Body Masking: theory and technique

A colleague urged me to see this trailer for the new Batman movie The Dark Knight. It must have been shot and released before Heath Ledger’s death last week, and it’s hard to watch it without thinking of the tragic loss.  What emerges here is however, an eerie focus on his character, the Joker, who is seen only in heavy makeup, a mask that totally obliterates the good looks and persona of the actor behind the mask. The very brief snatches of his performance in the trailer are astonishing, powerful and riveting. There is no connection at all with other screen performances we have seen from Ledger. It is an utter transformation, vocal and physical.Was Ledger tapping into the power of the mask as a tool for character transformation? We’ll never know, and will certainly need to see the movie in its entirety before any kind of judgement on his performance can be made.

Watching this trailer got me thinking again about mask, not just in its usual representation of altering facial character, but about what I’ve come to call body-masking. Body-masking goes beyond the use of paint or any other substance that obliterates the face. It calls upon the actor to engender a sense at the outset of another’s physical form and shape, of his energy and persona triggered by observation and imagination. Body-masking creates a way for the actor to move into another recreation of a self, a possibility bounded only by the limitless power of the imagination.

One of the key terms in actor training jargon right now is transformation. It’s process and realisation. Few across most cultures would doubt the ancient power of mask in ritual and performance, itself a kind of ritual. Contemporary theatre in the main eschews mask, but the principle remains: by taking on the mask of another, the actor absorbs/is stimulated by (choose the term that suits you) its essence, and the resulting performance is enriched. What replaces the mask is a sense of the actor’s persona transcending the daily self … what is known by some scholar-practitioners as an extra-daily persona, enlivened by a heightened energy and sense of purpose.

Now I don’t know how this happens, but I have seen it happen. When an actor steps in to a sense of the other, their shape, their tempo-rhythms, and sound-making alters to a greater or lesser degree. Finding the way to get at this sense of other is the challenge. It can come through close observation of people; Alec Guinness was a great observer of the other, especially of walks. If Guinness got the walk, he knew the character would flow on through. That’s body-masking … working from the outside-in, and it’s a way I encourage my student actors to begin the process of body-masking … through observation and mimicry. Other actors just know somehow another persona and their own shape, tempo-rhythms etc. alter as a consequence. Is this what some call working from the inside-out? It doesn’t really matter. I think ultimately there’s a melding from both approaches in the crafting/artistry of building a character.

Body-masking for me is about taking on the mask wherever its inspiration comes from and letting it have its way.

SAG Awards … strength in union

Mostly I hate awards shows on television apart from the frocks and curiosity as to who will get the loot and who gives the best speech. I think you probably have to be there to appreciate the thrills involved at these dos. It was nice though to see the SAG awards ceremony today on cable tv. Everyone was all dressed up as they usually are, the frocks were lovely, the blokes brushed up well, the intro speeches were scripted to sound as flat and predictable as ever, but the individual thanks were heartfelt. What was great to see was the fact that there was a ceremony at all. It was about union solidarity. The workers united … writers and technicians said thanks to the actors for their support during the ongoing strikes, and the show (as it must) went on. Nice.

You might have caught the whole smart series of Speechless ads, actors in support of the writers’ strike. All 33 episodes are here on YouTube. This one is my favourite. Shows what good actors can do with any script.

Day 1 of the rest of my blog

Welcome or welcome back to Groundling. We’ve made the move across to another domain server which will provide lots more flexibility.

I hope you’ll consider sticking around by subscribing … hit the big, orange button up there in the top right-hand corner. This means you won’t miss a post! Alternatively, bookmark Groundling and drop by from time to time. I post a couple of times a week and plan on occasional guest posts as well. Your comments are really important; blogs are about conversations. I know of no other community that can gab as thrillingly as the theatre community, so please consider joining in. Of course, feel absolutely free to lurk and browse. It’s a greenroom after all.

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When all is said and done …

Sir Ian McKellen takes a day out at Universal ...
Image via Wikipedia

I suppose every profession has its jargon, its arcane rituals which can look and sound absurd to outsiders, and which even initiates can find complex if not downright puzzling. When it comes to acting, many have struggled to give expression to the nature of the artform; what it is, how it happens … how to make it happen even. Mention the word ‘process’ or ‘method’ in the company of an actor or two, and stand back.

By way of an antidote to the many millions of words that have tried to tell it like it is (or should be), here is someone who knows a thing or two about the whole business. Reductio ad absurdum? Maybe. It’s certainly one in the eye for the complicators and the gurus. It’s Ian McKellen and Ricky Gervais from Extras, of course.

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Slam poetry and the power of speech


Rhetorical power was the subject of some attention this week. One of the US Democratic Party’s hopefuls in the presidential primary race gave a marvellous ‘Yes We Can’ concession speech which used repetition to make its point. Barack Obama is a forceful, clear speech-giver. You can catch it here.

I like this take on the force and power of ‘good’ speech by slam-poet Taylor Mali.

Don’t know what a slam-poet is? Neither did I. Thanks Wikipedia.