Guest Writer: Unmasking our Past to Preserve our Future

By Ashley Magoffin

Hello friends, let’s talk about masks. They’re all the rage these days, aren’t they? Whatever your feelings on wearing masks are, it’s highly unlikely that they will go away anytime soon. Nearly everyone has been effected by COVID-19. I’ve had friends get the virus. I’ve known others who lost friends and family members to it. Those who have (and haven’t) gotten sick have experienced major lifestyle changes with social distancing and companies being shut down and/or going out of business. I don’t diminish the experiences people have had. It’s been hard for everyone. 

The theater industry, perhaps, has been hit (dare I say it?) the hardest. Thousands of people instantly without work and their profession being the last to get reinstated in the phases of reopening. Until a cure or vaccine is found, I do not see social distancing going away. Theater doesn’t exist without people gathering together to create and enjoy it. So where does that leave us? Theaters have tried to adapt to the “new normal,” but many lack the resources, funds, and loyal audience to stay afloat or even get creative during the current restrictions. Where I live, there is a state mandate to wear masks when outside your own home, there is a limit on how many people can gather together, and of course everyone is supposed to maintain the distance of six feet apart. These restrictions are severely limiting the theatrical process. Can you imagine trying to rehearse and perform a show like Guys and Dolls under these guidelines? You’d need a football field. Aside from filming options, which aren’t feasible for many small theaters, this leaves small and simple shows with a tiny cast and crew, but they each still have to wear a mask. If you haven’t noticed during your day to day experiences, masks make projection a challenge, and they cover up the actor’s tool for expression–their face. The question we should ask ourselves is–Can the theater use this opportunity to get creative with mask usage? After all, masks have been used in the theater to enhance storytelling for centuries. Let’s look more into mask history.

There are many types of masked theater and masks have been used throughout history all over the world. Perhaps most commonly known–in the western tradition, actors in Ancient Greek theatre wore masks, as they do in traditional Japanese Noh drama. In medieval Europe, masks were used in mystery and miracle plays to portray allegorical creatures, and the performer representing God frequently wore a gold or gilt mask. During the Renaissance, masques and ballet de cour developed – courtly masked entertainments. Traditionally the characters in Commedia Dell’arte, also from the renaissance, are masked as well. Contemporary mask usage is more avant-garde, surreal and dadaist from 20th century influencers such as Meyerhold, Edward Gordon Craig, and Jacques Copeau. American masked theater really took off with the Guerrilla Theatre Movement in the 60’s and 70’s with groups such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Bread and Puppet Theatre. Today mask work is an integral part of theater education. Some forms solely use masks, while others use a mixture of masks, puppets, and the human face. Masked performances are usually very stylized, no matter which tradition it follows.

At Brigham Young University, where I received my degree, actors were required to take a course where they learn to use masks and perform a masked show as their final. The first masked show I can remember seeing was by this class. The class performed Dogsville. If you don’t know, this is a serious show that brings up interesting questions about justice and grace. It has triggering material, so be sure to look it up before watching it, but if you can, I recommend it. It’s hard to describe the experience I had watching this performance, but it’s stayed with me years later. It would have been a very different show without masks. They used simple blank face, white masks. To me, this shows the power that masks have. In A Note on Masks (1910), Craig proposed the virtues of using masks over the naturalism of the actor. While I love the naturalism of the actor, I accept his theory that sometimes the artistic power of the mask is what’s needed to bring a show to life. 

In our current Coronavirus world, maybe we should be looking into masks as our salvation instead of our downfall. We could find or make masks that fit the CDC requirements and that help portray our performance needs. Some theaters will be able to use mics to help with projection. For others, perhaps they can look into specific mask designs. In some Greek masks, the wide and open mouth of the mask contained a brass megaphone enabling the voice of the wearer to be projected into the large auditorium. It will require some experimentation and practice on our part to get it right. It’s may not be a solution for all our COVID-19 problems, but it’s a step in the right direction. For theater to continue during this time, we’ll need to bring together our creative minds and problem-solvers like never before. 

I don’t know what the future holds for theater. We will bounce back from this eventually, but I don’t know how long it will take or how many theaters and dreams will be lost on the way. Perhaps we can use our theatrical past to inspire our future. In the mean time, please donate to your local theater if you can. Even if you’re not a theater lover yourself, support your community. We need to unite and care for each other, especially during this time. Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below. XOXO, Ashley.

Read more from Ashley on her blog The Struggling Artist, HERE.

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