Body Masking: theory and technique

A colleague urged me to see this trailer for the new Batman movie The Dark Knight. It must have been shot and released before Heath Ledger’s death last week, and it’s hard to watch it without thinking of the tragic loss.  What emerges here is however, an eerie focus on his character, the Joker, who is seen only in heavy makeup, a mask that totally obliterates the good looks and persona of the actor behind the mask. The very brief snatches of his performance in the trailer are astonishing, powerful and riveting. There is no connection at all with other screen performances we have seen from Ledger. It is an utter transformation, vocal and physical.Was Ledger tapping into the power of the mask as a tool for character transformation? We’ll never know, and will certainly need to see the movie in its entirety before any kind of judgement on his performance can be made.

Watching this trailer got me thinking again about mask, not just in its usual representation of altering facial character, but about what I’ve come to call body-masking. Body-masking goes beyond the use of paint or any other substance that obliterates the face. It calls upon the actor to engender a sense at the outset of another’s physical form and shape, of his energy and persona triggered by observation and imagination. Body-masking creates a way for the actor to move into another recreation of a self, a possibility bounded only by the limitless power of the imagination.

One of the key terms in actor training jargon right now is transformation. It’s process and realisation. Few across most cultures would doubt the ancient power of mask in ritual and performance, itself a kind of ritual. Contemporary theatre in the main eschews mask, but the principle remains: by taking on the mask of another, the actor absorbs/is stimulated by (choose the term that suits you) its essence, and the resulting performance is enriched. What replaces the mask is a sense of the actor’s persona transcending the daily self … what is known by some scholar-practitioners as an extra-daily persona, enlivened by a heightened energy and sense of purpose.

Now I don’t know how this happens, but I have seen it happen. When an actor steps in to a sense of the other, their shape, their tempo-rhythms, and sound-making alters to a greater or lesser degree. Finding the way to get at this sense of other is the challenge. It can come through close observation of people; Alec Guinness was a great observer of the other, especially of walks. If Guinness got the walk, he knew the character would flow on through. That’s body-masking … working from the outside-in, and it’s a way I encourage my student actors to begin the process of body-masking … through observation and mimicry. Other actors just know somehow another persona and their own shape, tempo-rhythms etc. alter as a consequence. Is this what some call working from the inside-out? It doesn’t really matter. I think ultimately there’s a melding from both approaches in the crafting/artistry of building a character.

Body-masking for me is about taking on the mask wherever its inspiration comes from and letting it have its way.





One response to “Body Masking: theory and technique”

  1. Jas Avatar

    What a great closer… “taking on the mask wherever its inspiration comes from and letting it have its way”… and when I think about my part in life – “Voice Acting” – this comment seems to bring a sense of truth to me. ‘Letting that mask have its way’ – it works for me !

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts !

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