"In Rome, behind the mask, the audacity of the obscene mimes was multiplied and they ventured gestures and postures they would never have dared with bare faces.So, in order to loosen up my people at the School, I masked them. Immediately, I was able to observe a transformation of the young actor. You understand that the face, for us, is tormenting: the mask saves our dignity, our freedom. The mask protects the soul from grimaces." - Jacques Copeau

In western theatre, the use of the neutral mask (sometimes called a noble mask) as a training tool began with Jacques Copeau in 1921, after he had opened the Vieux Colombier School. His experiments were partially inspired by his encounter with English theatre practitioner Gordon Craig, and they were also a desperately needed means to free his apprentice actors from their facially expressive habits. The work began by accident: in an effort to help an actress who repeatedly froze in the middle of a scene and was completely unable to move, Copeau covered her face with his handkerchief and immediately noticed that her body became more expressive. Copeau found that working with the neutral mask allowed him to teach his actors how to act physically, even after countless hours of movement training and gymnastics had reached a plateau in results.

The neutral mask does not express anything; it can be male or female but it tells no story whatsoever. It effectively erases the actor's ego and puts in its place a being, albeit a very creepy looking one, that exists purely in the here and now, a being that can only express itself by means of physical action. The actor learns that s/he cannot rely on facial expressions to show emotion and must learn some other way of communicating, because no matter how much gurning one does behind a mask, an audience will never be able to see it. Gestures, posture, and quality of movement can be isolated for study when using the neutral mask, and any insincerity or indecisiveness becomes immediately apparent. A gesture must be clear and sustained; posture and quality of movement will also start to reveal any unnecessary characterisation.

It has limited possibilities in performance, but such mask work is invaluable in learing Commedia del'Arte, clown, or other mask styles of theatre.

Copeau's work was largely handed down to LeCoq, who used it extensively in his method. Try one today; you'll love it.

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