“While much of human interaction is reliant on nonverbal facial cues, actors sometimes struggle to remember how to use the rest of their body to connect with each other. Hiding our faces behind a mask helped us depend on our limbs and core to be our new instruments of expression.”
—Kristen Ballard ‘13
In the digital age, we rely less and less on physical encounters for our communication with each other. Our “friends” gather online. We virtually “check in” at our favorite coffee shop. Texting is the preferred method of connecting with each other. Emoticons replace the cues we’re missing from facial expressions.
Theater, however, by definition is the physical expression of interactions among human players. The audience watches live performers respond to each other’s verbal and nonverbal cues. Their moves on stage must relay the emotions driving the action.
During a two-day workshop, Transylvania students were challenged to rediscover their ability to communicate physically. Even while wearing expressionless, gender-neutral masks, students found they could be surprisingly creative. They couldn’t talk. They couldn’t see each other’s faces. But they had to communicate.
So what happened? With the personal identities they had spent their lifetimes defining essentially hidden, the students were forced to respond to the world around them anew. They explored their surroundings as if for the first time. In the process, they witnessed their friends transform into different people.
And that, of course, is the heart of acting.
As theater professor Michael Dixon explained, “The overall goal is to get the students using their entire body to be expressive, because the mask doesn’t change expression. But when the body changes—the angle of the head, for example—the expression does change.
“In life we somehow have stopped communicating with our bodies. I think everybody did it when we were two years old, but somehow we’ve lost it, and it takes a lot to recover and relearn. “
The director of the workshop, Kristi Hughes, travels worldwide as an actress, clown, and workshop instructor. After receiving a degree in French and dramatic arts, she completed a two-year program at the Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Hughes currently lives in Berlin where she is a partner in TheatreFragile, whose goal is to take theater to the people, performing along city streets where audiences are invited to interact with the masked characters.Dixon called the experience “very rewarding.” When the workshop participants switched to larval masks, which are still neutral but have some expression as well as exaggerated features, the students were asked to improvise specific scenes: cleaning, auditioning, or dealing with an emotional problem, for example. That’s when Dixon saw the characters come to life.
“With the larval masks, it’s possible to really tell some stories. The feelings and sentiments of the characters totally changed, depending on what was going on. They were joyful, they bounced up and down, their heads sagged.”
The Transylvania theater program makes it a priority to offer learning opportunities outside the college’s regular courses. For example, students may learn how to manage fight scenes while participating in a stage combat workshop or how to master Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter while studying with experts from the American Shakespeare Company. Students can also act in local productions or work behind the scenes at the nearby Lexington Opera House, helping with wardrobe or load-in and load-out.
According to Dixon, the goal of these opportunities is “to familiarize students with what’s possible in the profession” and to find the area of theater that best suits their natural talents and skills.
In the end, it’s all about using the “faces of a stranger” to make a fiction real.