What makes a neutral mask?

Early this month at The Actors Centre we explored some of the underlying ingredients to the neutral mask.

From a mask-making perspective:

  • is shape important?
  • the proportions of the face (and how that may connect or not connect with ethnicity)
  • the effects of material or colour on the mask
  • the integration of senses

The neutral mask is a practice to sharpen awareness of a performer to their body language and non-verbal communication. This interweaves their posture, breath, centre of gravity & relationship to space, to create a performer’s “presence” on stage.

The neutral mask shuts off the normal cues from facial expression and unfolds the communication beneath this. Participants find through observing the neutral mask the astounding fact that when worn by others, it seems as though the mask itself changes. The same mask on two different people can look radically different. We may be drawn to specific aspects of the mask, the mouth, the brow lines, or the length. Similarly the audience may perceive a certain emotion or archetype arise when the mask is worn.

The illusion of this phenomenon reveals the information we subliminally perceive from the body and we project into face in everyday life. This information from the body is peripheral and subtle, but this carefully crafted mask helps peel away the distraction of speech and facial cues for us to explore some of the ground blocks of communication.

How it began

The study of body language and this layer of communication has been present in theatre and mime for a long time. Originally the likes of Étienne Decroux & others, would use material or tissue paper wrapped around the face to sharpen their observations and articulation of physical movement. They would use black cloth or white cloth in their explorations & trainings.

Later in the 1970s Jacques Lecoq, who was a great influence in developing and defining many of the genres of physical theatre in the 20th century, set about looking at ways to create a neutral mask. Was it possible to create a mask that was beyond character and could tap into the underlying essentials of human experience?

He found Amleto Sartori a sculptor based in Padova, Italy. Working together they set about the process. What would the essential shape be? Where should they start?

The dominant form of mask in Italy was the famous Commedia Dell’Arte. Originating from Venice, this style of performance accentuated the different stereotypes in society. (I liken it to the “Little Britain” sitcom of the 14th century full of stereotypes, wit & laughter).

But how could they create something beyond character? They looked to the Noh Mask Theatre of Japan. This has a myriad of character masks, but within the mix, there was a mask of the “naive boy”. Could this be the closest thing in character mask of the state where there is maximum potential, without the later imprint of stereotype or role in society?

Working from this mask, they developed the first neutral masks. Leather masks following a simple but exquisitely crafted shape. In the early days, it was called the Noble mask, and you can see a photograph in the book “The Moving Body” by Jacques Lecoq.

In this work, they developed two types of mask – a female mask and a male mask. In the current day, this prompts fascinating inquiry if that is necessary? Is gender an influence in the neutral mask or is there a neutrality beyond gender? I think there is a rich landscape to explore. It inspires my line of thinking to look to anthropology & the study of dimorphism in other species & the underlying factors which prompt this to arise.

In later years, the original design of the noble mask stayed with Lecoq, and Sartori went on to develop a subtle more refined new set of masks. These are still available to buy from the International Museum of the Mask Amleto and Donato Sartori.

Let’s Play

So as a mask-maker myself, my curiosity bubbles. Along my training, there has been reference to these different methods to explore neutrality. In this workshop we put these into practice and went on a journey of “what if”s.

Before we begin, I’ll add that when I started out as a mask-maker I said I’d never make a neutral mask. The Sartori masks were the best, I would make character masks & other masks but not a neutral. It was later when a dear friend & practitioner had potential to explore new application of this work into healing, but was limited by not having the high finances to afford an original, that I was drawn to make one.

It turns out for anyone who enjoys mask-making, it is the best exercise you can ever do. It will show the biases which run through your mask-making practice & reflect back new refinements & questions.

There is an interplay with respecting tradition, acknowledging the phenomenal skill and genius beneath the original Sartori masks (I liken it to being able to draw a perfect circle), & the other side of keeping this art form fresh and alive (questioned, rigorous and vital) keeping the masks alive on performers rather than locked away in museum cabinets.

Black or White?

Before the leather masks was the practice of wrapping the performer’s head in black or white fabric.

After covering some base foundations of the neutral mask, different performers stood on stage, wrapped in cloth.

What was surprising was how much it brought focus mechanically to the body. It made postural analysis arise with no connection to emotion or presence of the performer. It was looking at the body in set physical analysis with no engagement of the being beneath.

The white cloth brought qualities of “the mummy”, the head being present but obscured in an almost frustrating way. The black gave in contrast a “headless” body. There was nothing to consider of the head, because the head wasn’t there. We saw differences between performers and got a sense of movement, but in a cold mechanical way.

I certainly didn’t expect this but by this simple playing around, I realised how essential our senses are. The senses and our interaction of senses bring us to life.

All in the eyes?

Leaving behind the fabric, we moved on to some generic paper masks which were picked up from a nearby craft store. Here there are eyes cut but no other features.

In performing these, it felt as if there was no breath on stage, as if someone had just shouted “freeze” everything was held in this mask performance. The lower cut of the mask above the eyebrow gave us the hair of each performer and with that the arrival of characters. Is this why the neutral mask goes so high?

On an aside, fascinatingly these masks were all made from the same mold, but have picked up different details and had eyes cut in slightly different positions. What characters can you see emerge and why?

What of the shape?

It is said that the neutral mask is a special shape that has the ability to show all emotions of the human being. In character masks, the shape of the mask will hold only a couple of emotions or expressions which repeat across all performers. But the neutral mask is the perfect balance between all.

The next mask we move onto is another paper mask, again from a craft shop, maybe for decoration or painting in colourful ways, beneath its shape we discover a clear character of sass, some seductively bulbous accentuations whilst maintaining an androgynous style. It’s a fun mask to play, with swinging hip movements, overlain with aspects of a jester or the anonymous mask of V for Vendetta. So this was fun, but clearly a character mask.

What is the shape of neutral?

In mask making terms, the original neutral mask has no inversions, no inward grooves around the lips, mouth or other features. Its sole movement is forward, which for those familiar with the practice of neutral mask, echoes quite beautifully the power of the neutrality to stay present in the moment but never look back. Always moving forward or standing alert, awaiting the next move in equilibrium and full awareness of all around.

Within our play, I bring out masks made as prototypes for that given to my friend many years ago. They are an open exploration, sculpted from clay, made of paper mache and later painted brown, with a question could they merge or play on stage with leather ones? Is the material too different or can it work?

They give us perspective to see, what is the effect when the mouth & nose are open, when these senses are enlivened in the mask. Interestingly these paper mache prototypes work in some way, they are vital and they can play well. Dimensions are small for these specific masks, so they fit the smaller faces well but would need enlarging to be worn well by all.

The secret of leather

In creating a neutral mask there are so many questions to arise. One is what material to make it from. In mask tradition it is better to use natural materials which can “breathe”, there is a kind of life transmitted through a mask on stage which connects to its material. Wood, leather and paper are all good options.

There are questions around how plastic and other variants like neoprene effect the performance and mask work.

For materials which are not leather, there is the question of whether to paint the mask and what colour that should be. Should it echo our real skin colour or be a variant which is transposed beyond skin colour? (Perhaps similar to the transposition of the blue faces in the film Avatar, which Steven Spielberg based off the neutral mask).

There are white versions, black versions and brown versions out there.

The question of colour and possible shading is an interesting one. It was only from bringing the prototype brown mask up to the leather, & through improvised play of both, that a deeper realisation emerged.

The leather mask isn’t painted, but within its many grooves and from the process of hammering the leather into shape, a depth, shine and natural shading emerges. It is this process of molding the leather that provides an essential shading and precision that paper mache will never carry (unless painted on).

All in all, the exploration brought up some unexpected realisations

  • Firstly, how essential our senses are in the neutral mask through the physical spaces created for the eyes, nose and mouth. It is not just a practice of shutting off information from the face. These physical spaces enable an underlying essence of human to project through.
  • Second, is the subtlety and beauty that leather brings. I have always looked on the original neutral masks as unpainted and unshaded, but now I see them in a different light, holding a careful magic from the processes that shape them.

As with everything in life, as one or two questions are answered, millions more are created. I come away with even more respect to the original neutral mask created by Lecoq & Sartori, and more curiosity to the process they went through to create it. There are so many options out there in exploring this field. Let’s see where the next seeds land.