The mask

  • The stocking covering the face
  • The neutral mask
  • Age masks (the child, the young girl, the middle-aged woman, the old lady, the old king)
  • Animal masks and emotion masks (showing an emotion) on the face
  • Simple expressive masks (Trestle masks[191])
  • Larvaires (or larfs[192]), from the carnival of Basel, Switzerland), extreme characters
  • Half-masks, or commedia dell’arte masks. They need an adaptation of the voice for the character
  • Body masks, as body extensions and buffoons
  • The clown-nose: Towards the ‘personal’ or the circus clown (august and white clown, and circus director

The mask as an artefact

In some cultures, masks are used in rituals and carnivals and, as with Bali, Japan, China and India, traditional mask-theatre can also be found.

Not all masks function on stage! If mask is a good mask – able to change expression – it is only seen by testing it on stage: can it display different emotions?

The size of a mask has a direct influence on the style of its embodiment. A large mask needs large-scale movement for creating a character. A mask smaller than the face of the actor requires special subtlety of movement, as in the case of the Balinese masks of topeng pajekan, or the Japanese noh masks. Masks tightly adhering to the skin of the face should not be used – there should be a gap between face and mask[193].

Functions of the mask

The mask has a fixed, unmovable face …The mask is life captured in death, and by the living body of the actor it may come to life again. A dead object comes to life (even if this life is created by the play of shadow and light on the mask) and inspires awe and wonder even today.

Baudoin [194]

The mask lifts a scene on stage immediately onto a theatrical and symbolic level. Mask theatre cannot be brought into concordance with ‘natural’ acting. The mask functions on a different dramatic level. It creates a visual image of a more subjective element, rooted in the depths of the human mind[195]. It belongs to the world of theatre as a ritual and leads to accentuated physicality, creation, pathos and stylisation, and it speaks rather to the spectator’s intuition than to his intellect.

The mask ‘plays in between the antagonistic world of the living and the dead, the visible and the invisible: It’s clearly seen that the mask is essentially an instrument of metamorphosis’.[196] The mask as an object becomes a trigger for transformation. The rest of the body adapts to the new face in accordance with the human ability of mimicry. The actor no longer represents himself, but becomes an art figure from another world, the world of theatre, a liminal being. A mask cannot express realistically and is therefore a safeguard against realism. Eldridge mentions the main reasons why Alfred Jarry[197], as early as in 1908, wanted to reintroduce the mask to the theatre in order ‘to eliminate the influence of the star actor’s personality that distorts his stage character and transforms plays into a vehicle of their own aggrandisement.’

The ego-ridden Western actor fears the mask: to cover his own face may wipe out his personality! He wants to interpret a character with his ‘own’ body and his personal gestures and facial expressions, not ‘to give’ his own body to a mask character!

Lucidly, Alfred Jarry observed the importance of the angles the masks is shown at:

By the reflection of the light, there are five or six main positions, faces or profiles to find. The horizontal and lateral displacement allows the light to play on the mask; the mask comes to life.

Alfred Jarry[198]

For expressive, movement-based theatre, the mask has two different functions and benefits:

Pedagogical function of the mask

To cover the actor’s face with a mask would depersonalise him, make him unnatural. It would compel him to pay attention to his movements, to relay his physical means of expression, to re-create instead of reproducing.[199]

The mask helps to free the actor’s body, teaches the student to explore characters, and in dramatic situations to use the whole body. The resulthow the mask works on the spectatoris of lesser importance here. The student is free to explore, is safe behind the mask. To show the ‘correct angles’ of the mask is less important here.

Under the mask, the actor is forced to think and to express with his entire body.

Artistic function – the mask as a tool for masked theatre

The second reason for the use of masks is to promote stylised, expressive, movement-based theatre, with the mask as a safeguard against realism as proposed by Alfred Jarry, Gordon Craig, Oskar Schlemmer, Etienne Decroux and Jacques Lecoq.

Preparing an actor for mask acting on stage requires additional skills, as does the study of presentation. Besides physical characterisation, the various angles of the mask, as well a specific energy, poses and tempi, must be mastered.

But most masks need a body that is larger than life, a dilated dramatic body. Without good body techniques, mask theatre easily becomes amateurish.

Characterisation by the mask

To shoe a mask

The mask is a foreign object that covers the face. It may hamper the student in the beginning:

  • They are afraid to lose their identity
  • They feel alone and locked up in a dark box
  • They are disturbed by restricted vision
  • They cannot hear well
  • They experience breathing problems
  • They experience balance problems
  • They easily lose contact with the theme (the mask character)

Therefore, first one should hide the face with a stocking or a veil over the head. It helps to get acquainted with the mask. The personality of the student is annihilated through the stocking. He is now just a body and has all the freedom to explore movement.

Masks are usually fastened by a rubber band around the head. The actor’s own hair is visible (For mask theatre, hair must be camouflaged).

To shoe a mask exercises 2.215–2.216

Exercise 2.215: The first thing to learn is to shoe a mask, to make a clear distinction between the (fictive) mask character and yourself. Stand in front of your class:

  1. Turn your back on the class.
  2. Put the mask on the top of your head and fasten it.
  3. Take the basic body position of the mask character.
  4. Pull the mask down over your face with one hand, adjust it with the other hand and arrange your hair.
  5. Stay immobile for a few seconds, concentrate, and see the character in your mind and remember its aim.
  6. Turn around towards the audience, and freeze before starting to move.

Ending a masked improvisation:

  1. Freeze your last movement, face front-on to the audience.
  2. Wait a few seconds (‘cut the film’).
  3. Remove the mask and assume a relaxed body position.


  1. Finish your work session by turning your back on the audience.
  2. ’Freeze’ for a few seconds.
  3. Remove the mask.

Exercise 2.216: Prepare a simple physical action. Move with a stocking or a veil over your face. Watching others, you will become aware of how the body expression becomes important!

Old and young characters

In my own practice, I start the course (after the neutral mask or exercises with the stocking), with age masks (The positions of the four different ages were studied in the opposite wave movement in level I).

The character is defined by its physical capacities.

Exercise 2.217: How the old lady, the old king, the child, the young girl, the lady, the queen rises from a chair (or from the floor) and sits down, how do they wait, walk, what is their occupation, etc. Improvise and discuss the results in class.

As a second mask type, Trestle masks (Trestle Company, London) display simple characters that are good to study before switching to expressive masks. (Trestle masks display different positions of the mouth and the eyebrows).

Trestle masks: expressive small-scale masks

The body shape, movement and character are already inscribed in the face of a mask. The actor should sit for long time with his mask and hold it in front of him, observing the face at different angles, in different lights. The lines in the face correspond to the lines of the body and to movement. A round face needs a round body structure, or round movement, long lines in the face correspond to long lines in the body, etc.