How to express yourself like a professional while wearing a mask

September 19, 2020 3:59 am

Students in a “neutral mask” acting class taught by actress and photographer Manon Halliburton. (Manon Halliburton Photography)

Like everyone, I’ve been thinking about masks. Since I’m an actor by profession, I feel like we’re living in this weird, forced acting exercise, this play I call “Masking in the time of COVID.”

How do we perform it?

I recently went to a salon to get my hair cut and colored. I had waited nearly six months, and things were getting pretty dire. I was starting to look like a geriatric hippy. My stylist has her own salon, we were alone in the space, and she assured me the cleaning products required by the Kansas Board of Cosmetology are hospital grade.

Obviously, we both wore masks. Because I still haven’t returned to work, this was my first time to wear a mask for more than two hours. It was stuffy, and hot, and I found myself having to take big breaths and push from my diaphragm to be heard.

These are actor-y techniques to create the kind of voice that can fill a theater. All this extra effort was difficult and frustrating, and reminded me of another mask experience I once had.

Years ago, I was in a production of “Hamlet” at a Shakespeare festival. I played Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and wore a mask for parts of the performance. Nearly every member of the cast donned a mask at some point.

The director wanted to demonstrate how each character’s through-line — the common or constant theme — was altered by his or her actions in the play. In Gertrude’s case, she drinks from a poison chalice meant for someone else and becomes a victim of her own hubris.

The masks were heavy papier-mâché things, and this was Texas, in July. They were an obstacle to overcome every sweaty night.

Cheryl Weaver, partially hidden on the left, in the Fort Worth Shakespeare Festival’s 2001 production of “Hamlet.” (Submitted)

Fortunately, mask work in the theater is a specialized discipline.

In the middle of the last century, the famous French acting and movement teacher, Jacques Lecoq, began training his students using what he called the Neutral Mask. It would hide the forced facial expressions that actors sometimes use as a crutch — you know, the happy face, the sad face, the angry face.

Without these common expressions, the actor was freer to examine the wants and needs of the character instead of a simple emotion. This also frees the body to make physical mannerisms more specific and pronounced.

Neutral mask covers the whole face. Commedia, or half masks, are also used in theater training and performance, but they cover the eyes and nose, not the mouth.

Corona masks, as we all know, do the opposite.

People want to be recognized and understood. We don’t want our individuality to be hidden.

But rather than thinking of the mask as a restriction or a punishment, we can actually use our masks to magnify our true selves.

Instead of an aggravating thing stuck on your face, think of the mask an extension of your face. Then communication becomes freer and clarifying.

When actors act, with or without masks, we learn to strip away the extraneous, to simplify. We actually learn not to act — we believe we are our characters so the audience will too.

I did finally learn to embrace my Gertrude mask. I was forced to focus my words and actions. My character actually became easier to understand and, I hope, more exciting to watch. I forgot I was wearing the mask for long periods of time. (It never became any less sweaty, though.)

So, wear your masks. Let them become a part of you. Take a deep breath, use your diaphragm, and someday there will be a final curtain. And maybe applause.

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Cheryl Weaver
Cheryl Weaver

Cheryl Weaver has performed in theaters all over the country. Locally, she has been in productions at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the New Theatre, as well as many of the other professional theaters. She has a one-woman show about the life of Annie Oakley. She is a proud member of Actors Equity and the Screen Actors Guild and when actors are finally allowed to return to the stage, she is scheduled to perform at the Unicorn Theatre. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence.