Blame the Mask

by Steve Jarand


At Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary, we have always dabbled in the use of half and full mask in adult and children’s shows. Now we are beginning to incorporate Trance Masks more regularly into improvisation as well. The mask technique we use was developed by Keith Johnstone at the Royal Court Theatre in London, using mirrors and sounds to shut off the intellectual process and spark spontaneous and truthful characters. When it works, it feels like some other being has entered the room. When it doesn’t, we smile and try another mask.

Masks have been driven from our culture because it was seen as pagan and savage. Uncivilized. Since the Renaissance, the civilizing of most art forms, not only masks, has developed into a focus on the cerebral. Creativity has suffered because of it. This enlarging of the brain and resultant swelling of the ego has delivered a significant blow to instinctual art forms like mask work. To once again have mastery over the creative process, we must reprogram our mental patterns to allow for some other force (or purer version of ourselves) to move through us.

If the mind is clinging to a rigid version of ourselves, it becomes difficult to let go. The personality we have developed through our lives is limiting and we train ourselves to be unexpressive and dull so no one will laugh at or criticize us. Therefore we must trick the mind or override this ‘personality’ temporarily and let the mask lead for a while.

It is often said that the actor is merely ‘the vessel’. In this type of mask work, we allow the vessel to be inhabited by some other force and as much as possible, we take ourselves out of the process.

Mask work provides a great opportunity to work in a detached way. It is easier to disassociate from a character or idea when your face is covered and something else is leading you. The ego has less to cling to in this circumstance. On stage as yourself, however, with the audience examining you, there is a feeling of responsibility for the creation and you begin to own it. You revel in the successes and you wallow in the failures.

Yet, in my opinion, creativity never did belong to us. It is too complex to track how impulses arise and many creative influences come from outside in the first place.

It is difficult to impress this notion upon someone who is being booed or cheered. They desire to own it.

Therefore if we balance improvisation and plays with mask work, we can begin to feel the relief from personal responsibility and the joy of sharing creative expression with another, in this case, the mask.


In a typical mask class, we have a table of half masks with different human expressions. Students are asked to volunteer to try a mask. One is chosen and once they feel that the mask fits properly, they are asked to wait with no expectation, for simple instructions. The leader of the class tells the student that he or she will see a new face in the reflection of a mirror and that they are to change their mouth to fit the rest of the new expression, and to let out a sound. An emotional burst of sound is the key to over riding the critical side of the brain. It is stressed to the student how important the sound is and that the mask will know what sound to make.

If the life generated by the mask lasts even for a moment, we are satisfied and the student is asked to take off the mask. Then we try again, or put it away until later. If the sound, face and body are not genuine, I shrug, tell them is my fault, or that it is a weak mask.

If we blame the mask, or the teacher, or the alignment of the stars at that moment, the students feel like it is not their failure, indeed, not a failure at all and they are willing to try again.

It is important that we have a table with at least 10 to 15 masks. If one doesn’t work, there should be no pressure for the next one to work. We wait until we get lucky and then we follow that inspiration.

If the mask is successful, it is important that the student feels good but that they don’t cling to the experience. If they do, we are right back where we started with their ego attempting to control and take ownership. I simply tell them it is a powerful mask they are using.

Like this, we proceed, continuing with strong masks and leaving weaker ones aside. We extend the amount of time the wearer remains in the mask. If the new character can sustain itself for longer periods, we reveal to it bits of experience. The mask touches things, has short emotional experiences and receives speech lessons. We socialize the masks but our first priority is that it remains inhabited by something rare and expressive. Ultimately the mask can improvise, learn text, be physical and take direction (or refuse it!).

When we stay out of the way and simply ride the creative wave of the mask, then the work becomes easier. More importantly, it becomes genuine.

These discoveries we have made and more we will continue to explore.