Masks in Theatrical Training

There is terrific power in a mask. This cardboard object, plastic or piece of wood that we place upon our faces gives us a sense of liberty, of freedom, of inhibition. From the booze soaked Venetian masquerade, to Mardis Gras, Halloween, to the ritualistic masked dance drama, masks play a role in our lives today and have played a role in humanity, we suppose, since the dawn of storytelling.

Popol Vuh. Created by Jim Hart

What interests me most about masks is not the physical object one wears (the physical mask), but the metaphor of the mask.

We each wear masks with each other, constantly. We speak to our lover differently than our employer or accountant. Parents speak to their children differently than their best friends or a police officer or a doctor. This is a practice called code shifting. We all do it.

Our metaphorical masks, our code shifting, enables us to play roles for each other in our respective lives. Here, we are talking about Universal Archetypes. Sometimes these masks are consciously worn and sometimes unconsciously.

Examples:  At times, we each play the mentor for some person. Each of us has been a shape shifter in some other person’s life, surely. No doubt each of us has served as a hero for someone at some point. The wizard has the power to transform. Surely each of us has encouraged, enabled or just created a spark, which lead to a flame and a consequential transformation in another (perhaps without either party even realizing the other´s role).

Most of us will, during at least some point, play the role of the villain for another; after all, as Carl Jung would tell us, we each have a shadow.

What is beneath the masks? Well, that is what most people ask of themselves off and on throughout their lives. That is what the mythic hero journey is about and is what most classic stories deal in—the universal experience of people asking the great equalizing question “Who am I”?

My first mask to make and one of my favorites.

Masks can also play a fantastic role in the process of teaching actors about transformational ability in their acting, how to deepen their characterization, how to turn off their personal censors and play. Masks have the potential to get one out of their head space, to focus more on their creative impulses and how to follow those impulses without first fearing them or judging them.

This later benefit of playing with masks is freedom. That is the real power that masks afford us.

Masks play a regular and vital role in the training at The International Theatre Academy Norway.

Following graduating from Yale School of Drama, Hart received a Fox Fellowship to study ritualistic masked dancing with master teachers in Bali and India, a study that lasted a year and took him through Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, India and Hong Kong.

Hart is the founder of
The International Theatre Academy Norway.

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