Masks have been a way for actors to challenge their ability to inhabit a character since the Ancient Greeks. This is because masks take away one of an actor’s primary methods of communication-facial expression. But it also works to free the body. They have been used in Commedia Dell’arte, Japanese theater, and have a long history in African culture as well.
When an actor dawns a mask, they can ask themselves three questions to begin exploring, “who am I? What just happened? And what do I want?” If you’re interested in improvising with a mask, start out by rehearsing a scene or monologue (it doesn’t have to have dialogue, it can also be done by tableau work). See how you feel, and then put on your mask. Now with your face covered try to rehearse the same scene. With your face covered, see how your physicality in the rest of your body changes! Notice how your body language changes, or you discover a new way to say a line.
You may create a mask of your own using a paper plate, cutting two eyes and a mouth out with scissors safely, and then decorate your mask to your liking! Think about different emotions your mask may possess, as well as different personalities. Is it similar to you? Very different from you? How so?
This is also a great exercise if you rehearse with a neutral mask. “Neutral” meaning no decorations, just a plain, blank mask. Neutral mask work is a technique in itself. They actually eliminate all personality, and require the actor to docs entirely on movement.
Using masks allows the actor to strengthen their imagination and artistic abilities. To be able to create an object that will define your character on stage is a huge accomplishment! It will even be more rewarding knowing you did the work to create something of your own, and then took what you learned and used it for a character! Whether it be a decorative mask or a neutral mask, try mask work at home by yourself or with friends and family and see what you discover. What kind of character did you create? Did you focus on your physicality? Was it difficult to not be able to use your face to express how you feel? Leave some comments after you’ve completed your mask!