During the afternoon, Georgia Munnion of Coruscate Theatre came in to lead an excellent mask workshop with the group. It transpired that only Jen had worked with masks before so it was going to be a new experience for most of us! After a short introduction where Georgia spoke about her background including a degree in European Theatre Arts and diverse experience in Physical Theatre, Circus skills, Mask work, Stage Combat and Theatre in Education we all introduced ourselves and moved on to a warm up.
Kung Fu Fighting
We began with some drama exercises to get our circulation going and to physically loosen up our joints. First we played a few games standing in a circle; including one involving having to make deliberate eye contact with another member of the group without speaking. This was to make us more aware of smaller subtle movements which would play a big part in the mask work. One of the most fun warm-up games we played was where we had to “HUH!” at someone, pointing our arms straight at them, kung-fu style. That person then immediately flung their arms in the air, hands clasped together in the same way, with another loud “HUH!” and their two immediate neighbours had to “HUH!” whilst swinging their arms to point at that persons stomach. I’m sure that’s the most long-winded way in which it could be described – all I really need to say it was a LOT of fun, especially when we tried to speed up the chain of reactions and was quite satisfying whenever two neighbours managed to “HUH!” in unison.
Splitting into pairs we tried a punching and blocking game; trying to alternate hands and punches/blocks as fast as we could without messing up. The most successful pairs were using their whole bodies as part of the exercise rather than concentrating all the movement into their arms; sort of bobbing a bit like a boxer to get a rhythm going so that the sequence became automatic and could be sped up a lot more.
Wait, come back… I love you!
In groups of three we played a love triangle game where we named ourselves A, B and C. Whilst A tried to be with B, B was trying to be with C, and C wanted nothing more than to be with A. On the other hand, A was trying to distance themselves from C, whilst B desperately tried to get away from A and so on. Our objective was to avoid the person trying to get close to us, whilst trying to connect a specific part of our body with another specific part of the person we were trying to get close to. This lead to some interesting actions including running round in a tight circle getting incredibly dizzy or in the case of our group, ending up in such a small circle that all we could do was lie on the floor with our heads on each others’ right feet. That certainly would’ve been an interesting moment for an unsuspecting person to stumble upon the rehearsal room!
… I GOT THE POWER
Georgia got us to start thinking more about our use of space by asking one person at a time to walk into the rehearsal space and stand in, what they perceived to be, the most powerful position. It was really interesting examining whether and if so, how the power shifted with each new person who entered the space and took up their position. For example, we discovered that when someone stood further back or on a lower level compared to others occupying the space they could potentially still be seen as holding the power if they were the one directly facing the audience – or perhaps standing in a position that used up more space. Even someone standing behind another person could draw the focus toward them by being partially obscured and therefore seen as being more intriguing – or by ‘controlling’ the person in front by putting their arms through gaps in the other person’s stance. As well as being a thought-provoking exercise for the directors and actors of the group, it was also intresting for me in terms of design. IT certainly made the point of how the seemingly obvious place to position a prop or set element on a stage may not actually be the best option to communicate what you want.
We repeated a similar exercise using chairs instead of ourselves, placing more and more chairs into the space. Placing two facing each other, we already saw it as an ‘interview’ situation with our attention drawn to the interviewee chair. I placed mine over on its side between the two and immediately it turned into a murder scene. Another chair placed on top of mine and it was a fight, with the other two as part of a gang circle around the action. Another chair advanced toward the fight. One placed at right angles to one of the encircling gang was either trying to egg on or talk down his friend from participating. Georgia challenged someone to add a chair to alter the story and Elanor placed one at a distance from the scene, at the front facing the audience. This chair became the narrator and our attention was now drawn to this one first. A final chair was placed right at the back on a table overlooking the scene. With its higher position and the fact that it seemed to be looking at the audience and down at the scene, it was obvious this chair was the other chairs’ God. This exercise seemed to get more hilarious with each new chair and it was fascinating to realise how much we search to anthropomorphize objects and see them with faces, backs and characters.
The first rule of Mask work is…
You do not talk. Ok, so you can talk about Mask work but if you are wearing a mask you have to keep silent. Georgia took us through some of the other basic rules, such as making sure you do not break the illusion by putting on or taking off the mask in view of your audience and making sure to always engage your audience by facing and involving them in actions you portray whilst in the mask. She also stressed the importance of finding new ways to portray things which would normally involve touching the masks for example eating, drinking, kissing and so forth.
Before putting on masks we worked through an exercise in focus, with half the group at a time focussing on a point above the doorframe facing the rest of the group (audience) and then moving and exploring the rehearsal space without breaking our eye-contact with this point. We were encouraged to play with levels and ways of moving. Finding your way around without walking into others was a challenge. It made me strangely aware of how much sight normally overtakes the other senses, as sometimes I felt I had no idea where the other people were but then we’d suddenly almost collide. Just when I thought I was getting used to it, my head suddenly swivelled and I think I was first of my group to break eye contact! Oops.
The first mask we worked with was the Neutral mask, so called because it is as neutral as possible in gender, expression, emotion, character and colour. Our first task was to walk to the back of the space, put our mask on, turn to face the audience, walk into the centre, take in the audience and then, whenever we were ready, walk back, turn and take off our mask. After a few people the brief was changed a little and two people had to walk in to the space, sit down next to one another and then leave when ready. In doing these exercises we learned how other interactions inevitably happen beyond the simple brief, as most people, maybe even sub-consciously, perform a little when they have command of an audience and space.
All wearing our neutral masks we tried the fish shoal exercise again making sure we were always facing the audience – which was much more difficult with the limited sight caused by wearing the masks. We ended up moving slower and there was more of a ripple effect as you became aware that the person next to you or in front had changed direction or level.
The next set of masks we worked with were still quite simple and cartoon-like but each had distinct and different expressions. The eye holes were smaller so sight was more limited with these masks. We each took one and studied it for a few moments trying to assume the expression ourselves, getting to know it and deciding how this character would act, stand and walk. Then, wearing the masks, we all moved around the rehearsal space as a group interacting with each other’s mask characters. Mine looked terrified so I ended up cowering against the radiator at one point when a slightly evil looking character confronted me.
Two at a time, people walked into the space in character with their masks on and sat next to each other on the ‘park bench’. These exchanges resulted in some really wonderful and funny character moments, especially between a grumpy mask and an evil mask who was trying to push him off his seat. There was also a really endearing episode between a scared mask that was very unsure whether to let itself be hugged by the other more enthusiastic partner. Some of the most entertaining and effective movements were really subtle movements of the head or a slight leaning to one side, rather than big statements.
Speak up, I can’t hear you!
Georgia asked for someone confident to come forward and do some improvisation, reacting to questions without speech. Jen, in a happy character mask, walked into the space and sat down. Georgia interviewed her, asking her various questions before asking if she would mind doing a short presentation to the audience. Next, Jen was asked if she’d mind doing the presentation to a large group of people and so she again gave her presentation but made her actions larger and more dramatic to fit!
We continued for the rest of the session with these character masks, with Georgia introducing props into the mix and discussing how some of these exercises can help to find a specific walk, for example, that you could transfer to non-mask acting.
This was my favourite STEP UP day so far and coupled with Chris Hallam’s script workshop in the morning, made for a really enjoyable jam-packed session where I think it is fair to say we all learned a lot and had a lot of laughs along the way!
Emma Pegg, Designer, STEP UP Creatives Ensemble 2012/ 13