Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Imago Theatre and Mask Performance

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jonothon Lyons.


As soon as I was out of school the only thing I could think of was getting back in. I had already been considering graduate school a viable option for me and after seven months of relative inactivity in New York, going back to school seemed like the best thing I could possibly do.

The most appealing program I found was the "Lecoq-Based Actor-Created Theater" program at Naropa University. I didn't know who Lecoq was but I liked the sound of actor-created theater and it appeared to have a strong focus on physical movement. As I researched I began to realize that the teachings of Jacques Lecoq were precisely in tune with the kind of work I wanted to become involved in.

Not long after this the audition for Imago came around. As soon as I found out the company was also Lecoq based I knew it was going to be to my liking. It seemed almost fated that while considering an educational program focusing on this specific style of work, I came across an opportunity to experience it through direct application. I ended up working with the company for four years so it feels akin to having been through a graduate program in Lecoq based mask performance, of course with the upside of a reverse tuition situation.

To learn more about Imago's history and see some of their other works please visit their website imagotheatre.com.

When I began my first performances in Frogz I was immediately struck by some major differences of mask work from the traditional acting experiences I had had. One was the total anonymity of the performers. Because everyone is completely costumed head to toe with full masks covering their heads, the group onstage instantly becomes a collective with no focus on any individual performer. Though certain performers will have solos or appear onstage more often, the audience has no way of knowing who's who and so no individual is given credit over another.

Something about traditional acting that always seemed strange to me is the suspension of disbelief about the actor playing the role. Especially with famous actors, the audience is never fully engaged in the character alone, there is always some level of recognition about the specific actor they are watching. With mask performance, there is no way to know which actor is playing the character, so the character stands alone. A performance in this style really depends on talent and craft, there is no getting by on good looks or charming mannerisms.

It was exciting for me to discover this element of mask performance because l no longer  felt like I was tinkering with my own psychology to produce the performance.

Another major difference is the character's relationship to the audience. In most traditional narrative drama there is a firm separation between the audience and the world of the play. In Imago's productions and most mask performance in general it is the complete opposite. The strength of character often depends on how directly the audience is connected. The characters are constantly checking in with the audience, looking directly at them as if the gauge their reaction to any given moment. 

One of my favorite pieces to perform in Frogz is called orbs. The actors are completely hidden inside these enormous fabric spheres and melt off the front edge of the stage right on top of the front row of seats. The orbs then fan out through the house grabbing programs, rustling hair, and sometimes dragging children across the isles. I love this piece because the actors are as far as possible from the audience visually and yet they are as close as possible to the audience physically.

Another unexpected skill I gained from working with Imago was learning direct object manipulation. There are a few pieces they do entirely under black light with the performers covered head to toe in black velour body suits. We operated giant under sea creatures and flocks of birds and dancing rubbery strings. In a piece called Windbags I had to operate a tiny accordion puppet doing backflips and facing off with a much larger version of itself.

Since the company is known for mask work we always considered ourselves strictly mask performers and even though the shows feature a fair amount of puppetry I never thought of myself as a puppeteer. It wasn't until about a year ago that I realized I had in fact been developing those very skills for four years. I started going out for puppetry auditions and making it through and was delighted to discover another form of theater performance that was movement based with little focus on the individual performer.

Check back in tomorrow for the next post, I'll be focusing on puppetry and object theatre.

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