselves. And the more I watched and listened, the clearer my own observations became.
I realised, for instance, that different types of mask inspire different ways of playing. Red noses are different from joke-shop noses, half-masks are different from full-masks, grotesque faces from idealised faces and realistic faces from distorted ones.
But using masks made other things happen as well. My son, who was only seven at the time, and couldn’t resist playing with some new masks that had just arrived, told me: ‘When your face is covered you get the feeling that you’re not there.’ In mask-work, this sense of absence empowers you to take risks, to play and to do things on stage purely for the effect it has on everyone watching you. Sometimes it takes a child to cut through the bullshit.
On the outside we want to watch you in a mask. In fact we can’t take our eyes off you. We’re astonished by the transformation. For you, behind the mask, it’s no more than a game. But in the audience we’ll have forgotten about you entirely. We’re preoccupied with trying to determine who we think this person is and what they’re like.
It’s this change of focus – from you and your feelings, to the reactions of the people watching you – that made me question what acting is all about.
‘This is all well and good,’ a theatre critic from the Sunday Times once told me, ‘but in our culture, theatre is more about writing than play, and mask traditions aren’t very literary in my experience. You can’t speak in mask, can you?’
This misses the point. Masks don’t have to be the end result: they can be a process, a way of getting you somewhere else, somewhere you couldn’t have imagined without them.
My new book, Playing the Mask: Acting Without Bullshit, isn’t about mask traditions and making masked theatre. It’s an attempt to articulate the ways and means of using different types of mask to inspire playfulness; to use a mask to discover something, and then to remove the mask and play with what you’ve found.
It’s a book about acting: the compelling game of pretending to be someone else.
Playing the Mask: Acting Without Bullshit by John Wright is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.
Buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% discount) from the Nick Hern Books website.
Author photograph by Jorge Lizalde Cano. Mask photographs by Toby Wright.