And it won’t take “no” for answer

No matter how good your facemask is it will not protect you against the slyest infection of all: the personality of the mask itself. Wearing any mask changes your mind. There is no doubt.  If you do doubt it, it matters not; your mask will still have its way.

Masks can be mischievous, manipulative and malevolent.  They can also be caring, cheering and charitable.  Even the simplest of masks impart some of their inherent personality.  Be aware of all types of mask. Even the ones that are mass-produced are as individual as you and I.

Banished mask (1)
One of my longest-serving masks. By itself it looks serene, but when worn exudes an assertive melancholy.

It is very likely that masks will be worn much more frequently from now on. We need to be mindful of what they can do, and if we wear one, we will be.

Before we go any further let’s make one thing clear: your scribe is a fully signed-up sceptic.  I enjoy abstraction in all its aesthetic guises, but I don’t embrace the fanciful in reality, preferring to anchor myself to the rocks of repeated experimentation and objective observation.  That’s why I know that masks have personalities.  I have conducted many experiments and observed their peculiarities  many times.

When I first read that masks can impose their individual influence, I was deeply sceptical, but I saw it happen on numerous occasions over a thirty-year period. I have seen a particular mask provoke a behavioural pattern in a wearer, and replicate that behaviour in others days, weeks, and even years later.  I have watched many masks do this.  It didn’t always happen, but it frequently did.  All masks alter the behaviour of the wearer, whether or not a specific conduct is precisely replicated.


Working with masks, and Masks

The book that really did change my life (by seeding a career in teaching drama) is IMPRO Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone.  In the final chapter Masks and Trance, Johnstone writes:

The reason why one automatically talks and writes of Masks with a capital ‘M’ is that one really feels that the genuine Mask actor is inhabited by a spirit. Nonsense perhaps, but that’s what the experience is like and has always been like.[1]

WIN_20200505_09_26_27_ProI adored Johnstone’s book, and his methods (which are mostly not to do with masks) proved miraculous in liberating and empowering people of all ages who wanted to do drama. I trusted him therefore, and was keen test my doubts about his mask work.   It didn’t take long before I saw the bizarre behaviour he had described:

I remember a Mask I’d just made. A student tried it out and turned into a hunched, twisted gurgling creature.  Then a latecomer arrived, picked up the same Mask and the identical creature appeared.[2]

And even more incredibly:

Another Mask was called Mr Parks. This one used to laugh, and stare into the air, and sit on the extreme edge of chairs and fall off sideways. Shay Gorman created the character.  I took the Mask along to a course I gave in Hampshire.  The students were entering from behind a screen and I suddenly heard Mr Park’s laughter. It entered with the same posture Shay Gorman had adopted and looked up as if something was very amusing about the ceiling, and then it kept sitting on the extreme edge of the chair as if it wanted to fall off.  It really makes no sense that a mask should be able to transmit that sort of information to its wearer.

Mind-changing workshops

Between 1984 and 2017 I delivered scores of mask workshops based on Johnstone’s guidelines. I also staged a number of productions using masked actors.  For each performer it was the initial mask class that was the most important, and probably the most memorable.

Maskworkshop June 2013 OUPG comp
A mask supplied by Trestle Theatre. On the left in a basic mask workshop in 2013, on the right in performance in 2010.

The first part of the session, lasting anything between twenty and fifty minutes would consist of a vigorous physical warm-up followed by a sequence of exercises all of which would have an otherworldly feel to them. They were dreamlike and unsettling, for example enacting a Kafkaesque metamorphosis from human to creature, peering into imaginary mirrors, or depicting a waxwork mannequin melting – face last.  These were my own invention and designed to create a sense of detachment from the normal world.  Then the mask work itself would follow lasting uninterrupted for an hour or so.  This session was derived directly from Johnstone’s guide.

Where possible this would be done in a studio with theatre lighting and background music (no lyrics).  The actors would be asked to don costumes that disguised their own clothes and then sit in a circle to be told what to do.  They were to select a mask then go and stand in a space and put it on.  When they were all ready, I would go to each in turn and show them their reflection in a mirror while counting down from 5 to 1.  When the mirror was withdrawn the Mask (with a capital ‘M’) would come into existence.  It would know nothing.  It would not even know how to move.  It would not know that the floor was hard.  It would not know the feel, weight or purpose of a chair – or of anything.  All the actor had to do was allow the Mask to discover.

Maskworkshop June 2013 whole group
A mask workshop in June 2013

Once each participant had been induced, the ‘toys’ would be scattered around.  These would consist of simple objects of various types and made from different materials.  Anything that was very specifically recognisable – keyboards, phones, documents or packaging with printed words – was avoided.  Instrumental music was played – something with an ethereal or tribal mood – but not too loudly initially.  If the studio lighting could be set to sequence through a shifting cycle, so much the better.


Generic behaviour

The generic pattern of interaction was always the same, and from a detached perspective seems predictable, but nevertheless it was fascinating to see it reoccur.  Some masks would quickly gravitate to the fringes, or go into hiding in corners or under tables.  Others would quickly establish confidence and dominate the space. Some would be fascinated by fabric, or by shiny or sparkly items.  Others would test everything by sound and evolve rhythmic signals.

I never told any group that they were not allowed to speak.  No one ever did, even though some of the face-coverings were only half-masks leaving the mouth exposed. Sometimes grunts and squeals would ensue but spoken conversations did not occur.

Basket on head composite
Different masks, different actors, same behaviour from 2006 and 2013.

Collectors were common.  Some Masks would gather hoards of toys that they would rigorously defend while others would be instantly altruistic and generous.  Simple trading would ensue after perhaps half an hour, as would non-verbal communication that was usually established through the repetitive knocking, or tossing of objects.  Thieving and threatening were common but fights did not flourish beyond toddler-like tugging and pushing.  Factions would arise.

Maskworkshop June 2013 feather interaction

Individual behaviour

The strangest aspect was when a given mask brought about the same characteristics in different actors.  On a few occasions, performers were subsequently able to link up with counterparts from different classes who had worn the same mask and were astonished at how similar they had felt.

There were some that usually defaulted to being either assertive or reticent but they were frequently not the ones whose passive appearance suggested those attributes.  Masks always look different when they are worn, especially when they move.

Banished mask (6.5)
A rather beautiful and perhaps mournful mask, until you put it on.

Weirdly, some of the most intimidating masks gave rise to some of the most timid Mask personalities, while apparently delicate wallflowers threatened tyranny. There was one cherubic little chap who was always wickedly acquisitive, slyly thieving with a passion. Another gorilla-like, imposing, thuggish face almost invariably manifested as a shy loner.

My collection of masks evolved.  I made my first brood from papier-mâché and cardboard, and one or two of those lasted three decades. I later acquired some from commercial sources including the Trestle Theatre sets featured in some of the pictures here.   They all worked.  Even the thinnest, the smallest and most transparent, and that ultimately was the point.

Maskworkshop June 2013 transparent mask
This mask is actually transparent, but when worn it becomes translucent and disturbing.  It often imparts a wickedly greedy attitude to the wearer.

In the plenary session I always stressed to the students that if they could change their behaviour so radically with less than a millimetre of plastic on their face, they could do so with nothing at all.

I also pointed out the prevalence of masks in the modern world and how they too, exhibit behavioural changes.  The cynical mind will proclaim the behaviour of mask-wearers is all down to the psychology of the person, not the characteristics of the accessory, but that argument is flawed. Of course, the individual plays their part, but our moods and attitudes are influenced by our perception of our appearance, and nothing changes that perception more than accessories applied to the head and face.

Banished mask (5)
This mask is from Sri Lanka and is carved from a single block of wood.  When passive it is somewhat scary but when brought to life seems startled and cautious.

Masks exist in all societies in every part of the world and at all times from the prehistoric to the present.  It’s easy to imagine the stereotypical ‘tribal’ masks used in ritualistic ceremonies but overlook the more commonplace specimens, for example sunglasses.  Modern society is riddled with masks: spectacles, crash helmets, winter scarves, surgical masks and the most widely used and thinnest mask of all: make-up.


When we wear make-up, we may consider we are doing so to affect the onlooker, but the final approval always resides with the wearer; and the final affirmation is done with a look in the mirror. The Mask is reawakened. The masks that don’t seem to be masks are the ones of which to be most wary, for they are in disguise.

Beards are also masks.  In fact, anything we put on our faces acts as a mask and, as we emerge into a post-pandemic world, they will become not just more prevalent, but more diverse. There will be a proliferation of styles, decorations and adornments.  Countless new characters await.

Choose your face friend carefully. Contrary to popular belief, a mask is not something we hide behind, but which, when worn, abides within us.

OPG mask 2
Masks in performance: Once Upon a Preston Guild, Charter Theatre, Preston, Lancashire, 2010.


[1] Johnstone, IMPRO, page 144, Methuen paperback. 1981. ISBN 041346430X

[2] Ibid page 165.

Trestle Masks are available from : Trestle Mask Shop

From the uneasybooks Drama Selection:

Myra ppbk cover 2018

“Probably the most well-balanced and realised depiction of Hindley we’re likely to see in our lifetimes.”

Making Myra manages to approach the subject matter without portraying Hindley as either a tragic hero or helpless victim whilst at the same time making her more than a mere pantomime villain.”

Making Myra paperback

Making Myra eBook



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