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Revealed - How the Mask Works

akeefe's picture

While I've performed in theater much of my life, it is only recently that I was given the opportunity to perform in mask, a commedia dell art piece. Luckily for me, very few of my peers in the cast had performed this way either, and thus, we all boldly departed on a quest into making the static, expressive. The techniques that I learned, while some of them specific to commedia, I have found a voice for in other arenas, most notably the internet and blogging, which the last section of this class, Emerging Genres, has covered. We were fortunate enough to host discussions with several bloggers about the work that they do, and the possibilities the form has allowed them. What I have become interested in is how the "blog" as a form mirrors many of the techniques and uses of the theatrical mask, most notably in it's ability to reveal character.

Masks have been an important part theater going all the way back to classic times, and has been exhibited in many forms from ancient Greek Theatre, to the Italian Commedia dell arte, and the Japanese Noh Theatre. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a theatrical mask is defined as, "an image of a face worn by an actor; (Classical Theatre) a hollow figure of a human head intended both to introduce the character represented and to amplify the voice (mask)." To take this apart, the classical mask has two functions to make a character identifiable and heard by the audience.

Now in the time in which this definition is meant to reflect, performers needed to be heard throughout huge amphitheaters, yet still, these pale in comparison to the size of the world stage that the internet has made available. The blog form allows, in theory, any person to write their ideas, post pictures of themselves, and even talk directly to an audience through video.

These features not only allow members of the online community to hear the action, but also to be introduced to a performed person, or character. I say "performed" because it makes clear the action necessary in order to "exist" in the blogosphere. A blogger needs to post, link, comment, and otherwise engage the readership in order to be seen. It is not as though you can accidentally bump into someone on the way to the grocery store in the ether. Leave no trace, and they'll be no trace of you. I also use the word "performed" to indicate a level of control available to the blogger that is not always available outside the blogosphere. The things you choose to post, keep private, and delete from your blog are yours to control. Like Syllabub, you may present yourself as a foodie and Slow Food's advocate, or you may present your self as politically involved by posting material about the up coming election.

This can be very useful, as you may be whom ever you choose to perform. However, it can also become constricting. Like a good mask, once the character is presented it cannot be altered. As Tim Burke said about the voice on his blog Easily Distacted, "Sometimes I wish I could be snarkier... but that's just not what I sound like here."

At least in function, blogs and the theatrical mask seem to be similar. However, I believe that there are also important technique similarities, which might reveal more about the performative quality of internet life. The techniques which I will be discussing in the next section of this post come straight out of my commedia experience, but are things which are general enough to apply to all theatrical mask play.

"Masks reveal more than they conceal," became a familiar theme to the Bryn Mawr Theatre Department. Director Aaron Cromie, explained to us that once the mask was put on, the "social mask" we use for interaction is covered up. We are not concealed, but rather the character we play daily is. This opens up to the performer all the other characters within us which we have obscured. I did a small test to see if this idea could be lifted from mask technique into blogging. I checked out the first few posts of the bloggers that came to visit us, and looked for a consistency of character. Essentially, how did these posts compare to the more established blog voice found in recent posts.

In Laura's Blog, Geeky Mom, I found a variety of posts on subjects with a variety of voices. On the first page I found a professional crafting a professional blog, a mom talking about how that world is changing, and a woman intently interested in the outcome of the next election. While Geeky Mom has evolved into a kind of hybrid, melding the personal and professional, her blog seems to have reached a sort of equilibrium in which the shifts are not so jarring. I found a similar trend in the other blogs I attended to. In discussion, Syllabub said that she spent about a year not touching her blog, because her idea changed about she wanted to accomplish. What I see in the alternating of voice and perspective is the expanding of identity that comes from slipping of the "social mask." The performers now have access to all the persons they could present themselves as, and must find the most productive option for them.

Another mask technique involves movement. A masked character that remains static can't be a believable character. Movement, interaction with the environment, is how the mask actually appears to mimic as person. So a blogger that doesn't build a community, doesn't link and post, push and pull against other online personalities won't be well developed. Why? The personality (mask) hasn't been tested in it's full range of motion. The control bloggers exercise that I decribed earlier can actually keep them from coming to life, because they feel too "cardboard." They don't exist in a world, just in a few ideas. Even a mime needs an invisible box.

The last technique I'd like to highlight in this post is that masks need to face the audience when speaking, and at other characters while listening. Why is this? Masks that are facing towards the audience capture attention. If it's not your turn to have the attention, then your doing a disservice to the audience and the other performers by taking it. I think of this akin to the blogging experience of checking your comments only to find that someone has posts an advertisement for some lousy product having nothing to do with you post. However, what about facing your audience? I have heard of readers becoming angry when they felt that their favorite bloggers were covering up parts of their life. While I certainly think that bloggers have the right to reveal and conceal whatever of their lives they choose, I don't think that blogs work when the audience doesn't feel that it's being engaged with.

I have found that using the lens of masked theater has opened up some useful discussions about the blog genre. I wish that I could call this post a finished work on the subject, but I know it not to be true. It's more like a musing, the topics I ruminating on at this time. There are still lots of questions I feel are worth asking. Therefore, it is my intention to explore the in a later and far longer paper. How far can the "performance" aspects of blogs be pushed? Are we more apt to reveal the "real" when separated from them by a mask? How does the audience-performer relationship relate to debate of the relationship between the public and private in blogging? How else can community drive character? How can the spectators? How fuzzy can the fiction/non-fiction line become?


Works Cited

"Mask, n³ .' Oxford English Dictionary Online. Draft Revision Mar. 2008. Cited 28 April 2008.




akeefe's picture


Thanks Anne.


I've had a lot of fun playing with these ideas, and I'm quite excited for the 12 page version, where I'll have the space to explore the then more thoroughly!


Anne Dalke's picture

The World Stage that is the Internet


Delicious, so far—and it’s just going to get more so; I can’t wait. I’ve already recommended your thinking-so-far to both Christina (who is looking @ The Blogging Identity) and to Jessy (who has been constructing A Personal and Academic Perspective on the practice of blogging). I think that your ideas in particular about how, “once the mask is put on,” the “'social mask' we use for interaction is covered up,” so that “the character we play daily is concealed,” and--having access to all the persons we can present ourselves as—we can “expand” our identity will usefully expand their own explorations. It’s by far the juiciest nugget in what you’ve uncovered so far.

What else? I have some questions about the matter of the blogger’s “control.” You emphasize the decisions about what to post, keep private, and delete; what you don’t look @ is the unpredictability of audience response. I’m thinking here of Kate Thomas’s surely being sidelined, both by Alexandra’s embarrassed crying and by Calderon’s anger @ her “dictatorship”--two very surprising comments provoked by the so-carefully controlled-and-crafted blog that is Syllabub.

I like your emphasis on “movement”—that a mask, to mimic the self, must exhibit a “full range of motion,” and I think that idea will be useful as you explore further what it means to construct an on-line persona, one that both expresses and hides the social self, the body that occupies what I’ve just learned to call “meatspace.” Does it matter, though, that the virtual world is largely textual, while the performing spaces you are coming from are so embodied?

I also want to know more about this notion of sometimes facing the audience, other times the other characters. How might that play out on the internet? Who is the audience, who the rest of the cast, in that space you so adroitly call “the world stage”? What is “the real” in the terms that you are using here?