Magic with Masks

One of the things I love about my improv classes is the way it makes me more tuned into my own physicality. I have problems with motor control that means my balance isn’t great, I’m not very co-ordinated, and I have poor spatial awareness. I was usually picked last for sports teams at school. Big surprise, huh?

But for some reason, improv releases me to be physical and expressive and… I’ve discovered I’m actually quite good at physical comedy. But I still find it difficult to throw myself into a character and let go, so that’s something I need to work on.

Enter… Mask work! We had a very exciting session featuring papier mâché masks, hand made by our teacher Ian McLaughlin. One by one each group member went up to the array of masks, selected one, put it on (with their back to the rest of us at all times), then used a mirror to find a facial expression that felt “right.” This was accompanied by a repeated sound or noise.

Then we turned around to face the rest of the group to introduce them to “the new monster.” So please allow me to introduce… Nam-Nam!


She isn’t a nasty monster, but she’s very hungry. If you give her food she will be your friend. She’s a bit dim, naive, easily led. If she meets someone new she wants to know if they have any food. She’s a bit hesitant to approach people but doesn’t really understand boundaries and personal space.

One of the things that struck me about using the mask was the way my movements changed to match the character. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t convey anything with my facial expressions or words. Instead, it was all about my posture, movements, gait. And that meant I couldn’t just coast by with exaggerated facial expressions or witty wordplay saying rude words in order to get a laugh.

It was quite liberating, in a way, and allowed me to explore an aspect of performance that I’ve tended to neglect. I’m looking forward to developing this in future workshops!

(Featured image by Jill Harper Hill, all rights reserved.)


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