Musing On The Modern Mask Theatre


Thoughts and ideas on the use of theatrical mask for the future

WARNING – The following is my own personal opinion based on some cursory research and my own experiences. I hope by reading this you will feel compelled to contribute, comment and add to this conversation. I am happy for people to come up with alternative arguments or correct any misunderstandings on my part.

Can you name a Mask Theatre Company currently touring the UK?

There will be theatre aficionados in the UK that could probably reel off a handful of notable theatre companies in the that have existed in the past 40-50 years, but even these exceptional individuals would struggle to name many currently in existence. Trestle is still going strong but they haven’t made a mask show for a long time. Horse and Bamboo although still going they seem to focus more on puppets and community work these days. Strange Face are making work and the masks of their founder Russell Dean can be seen in the work of Vamos Theatre. These are great companies and their work is wonderful, if you get he chance then please check them out. A quick Google search will turn up a couple of Commedia Dell’arte Companies in the UK, Ophaboom and Old Spot Theatre can be found lurking.

However, thats not many.


Well I came to ponder this questions whilst being interviewed by Dr Yeliz  Biber Vangolu, who is currently researching a book exploring contemporary mask theatre in the UK. What she discovered was that there isn’t many contemporaries at all. In fact the majority of Mask makers are quite old. It turns out that at 40 years of age I was one of the youngest she had spoken to. I am by no means a master craftsman, I can make a mask but not with the skill of experts such as Russell Dean, Mike Chase, Stephen Jon, Sally Brooks or the late great Ninian Kinnier-Wilson. Many of these makers trained with Donato Sartori the son of Amleto Satori the sculptor who worked with Jaques Lecoq and others to revitalise mask traditions. Both Donato and Amleto are no longer with us. These few individuals have probably made the majority of the masks that have been given life by some wonderful companies in the past five decades.

Masks are beautiful works of art in their own right and the wonderful artists listed above make some of the best. The process of making a mask is slow and laborious. To make one single mask from scratch will take the maker a number of days or even weeks. If you wish to take part in a extremely pleasing a therapeutic activity I suggest you make a Mask. Its great. Its not quick though and, if you wish to use a professional mask maker to make a set for your company, it is not cheap either.

Is it a financial issue?

Well its certainly a consideration. If you are a young company and you are struggling to find the funds to take your first show to Edinburgh, unless you yourself are a mask maker, you are unlikely to have the budget. Then there is not only the cost of making the masks there is the added dilemma of needing performers who can bring a mask to life a sustain a full length performance. If you are making a full mask performance then there is the added complication (if you see it that way) of making a show without words.

So is it an issue of training?

It seems to me that the system for training Actors in Drama Schools in the UK (or certainly England) is still very much biased towards some kind of text based work. Universities may have a slightly broader curriculum and tend to turn out more theatre makers/companies in the alumni, but still, if these students did spend any time working with mask it will have been very brief. Some do take their training further and perhaps go to other parts of Europe to study. Lecoq certainly uses mask in its training, most notably the neutral mask, but this is still more of a learning tool than a performance method in its own right. It seems to be the case that mask is not traditional form of theatre practised in most learning institutions.

No cultural tradition?

The use of Mask goes back thousands of years and appears to have be a very early form of cultural expression, a shamanic custom for many cultures. Traditional masks are still important in many parts of the world. Pick up any book on mask and the history of masks and you will find examples of traditional masquerade and theatrical masks in Africa, Japan, South America, and parts of Europe. You will not find anything for the UK. There probably has been some kind of mask tradition in the UK but it is not living now, and perhaps if and when it did exist it was killed of by our history of colonising and being colonised. Our theatre tradition is so influenced by Shakespeare and the whole idea of written drama that perhaps if there were mask shows in our past they were not recorded and therefore not passed on. Ironically there is much in the traditions of Shakespeare that likely was adopted from Commedia Dell’arte. Commedia is probably one of the strongest traditions of mask theatre and because of the nature of its plots being driven by the strong archetypal masks. Didi Hopkins has been educating and advocating the power of Commedia for a very long time in the UK. She has worked with the National Theatre and the RSC to bring Commedia to life on these big stages. However neither company actually went as far as asking its actors to wear masks! Im sure our pagan forefathers must have loved a bit of mask ritual when bringing in the seasons etc, in fact we can see some of this during Green Man Festivals and other pagan influenced celebrations. Perhaps it was Jesus who did for the mask in the UK?

Does it suit our culture?

If one attempts to define British culture then perhaps we could say we tend to be more cerebral than guttural. We like to (appear to) be high minded and in control of our emotions. We share some similarities with Japanese culture and yet there is no lack of Mask in their society. In fact one would imagine that for an inhibited culture such as ours we would be more inclined to mask. After all it gives the performer the opportunity to hide and set free some of there repressed desires. Theatre in the UK is certainly elite and anyone who says it isn’t just simply hasn’t looked at the audience of your average theatre venue. Its not for want of trying. I know theatres are desperate to broaden their appeal and get new audiences through the door, but it still isn’t working. Perhaps traditional theatres are not the place for mask. This makes sense if you consider the history of mask which in essence is a street/outdoor performance style. Interestingly one company that has been using mask successfully with its audiences since the 1980’s is Geese Theatre Company. They have found mask to be extremely successful with their audiences who, being mainly prisoners and people who are involved in offending, are far from your average theatre going demographic.

A problem of copyright and staging?

The relationship between the mask maker and the producing company is complicated. Often the maker is working freelance and is commissioned to make the masks. They, as the artist, hold the copyright for the masks. The company owns the physical object and is generally free to use them in their own work, but they are not at will to share them with other people, and certainly they could not sell them on without explicit permission from the maker. If the company were to pass on the masks to another company it would almost certainly be to produce a new piece of work and the maker would understandably feel like s/he was missing out on a new commission. It is unlikely that a new company would produce the same show as a previous company because most contemporary mask shows are devised by the company and, particularly with full mask, there is no written dialogue only a synopsis of the plot and technical/staging notes. In text based theatre it is pretty easy for a group to get the licence to produce a amateur performance of a play and the playwright will receive a small payment. This has never been the case for mask theatre. Whatever you think of amateur theatre it is often peoples first experience of performance and is therefore, I believe, hugely influential in terms of audiences expectations. Young small scale touring theatre companies currently tend towards making original work. I guess this is because they are working with an even smaller demographic of studio-theatre-going audiences. These audiences are probably made up of like-minded professionals and the more avant-garde, early adopter types who like to see the new ground-breaking work and also don’t mind take a risk and potentially wasting their money on a incomplete, incoherent, indulgent waste of air. These companies are also very interested in carving their own unique style. So for all of these reasons they are unlikely to re-stage an existing mask performance.

So what can we do?

Reducing costs? I am currently working with The Institute for Innovation In Sustainable Engineering, they are exploring the potential of laser scanning my masks and 3D printing them. Purists will reel at this, but perhaps there is the potential to use Computer Aided Design to create masks and then simply press print. In a way this has already been achieved by Steve Wintercroft with his amazing geometric masks.

As established above there is no traditional set of character masks of uk origin. I wonder whether a group of like-minded mask makers might make a set of masks that define British cultures and then make the designs of these freely available to any company that wishes to make them or print them. This might sound counter intuitive to some people, but perhaps we could learn from the music industry. Over the past couple of decades, musicians have recognised the benefit of giving their music away. The benefit comes from the process of developing new audiences. This is not applicable to just Mask Theatre but to the whole sector.

Perhaps funding could be found and theatre companies could bid for commissions to make work using the same set. Mike Chase ran an excellent mask festival in Stourbridge. Likewise Stephen Jon ran a very successful symposium on masks. I feel that a yearly mask festival such as these would certainly increase the likelihood of mask theatre being adopted by a younger generation of theatre makers. Perhaps such a festival would do well to encourage and financially support new British mask work?

What else? Let me know your thoughts and maybe we could make something happen…