The masks are back

By Steve Jarand


Fifty years ago in a small theatre in London, experiments were being done. The place was called the Royal Court and Keith Johnstone was work-shopping the story-based improvisation exercises that would become a basis for Theatresports and much of the improvisation played around the world today.

The truly magical, even mythical experiments happening at this time, however, were with masks. Theories of spontaneity and creativity, so valuable to pure improvisation, were being tested to their full potential with a technique later to become known as “TranceMasks”. For a time, Impro and Mask went hand in hand. Keith toured Europe and some of North America with his Impro troupe “The Theatre Machine” and he brought masks along. In places where English was not a useful tool the work became more physical and the masks were called upon. Keith would set up scenes reminiscent of vaudeville or The Marx Brothers like one mask attempting to deliver a speech while another won’t stop “helping” or two mask needing to share the same bed in a hotel room.

In the early seventies, Keith taught at the Copenhagen school of drama and students there worked with half mask, even staging short plays like Keith’s Robinson Crusoe.

Keith formed The Loose Moose Theatre Company in Calgary in the late seventies and improvisation continued to flourish. The masks would emerge in Impro shows, as well as adult and children’s theatre during the first ten years or so. Then, mysteriously, the mask-work was put aside and only occasionally played or demonstrated.

At a class in the early nineties, when I first saw people putting on masks and transforming into hugely expressive creatures, I was astounded. They were alive; vibrating and writhing from head to toe, yet totally genuine. It was far more authentic than regular acting. I had to try!

Possession and trance have always had a place in pagan or tribal mask ceremonies but western cultures have either stifled these traditions or manipulated them into aesthetic art forms. When people think of masks today they might imagine a Venetian masquerade, African art or Halloween costumes. The power of the mask to influence the wearer has been lost. The real transformation potential of mask is not just physical, but behavioural as well and in a theatre setting we can put it to the test.

At Loose Moose Theatre as well as in workshops all over Europe this potential of transformation is being explored with the TranceMask technique. Students gather for a class and try on masks using mirrors and emotional sounds. (Sometime we say the mask “tries on” the wearer) When spirit possession is total and expression immense, a mask is developed further. It is given sensual experiences like handling objects, hearing sounds and meeting other masks. Soon these strong masks are encouraged to speak words that arise out of the sounds they are already making. Eventually, the masks are put in scenes or given scenarios so they can have an outlet for their burning desire to express. It is also not uncommon for masks to seize control of the class (for a short time) from the human facilitators.

These days on a typical night of improvisation at Loose Moose, the audience may see an example of half or full mask work. A mask may be on a quest to find his or her parents, they might be on the first day of a new job or have arrived to perform a speech or poem. When the atmosphere is charged with a feeling benevolent madness, the masks can thrive and the audience also go slightly mad with joy and wonder. It has the potential to be some of the most startling and memorable theatre you will ever see.