An Introduction to Masked Theatre

Masked Theatre is such a fantastic unit to teach your students because there are so many styles of masked theatre that you can explore. It also allows students to think about their physicality.

I have recently just started Commedia dell Arte with my Year 10 students. Here are some ideas for introducing Masked Theatre to your students:

1. Show & Tell

Collect a selection of different types of masks or pictures of different types of masks and lay them on the floor for the class to look at. I use a selection of masks that my previous classes have made. You can also find a selection of masks from films, masquerade, Commedia, Noh, Kabuki, tribal etc. Discuss what they notice about the masks (colour, size, features). Ask the students to consider why masks were used in early performances.

2. Disguising and Revealing.

Provide some reading material on the background to masked theatre. I like to focus on information that looks at the duality of mask. That it not only has this way of concealing an actor but also forcing a revelation of character through other means, such as their physicality. Consider using “An Overview of Mask” from Clausen’s textbook Centre Stage. It has a fabulous explanation of the history of mask.

You can then either:

– Choose a path. That is, specifically look at Greek Theatre, Noh, Kabuki or Commedia.

-Or provide an overview all of them.

You could show clips here or provide brief informative text snippets of each. I set a mini in-class research task for my students to complete and they have to learn about one of the masked theatre styles (either Noh, Masquerade or Greek).

I then specifcally provide information on the background to Commedie dell Arte. There is a heap of stuff on the Internet about it but I would also recommend the Commedia Chapter in the Navigating Drama textbook.

3. Types of Masks

Using what the students know from the initial show and tell and the background informatioe, give the students some notes summarising the types of masks. They are:

  • NEUTRAL MASK: Expressionless, no character. Usually full face.
  • CHARACTER MASK: Includes features which exaggerate the sex and expressions.
  • FULL FACE MASK: Covers the entire face. Can’t speak.
  • HALF MASK: Shows character. Can speak.

4. The Rules of Mask Work

It is also at this point, before we hop up and start to have a play, that we discuss the rules of maskwork. In particular:

  • Turning away to put the mask on or leaving the room.
  • Not playing with your hair or fussing with the mask.
  • Not touching your face throughout a performance.

I also like to point out that many people, when performing in mask, actually feel liberated and less self conscious. That even a neutral mask can look different on different people and that ultimately the effectiveness of masked theatre is dependent upon the interralation between the actor’s body and their mask.

5. Exercises

Warming Up

I specifically look at warming up the body before working with the masks. In particular looking at neck stretches.

  • Stand in a circle. Stand in neutral.
  • Stretch your neck slowly to the left and then right to strengthen.
  • Turn your neck to the left and then right.
  • Turn to your left and massage the shoulders and neck of the person in front of you.

Peep Show

  • Find a wall, door or whiteboard that you can bring into the performance space.
  • Have students begin to practice putting on their mask following the rules.
  • Student’s go behind the wall, door, whiteboard and have to “peep” around revealing their character, keeping their back straight and their neck to one side. Ensure the actor’s eyes are looking straight ahead.

Pulled By a String

  • Have student’s walk around the room pretending that a nominated body part is being pulled by a string. For example, stomach, pelvis, chest, eyes, one shoulder, forehead.
  • Have a discussion with the class about how the neutral masked character changes as a result of this physicality.

Emotions

  • Form groups.
  • As a class brainstorm different emotions and write them on the board.
  • Select one of the emotions on the board.
  • Each member of the group wears a neutral mask and uses body language to express that emotion.

Check out what my kids created for the emotion of “HOPE.”

Image Credit: Máscaras / Mário Tomé / http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

“Yr 10 Drama – Masked Theatre, Hope” by karlao, 2012

8 Comments

  1. I stumbled onto your site, and am so glad to have your ideas!
    I am a new drama teacher for middle school, grades 6, 7, 8. New to teaching but experienced performer. Going to start mask work first day back after winter holiday! Felt way over my head, but your confidence and wonderful site is an inspiration!

    Yvonne – Struggling actor-turned-teacher from California, USA

  2. Hello! You blog has been absolutely invaluable for me when devising Drama lessons, thank you!!
    Can I ask where you bought your masks from? I need some for a Year 7 Greek Theatre scheme i’m going to be teaching.
    Thanks so much!

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