COVID Offers an Opportunity to Teach Students about the Role of Masks in Theatre

February 24, 2021

Lojo Simon, author of Hero Zero, Nice & Slow, Gorilla Ballerina, Plum Luck and co-author of Heartland, explains the cultural significance of mask-wearing—and how educators and students alike can learn more.

Masks are on everyone's minds these days. More accurately, masks are on everyone's faces. While no one would have wished for this worldwide pandemic, the recent necessity of wearing masks provides an excellent opportunity to teach students about the long history of masks in theatre and culture, as well as to engage them in conversation about masks and the expression of human emotion. Making and using masks also is an engaging and fun activity in the classroom, whether in-person or virtual. This article reviews some of the many roles that masks play in cultures around the world and makes practical, instructional suggestions for incorporating masks into performing arts programs.

COVID Masks are Everywhere

Because all students are wearing protective face coverings these days, an obvious place to start your conversation about masks is to ask students to describe their recent experiences wearing masks as they engage in their daily routines. How do they feel about wearing masks? Are masks uncomfortable? Do masks keep their faces warm in winter? Hot in summer? How do masks impact their breathing? What do they notice about masked faces vs. unmasked faces?

Activity #1: Masks and Expression
Introduce the concept of masks and facial expressions. Ask students to demonstrate various emotions while wearing COVID masks. Ask them to show feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, surprise and outrage. Try this exercise with sounds and without. What do they observe about their ability to communicate expression while wearing masks? How might they re-imagine their masks to better communicate their thoughts and feelings?

Masks Around the World

Masks probably are somewhat familiar to students, particularly those who celebrate Halloween, when masks are donned to portray animals, ghosts, witches, gremlins, celebrities and characters from pop culture. Students exposed to Latinx culture might be familiar with masks worn on Día de los Muertos, whereas other students may have seen masks in celebrations such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Brazil.

Indeed, many cultures around the world use masks during cultural and religious holidays. Likewise, masks often are incorporated into sacred ceremonies honoring life events, such as initiation, marriage, fertility, harvest and funerals. With a little Google research, teachers can easily share images of masks from nearly all continents, including Kifewbe masks from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, Papua New Guinea tribal masks from the South Pacific, Native American Tlingit masks from North America and Slavic Maslenitza masks from Europe.

Masks in Performing Arts

Masks have been worn in performing arts since its origins. In ancient Greek theatre, dating back to the 6th century BCE, actors wore terra cotta masks with exaggerated features to better portray a variety of tragic and comic characters to audiences seated some distance from the stage. Mouth holes in masks were specifically designed to assist actors in projecting their voices in large amphitheaters. Masks also aided actors in changing characters between multiple plays staged in the same day.

Noh theatre, which dates back to the 14th century and still is performed in Japan today, uses masks to hide actors' identities and allow them to better portray gods, demons and animals, as well as many different human characters. Made of wood, Noh masks are designed to convey intense emotion and are used in Japanese theatre, opera and dance.

Commedia dell'arte masks originated in the 17th century in Italy. There, leather half-masks with eye holes were worn in street theatre to portray stock characters or stereotypes that remain part of comic entertainment even today. With a little encouragement, students probably can recognize stock characters such as Arlecchino, the servant; Pulicinella, the clown; Pantelone, the old man; and profoundly relevant today, Il Dottore or the Plague Doctor, whose beaked mask and goggles is said to protect him from deadly germs.

Modern theatre also uses masks. Show students trailers for Broadway musicals such as The Lion King and Phantom of the Opera, by way of example. Older students might be interested in exploring the work of the street theatre group Guerilla Girls and their use of masks in political and social activism.

Activity #2: Make a 2-D Mask
Instruct students to design and draw masks for a particular purpose, such as a personal initiation ceremony, cultural ritual, holiday or theatre play. Encourage them to draw life-size masks that they can hold over their faces, cutting out eye holes, as necessary. Ask them to consider the use of line and color, as well as add-ons such as hair, hats, horns, etc.

Share masks with the class. Ask questions such as: What character are you portraying? How does your mask reflect your identity (cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, etc.)? How is the mask different from you, the wearer? If you could make the mask in 3-D, what materials would you use and why? What are you hoping others will see when you wear your mask? Ask students what they see in each other's masks. What is the mask-wearer revealing?

Masks Reveal, Masks Hide

Masks allow actors to become someone else. In this way, masks assist theatre-makers in revealing truths that audiences might not ordinarily see. Masks amplify traits about us as human beings. When we use masks in ritual and/or to portray non-human beings, masks serve as a bridge between human and sacred worlds. Masks aid in storytelling. On the other hand, masks can hide truth. Masks serve as a covering, allowing actors to keep sides of themselves secreted while they show us false or fantasy images.

Activity #3: The Flip Side of Masks
Have students turn their masks face-down. On the back of their masks, ask them to write words or phrases about what their masks might be hiding about themselves. For example, if their mask is of a bold, powerful and scary visage, is it hiding a person who is uncertain, insecure or afraid? Is a happy face masking a sad student? Ask for volunteers willing to share what they wrote. How do masks differ from or mirror what's behind them? Discuss duality of character, conflicting feelings, and wants and nuances of identity.

The Mask Speaks

Once students are familiar with the history and uses of masks and have tried their hand at making masks of their own, they're ready to use their masks to develop character and story. Walking them through this process is similar to basic playwriting and acting. Lesson prompts may include: Who is your character? Describe their physical characteristics. List details about their external and inner lives. What does your character most want or need? What obstacle is preventing your character from obtaining that want or need? The answers to these questions can drive plot and action.

Students also can use theatre and improv exercises to create movement, sound and voices for their characters that eventually lead to creating monologues. One of the best resources that I've found for this process is University of California-Irvine Professor Eli Simon's book Masking Unmasked: Four Approaches to Basic Acting. In his approach to college-level students, he describes the process of moving from mask to what he calls Hu-Mask. "Before you put on a mask, it is not inhabited, not alive, and therefore not yet a Hu-Mask (a human in a mask)," he writes. "At the precise moment you drop into character, the mask becomes a Hu-Mask. The genesis of transformation also marks the genesis of discovery."

Activity #4: Hu-Masking and 3-D Masks
Simon's book includes many wonderful, step-by-step exercises for working with paper-bag masks and full and half-masks that can be adapted for students of all ages. For example, students can wear their masks in front of a mirror where they can see themselves as they experiment with different stances, walks and gestures that are unique to their characters. From there, they can move into making sounds, developing language, words and sentences that generate intentional storytelling. Simon's book also offers guidance in making 3-D masks using Celluclay and paper maché, which can elevate your mask work in the classroom to an even more advanced level.

Masks in Production

Finally, I want to add that, at this time in which theatre teachers are challenged not only by COVID, but also by ever-shrinking arts budgets, all of us have to be uber-creative in the classroom and in performing arts programming. Making and using masks is a fun adjunct to theatrical production. Several of my plays for young audiences published by YouthPLAYS include anthropomorphic animal characters. For example, Gorilla Ballerina features a bevy of jungle animals who may be costumed not only with masks but also with matching body accessories, such as ankle bracelets made from bells and pipe cleaners, that make music during the dances. As students costume and rehearse these productions, I think it would be so much fun for them to incorporate masks in their learning. And once the production is over, they have wonderful, hand-made mementos of the show to take home with them!

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