news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Friday, 14 June 2013

Mask Theatre: "Unflinchingly human"

We've asked Volcano Conservatory instructor Sonia Norris some questions in the lead-up to her class, 
Le Jeu & European Mask Theatre. Here's the first in a series of insights she's shared with us on the genre, and its value to theatre artists here in Toronto:

Off the top of my head, I can only think of one show I've seen in Toronto in the past year that used literal masks. Is mask used more frequently elsewhere? Or does common use of mask / mask training lie in production development, rather than the staged product? 

SN: In my experience, within Canada mask theatre is more present in the Vancouver theatre community than the Toronto community. This is largely due to Axis Theatre promoting the development of several mask shows over the years, which were possible because of the excellence of character masks created by Vancouver mask designer Melody Anderson. Without an incredibly talented mask designer, you cannot have good masks, and without good masks, you cannot create working characters, regardless of the talent of the performer. Melody Anderson has an exceptional talent for creating masks with great sensitivity and humour. Her characters have strong personalities, which offer actors a wealth of information to play with in their physical, psychological, emotional and intellectual development of character.

Sonia Norris leads a mask workshop in Zimbabwe.
Masks by Melody Anderson.
When I was studying at Ecole Lecoq, we all had to make masks without any instruction and bring them in for Lecoq to evaluate. All 30 masks were lined up on the floor at the back of the room and, one by one, each student would choose someone else’s mask and present it for Lecoq to see if it ‘worked’. As a mask was presented, Lecoq would give instructions for actions the actor should play with the mask on, to see if it lived. He would observe it in action for a few moments and then pronounce his verdict, which was simply either “Ca marche” or “Ca marche pas.” It either worked or it didn’t work. It either lived or it didn’t live, based on the skill of the mask maker. Disappointingly, I am not a good mask maker, therefore I commission my masks from Melody Anderson. Lecoq told me my mask was like a piece of Picasso artwork and should be hung on the wall, not played upon the stage. Being compared to one of the greatest masters in the art world was not meant as a compliment - my mask was a definitive “ca marche pas!” But it was this experience that started me on my own investigation into how to bring masks alive and how to teach actors the skills of finding the life force in a mask and translating this into their embodiment of character.

A Sonia Norris mask workshop.
Masks by Melody Anderson.
I do not teach mask because actors will have a plethora of opportunities to work in mask theatre – unfortunately this is not the case here in Toronto. (though by training actors in mask I would like to change this, and I hope to start work on a mask show in the coming year.) I teach mask because the skills gained in mask work will profoundly impact the work of the actor when not masked. When an actor is masked, every physical choice they make in response to their internal and external stimulus is suddenly, blatantly apparent to us in the audience. We see with absolute clarity the human truth of both the performer and the character before us. Ironically, it is extremely revealing to be hidden behind a mask. This allows actors to observe when another performer’s work is clouded by unspecific or timid choices, which then cannot be understood by an audience, leaving them confused by the information they are given and the story that is being told.

We rely too heavily on our intellects and our verbal communication, when it has been proven we absorb the majority of our information from the subtle physical responses of other people, not from their words. We are masters of this in life but it is done unconsciously, so actors often don’t bring these highly sensitized skills to their very conscious work on stage.

Mask training provides an opportunity to slow down time so that we can get inside each individual moment, each individual choice, and make conscious what we normally do unconsciously in our assessment of physical information in everyday life. This is essential for actors to understand and utilize in their work with character development and action on stage. It allows them to ensure the information they are offering the audience is accurate, and compels the audience to follow their character’s journey, just as they unconsciously follow every eye movement, heart beat and breath. The smallest movement of a single finger can tell a huge story if it is done with clear point of focus and isolation so that it is visible. 

Larval masks at a Sonia Norris workshop.
Masks by Melody Anderson.
We all inhabit the same physical vehicle, regardless of what differences there are in its shape. Therefore the experience of watching another human being is an incredibly visceral one. Actors can, and should, maximize on this unconscious connection with an audience to hook them through their physical response system so that they follow a character like it is themselves – because it is their own body through which they feel everything they are observing on stage.

I love masks because they are so unflinchingly human – we see their foibles, their truth, their stupidity, their ridiculousness, their brilliance. We see the strength of the human heart and its indomitable desire for life. But it is strength and sensitivity of technique in the actor that make this possible.

Specificity of thought and action, clarity of communication, physical awareness, strength of choices, physical and mental precision, movement isolation, embodiment of character, depth of understanding of the human response system, courage to take action on impulses, willingness to play on stage, expansion of imagination, pleasure to engage, sharing of spirit, and the development of a powerful and compelling physical presence. These are some of the elements addressed through mask training, which greatly strengthen the work of actors.

Mask is an essential part of actor-training in most countries, but not in North America. I have trained extensively in Europe and benefited from this physical approach to actor-training, which has inspired me to focus on bringing this work to Canada. I believe it creates extraordinarily engaged performers and therefore exciting, alive, provocative theatre.

For more information on Sonia's class at the Volcano Conservatory, or to register, click here and visit Sonia teaches with us July 21-24.

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