The illusion of white larval masks

Working blind

When approached by an artist looking to hire larval masks for a film project, they were amazed to discover the true illusion and magic of the larval masks. They discovered that the so called “eyes” are not the eyes at all.

If you have seen a performer in a white larval mask, it is so easy to assume they have full view of the stage and the performers they interact with, but in truth they could be performing blind or with very limited sight.

Larval masks offers a multitude of training pathways. They offer an exploration of character and an understanding of non-verbal gesture and story telling, whilst honing the base skills of an actor in their physicality and expression.

The white larval masks were originally developed and inspired from the annual street carnival festival in Basel, Switzerland, but this form of white mask was picked up by Jacques Lecoq as it offered a way to study the shape of mask without the distraction of colour. The character comes from the shape of the mask and how it projects and moves into space.

There is a vast range of larval masks. Larval masks can have eye holes, others have hidden pin holes for the actor to glimpse through, whilst others are completely blind. Through working across these different styles over the years, there is something very special and unique about the blind masks.

Performing a blind mask on stage heightens the physical embodied listening, with the sense of sight lost, the other senses (including proprioception and interoception) are sharpened & it opens up new tools for a performer.

From a mask perspective, training students in the essence of mask-making, the blind masks offer an interactive tool, where they can experiment changing the position of the eyes & eye shape to see the consequences on the character to emerge from the mask.

Changes in eye position

Colour can create illusion and in a strict sense the black eyes could be seen as a colour on the mask. They certainly have a role in creating character as we will see.

It is possible to play the mask without eyes and it brings a different quality and experience on stage – a focus on the simplicity of the abstract shape.

Developmental studies suggest that the role of human eyes (the presence of black pupils surrounded by white sclera) play an important role in facial recognition for new born babies at just 2-days old. (Dupierrix et al. 2014). Compared to primates (with all black eyes), the white-black contrast of human eyes play a role in orienting to the mother.

This developmental feature underwired in our evolutionary physiology also shows up in the world of mask as we automatically orient and project anthropomorphism on objects with eyes.

Playing around with one mask, we can see the shift that eye position can make on character, as it brings out different elements of the mask.

Shape and size

In a similar way, the shape of the eyes can emphasise specific dynamics, maybe the curve of the cheek, the length of the nose or the angle of the eye brows.

And finally, the contextual size of the eyes can also play a part. It makes us ask what is the proportional balance between the size of the eyes to the size of the face. Is there a neutral or balanced size for each mask? What brings comedy and what optimises a mask’s character?

It is through the practice of larval mask that we can explore the natural projections we cast onto faces, the aspects that shape our perception of character, and the ways we can play with it and fully embody new characters for theatre and the arts.

Paper Reference:

Dupierrix, Eve et al. “Preference for human eyes in human infants.” Journal of experimental child psychology vol. 123 (2014): 138-46. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2013.12.010