The Mask: Trance and Transformation

By Christine Cook

Throughout history, the mask has been present in every culture at some point in time. It has been used as a protective device, a a means to conceal identity, and as a representation of characters, ideas, or spirits. In the most extreme forms of this last category, the mask has been used as a tool to channel energies into the physical realm for the purposes of education, training, healing, revelation, and transformation in both theatrical and ceremonial realms.

The mask is a sacred instrument, and a powerful tool. Any mask work should be approached with respect. However, it is by no means all serious work! The trickster, the fool, and the clown are all energies with roots deeply tangled in mask history. Traditionally, these light-hearted pranksters provide commentary and insight on events through parody, contemporary interpretation, or simple comic relief. Even the most serious mask dramas and ceremonies have time and space for the trickster clown to make fun of the proceedings.

In mask theater, an audience member is put into an altered reality by the presentation of a mask character; it lives, moves, breathes as something non-human, and yet the human supporting the artifice can be detected. The audience searches for ways to build up and tear down the illusion simultaneously. As the performer's connection to the mask becomes deeper, and their technical abilities become more refined, the audience is inspired to believe in the mask as a living entity, and to reach a state of passive transformation themselves: a state of faith.

By contrast, when the mask is used in a ritualistic or ceremonial realm, there is no "audience". Everyone present has a role to play and understands the interconnection between various parts. Also, there is a level of faith at all times, which may be heightened or decreased dependent on the devotee's ability to connect with the god or being represented by the mask, and by the effect that connection has on other participants, events, the weather, etc.

When a mask performer dons a mask of a particular character, he/she allows the physical attributes of the mask to affect his/her body. The mask will give the performer a "hit" through various stimuli: physical (how it physically affects the head/body), visual (how it looks), or mental/emotional (how it makes the performer feel/think). This "hit" affects the state of the performer, which is reflected in the interpretation of the mask. In interpreting the mask, the performer resonates to information from the mask on various levels, then allows his/her body to express that resonation physically. All forms of movement may be affected, such as posture, center of energy, rhythm, speed of movement, even movement vocabulary. Emotional and mental states may also be affected, as well as perception and though processes. At times a mask performer will surprise themselves by choices made during an exploration or performance, claiming that it was the mask itself which caused them to act in a particular way.

In a ceremonial realm, the mask is understood to house the energy of beings, spirits, or deities, which when properly channeled, possess the body and mind of devotees. A system of preparation (often involving music, dancing, and restrictions on food, sleep, etc.) brings devotees to a heightened state of awareness. When a devotee dons a mask in this trance state, it has a transformative effect on the entire being. The person's normal faculties of logic, reason, and personality may cease to function altogether when possession occurs, replaced by the personality and behavior of the spirit of the mask. Physical states may be altered to superhuman abilities, and the devotee may accomplish tasks which seem impossible. In a state of deep possession, sensory awareness is heightened, and perception of events is altered. People report imperviousness to pain, not recognizing friends or family, and not answering to their names. Indeed, it is possible that once having emerged from the trance, they may not recall certain events, or whole passages of time.

In the theatrical realm, certain controls must be present to allow the mask performance to occur at maximum "possession" while still honoring the terms of the performing contract. The terms of any given contract for a performance may vary widely, depending on the theater company's interpretation or response to convention. However, we will assume that at the base level, the terms to be honored are that the performance will begin and end within a time frame, and that neither audience nor performer will suffer harm. Control for the mask performer is accomplished by not entering possession so deeply that technical awareness is lost. Despite information channeled to the performer by the mask, the performer himself/herself remains present, noting where the edge of the stage is, if the lights are on, how much time has passed, and assessing when to zing the heckler in the front row, etc. As a mask performer, the ability to be fully "in character" or transformed by the mask is of equal importance to the ability to execute the performing contract. Technical awareness is attained through a combination of time spend working with the body and mask in a disciplined aspect, and with time on stage in performance.

In the ritualistic realm, control is also necessary for similar reasons to those required by the performing contract. Events must occur within a time frame, and it is preferable that participants not be harmed! Control is more of a collective concern, as all participants are aware of the reasons for the event and the various levels of participation. Therefore, if a person enters a trance, the other participants would have awareness of when to leave things be and when to intervene. Signals, key phrases, changes in music, calling the person by name, and lifting the mask are all techniques to break a possession. Often there is a leader of the ceremony, who is not attempting to reach a state of trance or possession, and they are relied upon to speak directly to the person, or to request others to physically restrain them, etc.. Devotees give control to this person or these persons, trusting them to bring them safely back out of the trance. Apprentice devotees should not be spooked by these words, although caution is necessary in any work with trance or transformation.

In the early stages of mask work, the connection to a mask is sought through "interior" and "exterior" methods. Interior methods are non-critical, non-performance situations, where the emphasis is on what the performer feels and experiences while in the mask. Interior methods seek to strengthen the performer's connection to the spirit or soul of the mask.

Exterior methods work on the technical presentation of the mask from an audience's point of view. How the mask is seen is taught through disciplined techniques and feed-back from an outside eye. Exterior methods seek to strengthen the performer's ability to communicate to us through the mask. For an effective, true connection to the mask, both approaches are necessary and assist each other in attaining a transformative affect on the audience.

In exploratory mask work, be it interior/soul or exterior/technical, or a combination of the two, the leader of the exploration must be heeded, especially if the command to lift the mask is given. It is also necessary to develop an awareness of one's self and one's own limits. If one is experiencing pain in the exploration, it is a good time to stop, take a breath, and if necessary, lift the mask, thereby ceasing the exploration. While it is possible to train the mind and body to accept and surpass pain, the first step to this ability is awareness and acknowledgement of your physical reality. As a performer, developing self-awareness while performing is a necessary part of increasing your technical abilities.

In conclusion, the mask is an old tool and one of many paradoxes. It is a means of channeling energies, of releasing personality, and a source of comedy and tragedy. It has the ability to transform, to hide, and to reveal. Go with respect, with joy, and above all, remember to breathe!