Have you ever wished your creativity could be powerfully expressive, and turned on at the flick of a switch?
Steve Jarand’s mask workshops see untrained performers transformed into
living, breathing characters you feel compelled to watch.
He is carrying on mask work started by improvisation guru Keith Johnstone which goes back to a much older mask tradition. Masks were used by shamans in ancient times in rituals that marked celebrations for the whole tribe. Often, the shaman would be completely transformed when wearing the mask, and he might stay in a trance-like state of heightened euphoria for many hours. This power was believed to be contained within the mask itself, and endowed the wearer with divine energy.
Having been in Steve’s workshops, I can definitely agree that a powerful mask can induce a trance-like state of euphoria in which I do and say things I normally would never dream of. For me, the mask is a wonderful disguise behind which I feel truly safe to express myself. Interestingly I find the masks which turn me on have a flavour of the feminine and vulnerable, a side which perhaps I do not like to show so much in daily life.
The principle of this mask work is simple: you take a half-mask, you clear your mind, you see yourself in the mirror, you shape your mouth to fit the face and make a sound. You keep the sound going and follow Steve’s directions.
But there is more to this than just permission to release your inhibitions. Steve is a professional performer and he uses techniques to develop masks into characters an audience will enjoy watching.
If you connect well with the mask, it will energise you. The sound you make will be strong and clear and organic, and unlike any sound you will ever make in daily life.
Steve will only permit you to stay in the mask for a short while. The aim for him is to keep the experience strong and heartfelt for the mask, without the actor’s intellect imposing upon it. As you work with masks you learn to recognise the difference between when you are operating in a holistic feeling-led way, and when your ego or intellect starts to kick in. You train to “take the mask off” when you start to think.
In this way, the mask collects experiences which are vivid and deeply felt. As a spectator you can often tell whether a mask is operating from senses and feelings or from thought. The masked actor often becomes less believable or not so much fun to watch.
Steve guides your mask through a development process similar to that of children. You first learn to make sound, then you experience moving and using props, then to socialise with other masks and play or draw. In the long term, your mask will learn to talk, find a name, recognise the difference between real and pretend and even become a trainer for other masks.
Not only is Steve a gifted and experienced workshop leader and actor, he is also a great guy. He has a fun but gentle manner, so even if you have never done any kind of performance work before, you are in safe hands. He will support and encourage you. On the other hand, if you happen to be very experienced in improvisation already, he will certainly find ways to stretch your abilities too. The best way to get involved is to try one of his weekend beginner’s workshops.
For me, the experience is both fun and insightful. I am learning to discern when I am operating truthfully and organically from when I am being contrived or intellectual. Ultimately the first takes me to higher levels of expression, while the second is not quite so satisfying.
Can you tell the difference between those two poles in your own work? If you are looking to let your ego subside and find an artistic expression that is larger than you and truly satisfying for both users and participants, you will definitely get a lot out of trance mask techniques.