What is the Role of Masks in Acting
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What is the Role of Masks in Acting

Masks were once essential accessories for actors and this lasted for centuries, from Ancient Greece and Rome to the time of the Italian Commedia DellÂ’ Arte. This practice has been abandoned by modern actors and film directors. However, a mask was a great tool, since it had the potential to increase on stage acting performance.

It is generally accepted that modern actors are among the most recognizable members of the society. In fact, the face of a very popular actor can be often confused with an equally popular character played by that actor on a theatrical stage or in a movie.

As a result, actors may find it hard to convince casual admirers and fans that they are actually totally different in their personal lives from the characters they personify on stage. For example, a comedian’s audience may not be able to accept the fact it is not possible for that specific actor to be always in a good mood. Besides, the same audience would find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that the same comedian could also play in a dramatic movie. This is because viewers have formed a certain stereotype on that actor and they don’t seem to be willing to change it.

On the other hand, as it is stated in the book “Psychology and Performing Arts”, (page 43), the personification of a character by an actor will be successful, only if the character’s attributes, mentality, tastes and habits (as they are set by the script writer) match the actor’s real-life characteristics. In other words, as the famous English actor Michael Williams quoted: “On the stage, you cannot be anything more than you are as a person”.

In earlier cultures, actors used to wear masks to cover their faces in front of the audience. This was the case in Ancient Greece and Rome, in the Italian Commedia dell’ Arte and it can still be seen in many animistic ceremonies in indigenous cultures in Africa, Australia and South America. Of course, the reasons for the use masks on stage or in ceremonies vary from one civilization to another, however, the common element of the covered face serves the same essentially purpose: the personification of a “character”, whose acts will be separate and independent from the personality of the actual person who plays the character. In this way, there is more for freedom on the stage and this “personification” will be more successful and realistic.

Another advantage for actors wearing a mask while acting is that the characters they play will not be affected by any personal characteristics which may not be compatible with what is expected from the character, in line with the script’s requirement. Therefore, and going beyond what Michael Williams said above, a mask gives actors more freedom, in the sense that they can actually be something more than they are as persons. In fact, that is the essence or the “Holy Grail” if you like it, of acting: to be able to personify a totally a different person than you really are.

Further sources:

Comedy tragedy mask graphics 

Masks acting workshops

Why did Greek actors wear masks?

Additional resources:

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