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.


  • 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 /

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


Elements of Production Teaching Suggestions

Over the next couple of posts I am going to look at the elements of production. The series will look at teaching:

  • The Elements, The Production Process, Roles and Responsibilities
  • Design – Set, Costume, Poster/Promotion
  • Design – Lighting and Sound
  • Direction
  • Theatre Criticism

I have just started this unit with my class and thought it would be a good idea to share my classroom experiences in real time rather than quite a while later as I have done with some of my other posts.

So here’s a suggestion for introducing the elements, the production process and roles and responsibilities to your students.


  • To establish the idea that theatre is not just about the actor’s but a whole team of people;
  • That it is a lengthy process requiring considerable planning with people from various areas of responsibility;
  • That the team’s primary role is to interpret a text and bring it to life on stage.

Remember: Try to re-inforce the idea that this is a “directing” course, not a theory course.

There’s No “I” in Team:

  • Form student’s into small groups.
  • Give each group a photograph.
  • Assign each group member with a role: director, actor, costume designer, set/props and any other role you like.
  • Allow each group 5 minutes to recreate a scene from the photograph but they must change it in some way to make it original.
  • Whilst groups are working out what they are doing, walk around and whisper “commands” into certain people’s ears, e.g. “Refuse to do anything,” “Let the actor do whatever he/she wants.”
  • Have each group present their photograph performance.
  • Afterwards ask groups to talk about how well or perhaps how well they did not work together and what they felt would have made the team work even better. The pressurised time situation is bound to bring out some interesting responses. You could also link in a discussion about the workplace and any similiarities or connections seen from the exercise.
  • Use this as a lead in to discuss the concept of a production team and the various roles in that team. Have handouts at the ready here with lists of responsibilities for each role.
  • Get student’s to complete a “heirarchy chart” of the various production roles that looks at the areas of responsibility and who is “in charge” of who.
  • Lead into a discussion about the three parts of the production process: pre-production (70%), production (10%) and post-production (30%). Yes, that does equal 110%. As well as, of course, how could we forget, Murphy’s Law and the need to be prepared for anything that may go wrong.

Paint By Number:

  • Create a workstation for each student with newspaper, paint brushes, water and a selection of colours (I use the primary colours).
  • Give each student 4 sheets of A3 paper. Have them number them 1-4 and put their name on the back of each.
  • Select four differing pieces of music. You could base these on the Laban movements. So, something soft, flowing and melancholic, something short, sharp and up-tempo, something constant and rhythmic, something brimming with tension.
  • As each piece of music plays, have the student’s paint what comes into their minds using the various colours, mixing colours, using shapes, line and pattern.
  • You can leave the exercise here at this point or as an extension to this exercise you could have the student’s write about what they created and which elements of drama they were drawing upon.
  • Finish the lesson by reinforcing that what the student’s did was to interpret and utilise their imaginations to create an original work that could then become a set or a costume design.

Here are some photos of what my student’s did during their lesson this week.

Image Credit: karlao, Paint by Number Activity, 2011.

Lesson Lovenotes: Teaching Theatre History

This year I have Year 11 Drama. This term we are learning about theatrical traditions and performance styles.

I personally think it’s a good unit to start with because you can dabble 🙂 Dabble and play. Dabble in a range of different styles of performance. This works well because students can get a taste of the possibilities in Drama. Especially considering a good portion of students may not have taken Drama as an elective in Year 9-10 so it is all very new to them.

It’s often eye opening because the styles that can be explored are some of the weirdest! In the students eyes they often think acting is very much film and TV based with that very neutral, I’ve-barely-moved-my-eyebrows kind of look. A lot of posing basically. This unit really provides teachers with a platform to really get their kids working with their entire body as a form of expression.

I personally choose to look at DADA performance art and then move into the Theatre of Absurd. The ideas are very left of centre for the students. They start to think in an abstract way and they get to play and feel silly and find enjoyment and ownership in that at the same time. It builds confidence and creates a positive learning environment.

To provide some context for these theatrical traditions and performance styles I always run a theory lesson whereby we look at the development of theatre through time and how it has been influenced by politics, religion and popular culture.

I recently did a very general Google search and found a fantastic Interactive Theatre History Timeline at the Glencoe Online Learning Centre.

We were working in the library and I used the lesson as an opportunity to also introduce the students to the Year 11 Drama group that I had created in Edmodo. I have written about Edmodo before here. I uploaded a worksheet I created to Edmodo and got the kids to download it and save it onto their home directories. In doing this they could then edit and save their own material, save it to USB, email it to themselves etc.

Students had to work through the sheet, which I had broken up into particular theatrical time periods and add dates and significant theatrical events as well as any corresponding world events that were considered important and relevant in that time period.

I then got the students to compare what they saw happening in the world perspectives column with the actual theatrical event and to see if either were influencing each other.

To develop this exercise further you could then ask students to choose a particular time period or theatrical event of interest or allocate ones yourself and get the students to research them further.

Was this love note helpful? What suggestions do you have for teaching theatrical traditions and performance styles?

This is a new section of my blog where I will share some of the resources I have been using to teach with in my classroom. I like the idea of calling it a “lovenote” because it’s being sent with teacher love!…and it’s not too long of a post.

To create the screen shot above I used the Snipping Tool and added the text using MS Paint.

Image Credits:

Busra Theatre, by Hovic, Attribution – NonCommercial-No Derivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)