Masks — ancient, sacred, human

Using masks is a very ancient human practice. Anthropologists still wonder what in human culture led to the invention and use of the mask. The first masks were most likely created to associate the wearer with an abstract character, such as “gods” or a social role. Almost all cultures have since then known the use of masks.

Drunken Hercules. A detail from the Baccanalia mosaic, Tsipory. The Greek caption ΜΕΘΗ means “drunk”. Source: Wikimedia.

In the Greek bacchanalia, for example, social norms were paused for a moment when people wore masks, allowing them to behave outside of their ordinary selves for a short time. The North American Iroquois tribes used masks for healing purposes, when in the Himalayas, masks functioned above all as mediators of supernatural forces. In Ancient Rome, citizen families owned death masks of theirs ancestors. At funerals, actors would wear these family masks and perform the lives of the ancestors, linking the value of mask as a ritual object and in theatre.

Today still, masks are a familiar and vivid element in many social events. This shows us of the enduring appeal and power of masks for pretence and meaningful play.

Sacred, practical, or playful masks lead a crucial role in our understandings of “what it means to be human”, because they permit the imaginative experience of “what it is like” to be transformed into a different identity (or to affirm an existing social or spiritual identity).

“Weirdly, although it’s an inanimate object, there’s something very humanising about it,” says Ailin Conant, “it creates a much wider emotional register.”

Masks by Barada Street.

When someone simply sits and breathes whilst wearing a theatre mask, even without doing anything, without acting, without moving, a space is created, silence is formed. Dreams form rapidly in the viewers imagination. We are sucked into a character’s world. Hajo Schüler points out that “people genuinely forget there is a performer behind the mask. And performers can’t think the mask will do the work for them. It won’t.” So it’s up to them to express everything they carry inside. Rachael Savage agrees: “The mask doesn’t hide anything. In fact it magnifies what the actor is doing, good and bad.”

How to explore and share our mask character’s universe as unseen mask wearer? How to fuel the dream of an audience ?

“There are three masks: the one we think we are, the one we really are, and the one we have in common.” — Jacques Lecoq

For teachers like Lecoq, masks are an important training tool to facilitate a state of openness whilst performing, moving gradually on to character and expressive masks, and finally to “the smallest mask in the world” the clown’s red-nose. Mask changes the performers movement on stage. The neutral mask invites to look, to listen, smell and feel the world as if for the first time, moving with grace, dignity, power, and direction in times of constant change and crisis. Its develops body and space awareness, creative physical expression and storytelling.

Masks by Barada Street.

Mask theatre can tell deeply touching stories. Today it is often a way of putting the tales of invisible people on stage. It gives voice to the unheard and the unspoken. Working with mask is an opportunity to raise our attention on other’s humanity and feelings, as well as on our own. It is a chance to find ourselves — our hopes, dreams, fears, and virtues, our flaws and heroism. The expression through mask often allows for recognition and processing of emotions because of its non verbal, physical, new kind of language.

Our mask workshop is coming up this Summer, in France

For all of these reasons and more, mask theater is a great tool for dialogue, understanding, education and social work. That is why Nomadways is hosting a mask workshop in 2018. By understanding our bodies and their relation to movement, space and others, we can learn how to use them to express stories and emotions effectively and clearly without words. Journeying from the pure presence of a neutral mask on to larval raw expressive mask, going on to create our own personal full expressive masks, we can use them in group creation processes and improvisations.

“Our Mask” workshop, Homade (France). Apply here.

Apply to take part before 15. March here. Explore the mask theatre with us in our art home — Homade. Oh, yeah!

Article by our amazing Anne (Nomadways team), who created Nomadways and brought us all together to do social art and help people exchange artistic practices in education.

About Nomadways

We craft international workshops for artists, educators and youth workers. Together we create pedagogical artwork, share and invent practical solutions to social problems.

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