Review of Playing the mask by David Farmer

In this book, inspiring teacher and guru of improvisation John Wright takes us into the realm of masks, an area of work which seems specialised yet has much to teach us about the essence of acting. Anyone who has ever tried on a mask will be aware of how a seemingly dead piece of material can bring its own spirit to life on the stage. When our face is hidden we become more powerful, less vulnerable and as Wright explains, more able to take risks.

‘Masks are empowering… They enable you to take risks. They provoke you into working with the reckless logic of a six-year-old or the enigmatic stillness of someone wiser than you’ll ever be. But above all, masks let you be you without your habitual limitations.’

Having enjoyed several workshops with John, I am well aware of the playful element he brings to theatre-making and it is this that he emphasises here. He contrasts the dry theoretical Daniel Day-Lewis approach to acting with the playful experience of being in the now, an experience heightened by the use of mask. Without embodying any particular school of theatre he somehow draws upon Lecoq, physical theatre, Philippe Gaulier, Keith Johnstone and many others to fashion his own unique take on playfulness in theatre-making.

Wright takes us on a whistle-stop tour through theatre gurus to show how his own approach has been shaped, then explores half-mask, full mask and archetypes. There are of course many games along the way. The book uses plenty of photos, monochrome and colour to illustrate a variety of masks. As in his previous book Why Is That So Funny? Wright brings his teaching alive through an anarchic sense of humour and colourful storytelling, highlighting his wide experience and understanding of theatre. This makes the experience of reading the book highly enjoyable as well as instructive.

Some lovely reviews for Why is that so funny?

why is that sofunny book

This is a fascinating book on physical comedy and how you can take those tools into rehearsals for not only comedies and but other genres as well. When I read the book, I could feel my entire body ramping up and on edge — some of the techniques and exercises Wright utilizes scare the crap out of me, which tells me I need to try them. I did begin to explore some of these in a show I directed earlier this year. Some were incredibly successful. Others I feel I need more work to fully incorporate effectively in rehearsal.

One thing I did take away from the book and will continue to use is mindfulness in rehearsal of the idea of play. In other words keeping things light and exploratory rather than the mindset we so quickly fall into that we have to ‘get it right’.

The Parable of the box

They met at primary school and both of them were firm friends by the age of Severn.
They invented a game with a box that would keep them occupied for hours.
The teacher saw them playing the box game and thought it was one if the funniest thing ever. The box game was played to the class. Everybody loved it.
Word went round and the head master asked them to play the box game for the entire school. Everybody loved it.
They both went to the same secondary school and they played the box game in drama. Everybody loved it
Word got round and when they left school they played the box game
at the local pub on ‘talent night.’ Everybody loved it.
The landlord offered them a regular slot. Everybody loved it.
An agent came and booked them on a national tour and box game became popular all over the country. Everybody loved it.
An American producer saw the the show and wanted to tour the box game in The States promising them more money than either of them thought possible. Everybody loved it
When they came home they found the old box they used to play with when they were little.
They both looked at the old box and immediately felt embarrassed. They’d both forgotten why they’d played the box game in the first place – and it hurt.
Never forget what made you want to make theatre in the first place.