Preliminary exercises

The actor presents his findings about the mask he studies to the others in the class.

Improvisations with trestle masks: exercises 2.218–2.223

Exercise 2.218: The character sleeps, wakes up and starts its morning occupations. Improvisation.

Exercise 2.219: Several actors: Behind the curtain before a show. Actors come to the stage one by one from behind the closed curtain. Improvisation.

Exercise 2.220: On a bench, waiting for a date (with one object). Work slowly, watch the partner, react, wait for the next action! Improvisation.

Exercise 2.221: For two actors: the date arrives – what happens? Improvisation.

Exercise 2.222: Problems with a specific object. Improvisation

Exercise 2.223: Two new workers and the boss (see exercises on energy levels in study level I. Improvisation.

Emotion masks

They display a particular but lasting emotion on their face: The laughing girl, the angry king, etc.

Exercise 2.224: Emotion mask: Find a laughing body, an angry body and a simple occupation for the character, etc. Improvisation.

Larval masks (Larfs)

These masks are used in the carnival of Basel, in Switzerland. I lived in Basel for several years and participated in the ‘Basler Fasnacht’, as the carnival is called. I guided Jacques Lecoq through the Basler Fasnacht in February 1969. We observed groups with the same masks, or individuals walking through the old town at a very slow pace (90 steps/min), some drumming and others playing the piccolo. In Basel, the masks stand for comic and grotesque criticism of social problems, politicians and well-known people, and have very exaggerated faces for comic effects. Generally, they are big, extreme features and are painted in bright colours. Lecoq started to use these masks in the school. He used them unpainted, white and unfinished (the colour of ghosts?).

Later, I developed the work further with larval masks in my own way, entering the world of the grotesque. I toured with several mask solos with 12 of the larvaire masks in Germany, directed mask plays and taught many workshops.

The extreme features of the masks lead to extreme movement, extreme characters, to extreme actions and emotions. My students in the Theatre Academy of Stockholm 1976–1980 called them ‘Maya’s sex and crime masks’.

The face of the mask decides the character’s body

The forms of the body should follow the forms and lines of the face. Observe the face of the mask! Is it round, angular, with big lines, small details, vertical or horizontal? The actor demonstrates the movements and body positions he finds.

Mask character exercises 2.225–2.226

Exercise 2.225: The actor sits with his mask, observing it closely. Moving the mask slowly up and down, right and left. The movement style of the character is seen in the lines of the face: Are the lines straight, curved, broken, angular? Unbroken lines point to slow movement, lines in all directions are fit for a livelier character. Observe the lines and forms of the mask from different angles!

Decide the character qualities that are read from the face, for example: She is curious and playful, but afraid. These qualities must now be put into the body, as a form of movement patterns, energy and dynamics. Face and body must become a harmonious totality. Try to answer the questions below and report there after and show in front of the class.

Exercise 2.226: Write a warrant for your mask-character, answering the following questions:


  1. What is the element, the animal of the mask-character?
  2. How does it move?
  3. What energy grades does the mask use?
  4. Where does the mask character life?
  5. What is its occupation?
  6. What is its ‘own’ object?
  7. Character qualities A +B; but C ?
  8. How does it approach people and/or objects spatially?
  9. What rhythm patterns does it use (is its life a valse, an allegria or the blues?)
  10. What energy qualities does its movement have (stiff, pouncing, soft, etc)?

For the Trestle masks, the participants may not find answers to all the questions yet; but they can certainly find them out for larval masks!

Exercises and improvisations with larval masks: exercises 2.227–2.234

Exercise 2.227: The mask character enters the stage. Improvisation.

Exercise 2.228: The mask character wakes up from sleep. Improvisation.

Exercise 2.229: The mask character organises his space. Improvisation.

Work with objects: An object can be attributed to each mask character: a chair, a tool, a flower, etc. Show a short encounter or constraint, with a problem or action with the chosen object(s) chosen. Improvisation.

Exercise 2.230: The mask character finds a specific object and interacts with it. Improvisation.

Advice: Mime does not work well with masks, because their actions are concrete!

Exercise 2.231: Curtain look: The mask appears from behind a hand curtain (held by two people) and presents itself. Improvisation.

The emotions of the mask

Exercise 2.232: Hold the mask in front of you for some time and let it face straight forward. Move its face up and down, front, profile right and left, half-profile right and left; higher, to the centre, down… Observe in each of these positions the emotional expression of the mask. It should have 3 to 8 different expressions of emotions. Repeat these angles with the mask on and learn them by heart. Important exercise.

Exercise 2.233: Find a short scene, where the character displays an emotion or two. Improvisation

Exercise 2.234: The sport class or contest (1 or 2 characters). Improvisation.

The counter-mask

In a crisis (the turning point for the character), people reveal their ‘real’ face, the hidden character, being mostly the very opposite of the personality shown before. Character qualities change! Maybe an energetic, tough, and vulgar character turns soft, fearful and sensible, because he is in love! His body position and his movements and actions change. The mask becomes its own opposite, becomes the counter-mask. In the counter-mask, movement and behaviour patterns do not correspond with the face (an old mask turns young, a stiff character becomes swift, etc.) The counter-mask is an invention of Jacques Lecoq, and is designed to give more depth and drama to a mask character.

Counter-mask exercises 2.235–2.241

Exercise 2.235: Reasons for the counter-mask. The inner and the outer tempo of a character is different. (Examples: A seller in a shop, working quickly, very slow in mind, or a client, in hurry for a train, waits to get served…) Find your own examples and work them out.

Exercise 2.236: Scene with a turning point, where the character changes behaviour, shows his real character, as the opposite to the hitherto behaviour, the counter-mask. The improvisation may end in the counter-mask, or the character turns back to his previous behaviour pattern. (Why?)

Exercise 2.237: Short scene of a character that gets into crisis and changes for a very short time to the counter-mask and then back to normal. Improvisation

Exercise 2.238: Scene of a character that gets into crisis and finally changes into the counter-mask. Improvisation

Exercise 2.239: Do the above exercise with an underlying rhythm and adapt the mask actions to it.

Exercise 2.240: Same exercise as above: Percussion 1 plays the main rhythm pattern, percussion 2 fills and variates the rhythm pattern and underlines the actions of the mask character.

Variation: A melody instrument gives emotional accents. Only through rhythm and music, do the mask scenes get completed.

Exercise 2.241: Research to find out whether the masks can make adequate sounds, or speak or sing? How can the sound be amplified?

The half-mask (commedia dell’arte masks, Balinese topeng masks)

The characters must be defined through body and voice. The mouth and chin of the actor extend the features of the masks character and its way of speaking. The voice is never a natural voice.

For the half-mask, the character must be defined through:

  • The general impression it makes on the face of the actor, leaving the mouth and chin free.
  • The forms of mouth, nose and forehead, etc.
  • The voice (find an adequate, non-realistic voice for the character).
Exercises for the half-mask 2.242–2.247

Exercise 2.242: An actor shoes a half-mask. Define his character.

Exercise 2.243: What types of sounds fit the character? Guttural and nasal sounds can also be used.

Exercise 2.244: What type of language does the character have? Only words, long or short sentences, other sounds?

Exercise 2.245: The typical sound or sentence of the character.

Exercise 2.246: How is the character laughing and crying?

Exercise 2.247: The mask character makes his entry on stag, from the left, and presents himself, his plans, problems, etc. Improvisation.

Short note on the commedia dell’arte

Half-masks are for the commedia dell’arte characters of the zanni (servants), as well as Arlecchino, Brighella, Tartaglia and the vecchi (old ones), as Brighante (very old) and Pantalone, Dottore, Capitano: The maidservants (Bettia, etc.) and the lovers (Lelio, Olivia, Colombina, etc.) use no mask.

The commedia actors knew their characters very well. Usually, they play the same character throughout their entire life! The basic facts about the scenes and the development of the play to perform were written down by the director of the troupe and hung on a board off-stage. The actors could interpolate with jokes and actions. The lazzi (intermediary jokes, a kind of gags) were mostly, in our sense, improvised. The physical side of the commedia is built on asymmetry, repetition and rhythm, and spans from the disabled to the acrobat.

The smallest mask – the red nose of the clown

According to Jacques Lecoq, the red nose is the smallest mask. But the traditional clown is basically a character from the circus. In fact, there is a traditional trio of the august clown, the white clown and the circus director (Monsieur Loyal) hierarchy. The august clown is at its bottom. Clown acts are often intermezzos in circus performances. The clown’s job is to release tensions created in the audience after dangerous acrobatics or animal acts. The comic of the clown is the flop. The august clown shows the audience that he is even clumsier than them – and reinstalls balance.

The traditional circus clown always has a virtuosity of some kind – he can juggle, move, make saltos, play music. He is an eccentric circus figure, an art figure and not from daily life. To live in the circus arena and to appear on stage tames, limits and transforms him into a more psychological character. But the clown is a fictive character from the world of the virtuoso!

The ‘personal’ clown is the character closest to the individual actor. His privacy is protected by the red nose, the smallest mask[200]. The personal clown-character is built on the actor’s individual walk, the physical particularities and behaviour patterns of the specific person. The clown has become one of the most popular parts of Lecoq’s pedagogy, as the ultimate tool of self-discovery and self-realisation[201]. It has therapeutic effects as well.

For me, the personal clown is a kind of acting therapy, of self-realisation and belongs between the first and the second study level.

Body extensions or body masks

The actor’s body is exposed to new conditions by adding a new element, for example being blindfolded, two actors bound together, an actor with only one leg, on stilts, with enormous shoes, oversized breasts, bellies, or posteriors[202], with oversized arms or without arms, big hands, with prolongated fingernails on one hand (as in kathakali), or both hands, four arms, particularly high heels, stilts, long hanging costume parts (coat, belt or train, etc.[203]) etc. Such body extensions are a playful way to introduce buffoons – somewhat crazy, mostly evil characters.

Exercise 2.248: Move with a new body condition, adapt to the situation, live a new life.

From body extension to the buffoon

Exercise 2.249: Encounters with new characters called buffoons.

According to Lecoq, they live in gangs, i.e. they are no soloists like clowns. They mock their audience and do not consider taboos or conventions. According to Lecoq, we laugh at clowns, but buffoons laugh at us. Clowns are absolute individualists, but buffoons live in gangs. The differences between animals, plants, objects and human beings are blurred. Buffoons are a new species, different from the others, with different mentalities! They are scary and ridiculous, but not funny. These grotesque and disorganised characters are from a bizarre, other world, where the animal and the human blurs, and have self-indulgence as their marks. Because buffoons have extreme bodies, sometimes not even human, they see the world with very different eyes! They are remedies against social grievances and the mainstream.

Improvisation themes for movement buffoons:

Exercise 2.250: A gang of 3–5 buffoons plan an action and do it. Examples: youngsters against old people/all against one/warfare/clerics and laymen/politics/parties, etc.