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A Relation of the Puppet: Mask
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Edited excerpts on the relationship between mask and puppetry from Penny Francis' forthcoming book, Puppetry, a Reader

Close cousins of the puppet theatre are the genres of ventriloquism, masks and automata when applied in performance.

Here, I reflect on the relationship between mask and puppetry, since both are concerned with the animation of objects, both are embedded in theatre’s most ancient history, in its origins of ritual and magic, and both have functioned as universal, artificial aids for the evocation of awe and fear and the exercise of power. In contemporary theatre both have evolved into a secular medium of entertainment, for western audiences at least, while retaining their spiritual liaisons in other cultures. Another common characteristic is their basis in the manual and corporeal crafts: both genres need a high degree of acquired skill, demanding long periods of study and unremitting practice.

As puppeteers with their puppets, masked players lose their own personality to assume the attributes delineated in the mask, except in the ‘neutral’ mask-work – when the mask holds no expression and the players assume a character and a physical bearing as circumstance demands – often employed in training. Another stylistic of the mask is the ‘character’ mask which itself proposes or dictates a character for the wearer, as for the commedia dell’arte comedians or zanni. A player in a commedia troupe was often known for his or her interpretation of a single mask, the word becoming a synonym for ‘role’ or persona; for example:  '[Colombina’s] love affairs with Arlecchino, Pulcinella or some other mask brought about quarrels and peace-makings between her and Pasquella...'(McKechnie 1931:66).

Mask work is an effective route to puppet play: the masked performer acts as a self-manipulated figure; his or her normal bearing, voice and mannerisms are subsumed in the ‘demands’ of the mask. For this reason first encounters with a mask, as with a puppet, can be disorienting both for the performer and the spectator: the masked performer has lost much of their native personality, the spectator must read the character behind a strange disguise, a performer who is neither an actor nor a puppet. Some masks are designed to terrify and subdue, or by contrast to evoke hilarity. The connection with both puppets and ventriloquism is evident: alienation and otherness are intrinsic to many kinds of masks, as they are to certain ritual puppets and the conventional vent doll with its aggressive, perpetual grin. Both evoke fear or at least apprehension, even in the most experienced and blasé adult. It is not surprising: the disguise of the mask, the uncanniness of many puppets, the effect of the displaced voice on the baffled listener were all essential ingredients of the mystifying rituals of earliest human societies. People believed that these instruments served to strengthen or defend man’s power against alien spirits, especially the power and stature of a masked priest or chieftain, whose proximal contact with the depicted image, mask or puppet figure, and their conjuring of the disembodied voice, seemed to endow them with intimate contact with gods, demons, and the spirits of the mask.

From the entry on Mask in Patrice Pavis’ Dictionary of the Theatre (1998: 202):
Contemporary Western theatre has revived the use of the mask. This rediscovery (it had already been used in classical Greece theatre and commedia dell’arte) coincides with the re-theatricalization of theatre and the promotion of body expression.
[…] there are several indications for their use in theatre, particularly the ability to observe others while being protected from observation oneself.
[…] By hiding one’s face one voluntarily renounces psychological expression, which generally provides the greatest amount of information, often very detailed, to the spectator. The actor is forced to make a considerable physical effort to compensate for this loss of meaning and identification. The body translates and amplifies the character’s inner self by exaggerating each gesture. This reinforces the theatricality and makes the actor’s use of space considerably more important. The opposition between a neutral face and a body in perpetual motion is one of the essential aesthetic consequences of wearing a mask. The mask does not have to represent a face; a neutral mask or a half-mask is enough to immobilize facial expression and concentrate attention on the actor’s body.
The mask denaturalizes the character by introducing a foreign body into the relationship of identification between spectator and actor. It is therefore often used when the mise-en-scène seeks to avoid emotional transference and defamiliarizes the character.
[…] Masks are meaningful only within the mise-en-scène as a whole. They are no longer confined to the face (as in ‘body-mask’), but retain close links with facial expression, the actor’s overall appearance and even the scenery.

The inspirational teaching of Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999) in his Paris school has much to do with the renewed interest in the mask, and also in the emphasis on corporeal expression both in modern western theatre-making and the training of performers. Steven Whinnery (2007 in Total Theatre Magazine 19.2:15), a one-time student of Lecoq, confesses:

I was bamboozled, challenged, tearful, confused and a very bad student. But in the friction, burn and deep immersion something got right into my bones and the fundamental tenets of his teaching stayed with me and influenced all my subsequent work.

Lecoq’s influence on theatre has been a major factor in the late twentieth century’s radical re-evaluation of performance in general and the text-based, realistically acted work of the ‘well-made play’ in particular.

Added to the ‘neutral’ and the ‘character’ mask we have mentioned, Lecoq had a list of mask categories which included ‘Larval’, and ‘Clown’ or ‘Red Nose’. To these Michael Chase, a British leader in the field of mask-making and mask training, would add the ‘Acoustic’ mask, an ‘open-mouthed helmet’, the nearest to that of classical Greece. Chase has devoted his life to mask-work, and knows as much as anyone about the art of ‘animating’ the mask:

For the mask to remain alive on the stage it cries out for three living relationships: the first is the performer in relationship to their creative impulse and inner spontaneous life, the playful essence; the second is the relationship with the other performers, the other masks on stage. And the third is the mask in relationship with the audience, the world. Whether this is in dance, mime or drama the same relationships need to be maintained […] if the relationships are maintained, a new world begins to emerge on the stage, as if by magic…
(Chase in Total Theatre Magazine, ibid:13)

Puppeteer Mark Pitman, a pupil of Lecoq in the 1980s, who also teaches mask-work, explained in an interview (on 14 January 2010) that the first principle his students must understand concerns control, breathing and stillness, keeping the mask alive even when the player is still with ‘small breath’ just as with puppets. The performer is reaching for a good understanding of his or her body and its movement through total concentration and precision – again, just as in puppetry. An awareness of the space and the other performers through a heightening of the senses is called for, as with the hooded or screened puppeteer, since sight is restricted. Pitman said:

Neutral mask is used mainly for workshops and teaching or learning. Precisely because of its neutrality it is dramatically the strongest of all masks, magnetically drawing the attention of the spectators. It is the best teacher of stillness and the importance of breath. Just as a puppet is.
[…] In the school of Lecoq we were taught with the neutral mask in the first year, commedia and character masks in the second. The difference lay in the increased energy and strength the latter needed from the performer to express their character, although control and stillness were still very necessary. (Pitman in interview, 2010)

The making of the masks demands flair as well as craftsmanship, exemplars of both being the Italians Amleto and Donato Sartori in whose honour the Museum of the Mask was created in 2004, near Padua. The best commedia masks were and are made of leather but character or ‘expressive’ masks may be made of papier maché, neoprene, silicone, plaster bandage and other materials traditional and modern. Pitman explains the importance of finding ‘movement in the form’: the mask can be ‘sharp-edged, knife-like, or soft-featured and passive’ to accord with the role of its wearer.

Before covering the face and starting to perform, performers take time to gaze at their mask, contemplating its character. The best puppeteers, given time (difficult when they are performing with more than one figure), will do the same, absorbing the object’s apparent spirit and physicality and thence finding its authentic voice and gait. The exercise is part of the performance warm-up.

Finally the puppet and the mask are cousins in that to some practitioners each may exert an uncanny force over the performer, almost as if the object is in control. Whinnery ends his article with the words: ‘Don’t get involved with masks; they do strange things to you.’ Many puppeteers would say the same.


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This article includes edited excerpts from the chapter 'Related Arts' in Penny Francis' forthcoming book, Puppetry, a Reader, to be published early in 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan in their series of Readers in Theatre Practice.

Works referenced:
McKechnie, Samuel (1931) Popular Entertainments Through the Ages, Sampson Low, Marston & Co.
Pavis, Patrice (1998) Dictionary of the Theatre, University of Toronto Press
Prior, Dorothy Max (ed.) (2007) Total Theatre Magazine 19.2, Total Theatre

Mark Pitman was interviewed by the author February 2010.


Top image strip: Forkbeard Fantasy, The Colour of Magic; BlackSkyWhite,Astronomy for Insects; Family Flöz, Hotel Paradiso.

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