Mask class

Nearly half-way through the spring term already, and I’ve written nothing about acting classes so far. I’ve been trying to finish a programming project, but personal project deadlines have something of Zeno about them, so I should admit temporary defeat and get this written now before more weeks slip by.

To catch us up: I’m spending about twelve hours a week doing acting classes at the City Lit in London. There’s the year-long Drama Foundation course: 100 minutes of movement followed by 100 minutes of voice on Tuesday evenings, and just over three hours of acting on Wednesday evenings. I’m also continuing with the very basic singing class I started last term (90 minutes on Wednesday afternoons) but Thursday’s Introduction to Stanislavski finished last term. To replace that I’ve joined a class called Mask, three hours on Friday evenings.

Unfortunately the Foundation classes that I originally had such high hopes for aren’t inspiring me at the moment. If they were the only classes I was taking this term I’d be wondering if there’s any point continuing with this acting nonsense. Unless things take a turn for the better, more of that another time. However, I also have Friday evenings to look forward to — I leave Mask feeling enthusiastic and wanting to do more.

I was surprised by this at first. Mark, the Foundation acting class teacher, suggested I take Mask to improve my physical acting. I’m relatively OK with being affected by a situation, but if I can’t represent that externally, what’s the point? And if I have problems being someone else I’m not going be much of an actor. I could see purely physical acting with masks might help, but it all sounded too much like mime and like most people, rightly or wrongly, my gut reaction to the idea of mime isn’t good.

But Mask has been both enormous fun and incredibly challenging, like all the best classes. As someone who probably thinks too much, I’ve been surprised how liberating it’s felt to do more physical theatre.

The obvious difficulty is that it’s extremely difficult to have the audience understand what you intend when they can’t see your face and (usually) you can’t speak. Early on we had some exercises that helped us realise this. In small groups we had to perform a short, simple and silent scene in front of the class. First this was done without masks, and then repeated wearing neutral masks. We all knew it would be harder with masks, but even so it was amazing how much less was communicated without faces, and how restricted performers are when the mask has to be kept facing the audience all the time. There is a whole new set of things to be aware of, rules and guidelines to absorb.

A lot of the classes have also been about taking on very over-the-top and stereotyped characters, contorting our bodies to be obviously old, lecherous, innocent, sprightly, etc, etc. All very silly and a lot of fun. Maybe we’ll have to reign in the exaggeration later but it’s been quite a liberation from the usual acting classes, in which one is trying to be, to some extent, realistic. I’m not sure if I’m finding it easier to be uncharacteristically demonstrative because everyone is there to be physical, or because of the teacher’s encouragement, or because of the feeling that one can somehow hide behind the mask.

Whatever, it has felt like a whole new, previously shunned, seam of acting has been revealed as fun and challenging. Yes, I’d still love to do serious, dialogue-heavy acting that illuminates the psychological and political issues of our time, blah, blah, but the idea of doing something that is more about the physical performance, that’s not so naturalistic and is more spectacular also seems a possibility. Without it being associated in my mind with men in leotards pretending they’re stuck in glass boxes.

Comments

  • Back in the day when I did comedy “stuff”, several then friends went off and did a specific clowning course over a week with a chapwho was supposedly the best clown in the world. They all said it did wonders for their sense of physical self both generally speaking on stage in front of an audience (gagging) but also in acting terms in sketches and so forth.

    One of them was Simon Munnery, and it certainly seemed to do a hell of alot for his physical style at the time.

    Anyway, the point being, if that kind of acting continues to be interesting, it might be worth keeping an eye out for physical clowning classes. god knows who the guy was, unfortunately! Might be able to find out though, if you’re interested.