The human face - and thus the mask - presents a unique concentration of sense organs: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. All clustered in a very small area. And so a mask becomes most alive when its senses appear to be actively engaged in exploring its environment.

There is strong evidence to support the contention that the recognition of the mask is hard-wired into our biology. New-born babies are searching for the human face and registering changes in facial emotions within hours of birth. There are very specific physiological conditions such as prosopagnosia and "super recognition" related to facial recognition. If one stares into the eyes of an upside-down human face one experiences a kind of disorienting "jump" in one's visual perception, rather like that experienced in certain optical illusions. Suddenly it is not a human face at all, but a kind of monster from outer space.

That the recognition of the mask is rooted in human (and animal) biology gives it a universal, cross-cultural aspect that does much to explain its archetypal nature. It also means that any investigation of a mask can rely on the passive intelligence of the eye of the observer to recognize "when it works."

The mask has nothing to do with psychology. It blocks the primary channels of psychological play and insists on a more biological plane. The articulation of the eyes is replaced by that of the head and neck. However, the mask does not hide the wearer, it reveals the actor as a body on the stage.

There are many superstitions and cultural conventions bound to the use of the mask. In some traditions the mask is always packed away out of sight between uses, and never displayed or hung up on a wall where it would lose its "energy." In some African traditions women are not even allowed to see a mask.

In the theatre, the mask often has a similar function as the play text, and may even replace it. It is the permanent element that can be passed from generation to generation. It defines character and is the inspiration and starting point for the creative process.

It is far easier to create a play to fit a collection of masks, than it is to sculpt a collection of masks to fit a play.

Professional mask performance requires extensive training in isolations, articulations, takes, leads, landings and projection. And of course, like all acting techniques, these need to be absorbed into implicit memory and "forgotten."

One should treat a mask with the same respect that one gives to a real human face, handling it gently, not putting it down on the floor or a chair where somebody could accidentally stand or sit on it, and not poking one's fingers into the eyes.

A mirror is of very little help in working with a mask. All one will ever see is oneself looking at oneself. And the self-conscious analytical eye that prolonged mirror-gazing encourages, is the last thing one wants in performance. Much more effective is an experienced "outside eye."

With the help of such an outside eye giving feedback, the first thing to discover with a new mask is where the horizon lies; when is the mask looking on a horizontal plane. The performer needs to learn to control the focus of the mask.

A mask is essentially a visual element in motion, and as such benefits greatly from non-moving reference points and framing. These can be provided by furniture, scenography, another actor's body, or one's own limbs.

When one has to look sideways while performing with a mask, for instance watching another actor, it is possible to cheat the mask out slightly towards the audience, which looks better than a stark profile and still appears to be looking sideways.

In performance one should never touch the mask with ones bare hands. The clash of realities will shatter the illusion of a living mask if the hands are not of the same style and material as the mask.

For similar reasons, when wearing a full mask one should never speak, and even remove the mask if one needs to communicate with the outside eye or fellow performer. Except in the special case of full masks that are purposefully constructed with built-in resonators or megaphones, the muffled sound of an actor speaking inside a full mask draws attention to the actor's face, not that of the mask where it belongs. Half-masks, on the other hand, are designed for speaking.

One of the secrets of "carrying" the mask is knowing when to pause, holding both mask and body still, and letting the expression of the mask and the audience's imagination work for you.

Masks Sacred and Secular

Besides the ritual uses of masks that one finds in many cultures, or the simple masks of disguise or protection, there are two theatrical approaches to masks which I call the Secular Mask and the Sacred Mask. There is of course a great deal of overlap between the two, but nevertheless, I will will try to distinguish between them.

In the case of the Secular Mask, the mask is what it is. It can be taken at "face value." It does not represent anything, although when well performed it succeeds in creating the visual illusion of becoming something - a human or animal face. This kind of mask needs a strong side profile and a clearly directed focus. The actor animates the mask in a way that is technically skilled and rhythmical. It is common to play behind the "fourth wall," regularly breaking it with takes and monologues, sharing with the audience moments of anticipation, reaction and reflection. For example, in performances of the Commedia dell' Arte.

In the case of the Sacred Mask, the mask functions as an active symbol. It represents its antecedent. It is usually played directly out to the audience who accept the mask as a story-telling convention. The magic that is experienced is not dependent on a visual illusion, but on the audience entering into the act of make-belief.

There is a resonance to the Sacred Mask that is very similar to the Buddhist prayer flags and temple prayer wheels that are found in Nepal and Tibet. Every time the flag flaps in the wind, the prayer written upon it flies off to the gods. Meaning is projected into space. Every spin of the prayer wheel reorders the universe. A heightened significance emerges from the enactment of a physical action. In a similar way, the mask moves through space and the story is revealed. The quality of movement is typically slow and sustained. For example, in the mask work of "Bread and Puppet Theatre."

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Jonathan Paul Cook © 2010