We just had a mask/Impro show in Helsinki connected to a weekend mask workshop. Some of the participants were from various Finnish Impro groups, others from theatre schools or the acting community.
It was an invited audience and most had never seen masks before. Many hadn’t seen Impro either. They were willing to give it a look but were perhaps a bit skeptical and attending mostly to support friends/family on the course.
After the show was over, the interesting thing for me was figuring out what the audience liked and why they responded as they did.
By far the majority of unified and palpable reactions came when something went wrong or when there was brutal honesty.
There is great potential for this to happen when masks are working well and when Impro is fresh and daring. Best of all is when a truth or habit that is normally hidden or taken for granted is exposed for all to see.
Here are some examples from the show:
I sent someone to get into a full mask while we explained the exercise of “Dolphin Training”* to the audience. The young acting student had never played it before but I assumed that he had heard the instructions from where he was dressing.
He came forward and people giggled at the naïve nature of the mask he wore.
I said: “Go ahead”. There was a pause, then more giggling at his confusion. “Begin”, I instructed, “we are ready”. Slight panic began to set in and he appealed to the audience for help with a longing gaze. Things were getting funnier but I was getting to be as confused as him and a little annoyed. “You’ll never figure it out if you just stand there”, I chided. The actor (and mask) started to sweat and had no clue what to do or not do. Even the audience was feeling a bit awkward by this time. Then it hit me. “Do you know the game we are playing?” I checked. He shook his head “no”. “Did you hear the instructions?” “No.”
Then there was huge laughter from the audience and a sigh of relief from the mask.
With a lightness now in his step the mask proceeded to complete the exercise. When he arrived at the action we had chosen, it had far more impact than if he had been an expert of the game. And the crowd went wild.
Another scene had two half masks playing some simple text to help them learn to speak and practice playing in a “mini show”. We rehearsed the dialogue and movements with the improvisers beforehand then turned on the Trancemasks.**
In this scene one of the characters has a red cloth streaming from under their shirt to represent blood and another is coming to help them.
The masks began reacting to the intensity of the situation and struggled with what to do. The words came slowly and often horribly pronounced or in the wrong order even as I repeatedly shouted their cues. The “helper” mask didn’t understand what was wrong or what to do. The “injured” one was so distraught with the intensity of the scene and lack of resolution that she tore the blood out and threw it away. Finally she was rid of the helplessness and her relief turned into outrage about having been placed in such a stupid scene, destined to fail.
The audience roared with laughter as the masks shattered the reality of the “show” and let the real drama come forward.
Finally there was a scene with 4 silent full masks. 4 people on stage is a difficult challenge of focus, but with masks players who can’t speak nor see or hear that well, extra discipline is required.
This scene had 3 new mask players and one audience member! Somehow they found a way to keep us riveted to their faces and bodies. It had something to do with their honesty.
I simply asked them questions relative to each other*** like who is the oldest, richest, kindest, etc? Each points to the person of their choice.
What made this scene so great is that it became less about their choices or opinions and more about lying. Each answer they gave betrayed what they tried to hide. The variety of some good and some bad deception, became fascinating. Seeing the visual contrast of body parts that expressed what they were “supposed to feel” against those that held the real truth was totally engaging, always changing, and most of the time, hilarious.
“Who is the most devious?” I questioned. Three masks looked at each other to figure it out while one turned away and pointed at another. Eventually the 3 pointed at the one.
“Who do you secretly love?” I asked. There was a shifting of bodies and awkward glances. Some froze, some softened and as the lights faded, the tilting of heads, rolling of shoulders and twitching of fingers continued.
Steve Jarand – March 2013
*This is a Keith Johnstone exercise where an actor tries to guess a simple action agreed on in secret by the audience. Their only clues towards completing the action are a “ding” from the spectators when moving towards the action and silence when moving away.
**This is the name given to the character half mask technique as described in Keith Johnstone’s book – Impro (Faber & Faber, Methuen)
***This exercise has the name “The Lesson” in The Mask Handbook (Routledge) – by Tobi Wilsher