Many of you have probably taken part in a play, in school or as part of neighbourhood activities. You may also, at some time or the other, have come across masks: perhaps seen a traditional mask somewhere, or what is probably more likely, worn a mask to a party. If you have, you probably recollect the strangely exciting feeling of becoming someone else. What may be new to you, however, is that the two-masks and acting-can be combined into a great performance. This book shows you how to do that.
This kind of show is not new-masked performances go back a long way, and there are many traditions all over the world which are still alive today. To learn more about this, we invited mask makers and performers from four different traditions in our area in South India, to a set of workshops with a group of twelve year old kids. They showed us their skills and knowledge, and inspired us to come up with our own show. Our performance was not traditional - it used masks we made from simple everyday materials, and a story we created ourselves.
This book is based n our experiences, and it given you step-by-step guidance on how to create your own masked performance. This is not to say that everything went completely smoothly for us. On the contrary. But what we have done is to put our confusions and mistakes to good use-we've taken note of them and worked them into this book. So it has a lot of detail, and also gives you a sense of what you need to watch out for when you create your own performance. It can be used by anyone who wants to put up a show: an amateur theatre group, an educator interested in craft and performance lesions, a group of kids on their own, or as a school production. You need to be at least twelve years old, though, to be able to use this book effectively on your own.
How to use this book
For practical reasons, we've divided the book into two obvious sections: the first one is on masks, and the second, unsurprisingly, on performance. The two go together, of course, but unless you enjoy complete chaos, it's best to keep the activities separate.
So take up one section at a time, and work through it. However, the order in which you do this is left to you. You can either make your masks first and think up a play to go with it, or work out your play and then make the masks for it. Remember though, that the section on the making of traditional masks is there only to inspire you with ideas to think up your own-you are not expected to make them. The masks that you can make are in the section Your Own Masks (p. 43). These are also starting points for you to be inspired to create your own.
The instructions are simple enough to be followed by anyone, but if you are a group of kids going through this on your own, you might want to get an older person or a teacher to help you along.
We've included a complete script of our own performance as a last section. You could perform this, or use it as a guideline when you are coming up with your play.
You need about a month (of 5 to 6 working hours each day) for putting up a complete masked performance - including making the masks and scripting and rehearsing you play.
The way you put together this time is entirely up to you. And it depends largely on your situation. If it is a school production there may be constraints with the time-table, and you may only be able to meet once or twice a week. This is not ideal, though you can make it work.
It is good to plan in time on certain consecutive days, especially when you are making masks. Sometimes you need to let things dry overnight and come back the next day to finish it. if you find it hard to meet everyday, try to put aside time, to complete one kind of making (say moulded masks), for two days, and then meet again later in the week for another session.
This goes for your performance as well. At certain times-while creating the script, or at particular points during the rehearsals-you need to meet everyday. Otherwise you'll find yourself starting at the beginning each time, because half the group will have forgotten what happened last time, once the whole thing is in place, though, you can be more relaxed about fixing rehearsals.
A final word about the intention of this book: most of us have taken part in a play before, though maybe not in a masked performance, we tend to think that it is all a matter of commonsense, and that anyone can put up a show with a few tips. It's true that it is not too hard to come up with a show-but equally true is the fact that it's not easy to come up with a good one.
A good performance is one that the audience enjoys as much as the actors-it's a very satisfying experience to create something excellent. All you need is to want to do it, and be willing to put in some hard work. And you do, of course, need to know how to go about it practically That's where this book comes in. it will guide you through the entire process of putting up a good performance, as though you were professionals.
A Note for Educators
This book is a hands-on guide to performance education, and strictly speaking, is complete in itself. It does not require any additional work from an educator who decides to use it with students. You don't need to go through the process we did.
But for the teacher who is interested in the role of the arts in pedagogy-and would like to take this exploration further-we include here a couple of useful insights which came up during the process of generating the material for this book. You may be interested in adapting this model and organizing a similar project with crafts people and performers from you area, or in simply in knowing more about how such events can contribute to education.
The book is based on a series of workshops we conducted with twelve year old children from a working class school in Chennai, South India. We invited four traditional mask makers and performers from Tamil Nadu and Kerala to interact with the children-not only to demonstrate their arts, but also to answer questions about themselves and their work.
The workshops lasted for ten days. The first five were given over to mask making, and the last five to creating a performance. A professional theatre director coordinated the project, which is one of the reasons why we were able to come up with a complete performance in such a short time. We then staged a public performance with the group, called Making Faces.
Our intention during this project was introduce children to performance education using locally available material, skills and cultural inputs.
One of the pedagogical aims was to enable children to explore the meanings of tradition. The workshops introduced them to traditions of mask making and performance, as well as the contexts in which they exist. We wanted the group to observe the artiste, ask him questions about his vocation, and finally, try out some of what he demonstrated to them.
Generally speaking, most Indian learn from textbooks that do not relate to their world or experiences. This is compounded for working class children by the fact that their own experiences seem to count for nothing, as they are routinely held up against unexamined, class-specific norms. So we wanted the children in our group to come up with their own views during this interaction, and found that they had a lot of say. Happily, in this case, the children and the mask makers/performers shared a common world-view. Since their social backgrounds were not dissimilar. (We thought of the imaginative world they shared as 'residual folk').
While this was a serendipitous interaction, the basis of this learning experience applies equally to other children. The main thing here was that learning did not involve abstraction - it put the child in the position of an agent in the creation of meaning.
Watching the traditional performers sing and dance, and hearing them talk about their art, the children discovered that tradition is something that is kept alive by people living in the present - they do this by interpreting the past for those who live in the present. Tradition, in this sense, ceases to be 'the past'-it becomes a means to link the past and the present. This was something new for the group, because their history textbooks tell them that the past is absolutely separate and different from the present.
All the mask makers and performers who participated in the workshop were deeply conscious about being part of a tradition. However, they did not see tradition as unchanging or rigid-they were only too well aware of how old ways of doing things change, in order to survive. A tradition may have its roots in the past, but it is truly alive only because it ha remained open to the world around it.
Innovating with what the mask makers taught them enabled the children to practically approach this process of interpreting the past, in their own modest way. To carry this forward, we wanted to make it a point to encourage the 'modern', to use what is available and around at this particular time. This worked well with the mask making.
At other times, we had to make an effort to hold back censoriousness, for example when they used advertisement jingles or standard political rhetoric (which is a part of their familiar world) in the dialogues they created for their play. We were uneasy about encouraging them to replicate numbing media sounds and images. But interestingly, we realized as time went on that some of the children were in fact not merely imitating, but adapting familiar tunes and standard speech to a new purpose. Advertisement jingles came up in a scene to connote nonsense, and standard political speech-making to make fun of a character in the play.
Though we had planned the workshop around this, we were struck afresh by the rich resources that traditional artistes offer to pedagogy. Much of the very unusual and creative energy of the project came from them. The mask makers and performers were happy communicating with children, with a patient and attentive seriousness, which did not talk down to them. They had no problems in letting the group observe them closely at work, in answering every question, and in allowing their craft to be sabotaged into strange directions.
Their meticulous approach brought in a different sense of time to the proceedings, as they slowed things down to carefully craft their work. More than anything else, it was valuable to observe how important it is to work hard to create.
This was in fact one of the most significant things to come out of the interaction-the idea of someone being an 'artiste'. This intrigued the children, because they were always being told to become something 'useful' when they grow up, and they had not thought that people did things simply because they liked to do them. To be in an atmosphere where creativity and imagination were valued more anything else was liberating.
Practical and imaginative learning
This was in fact the essence of what we hoped the workshop on masks and performance would achieve; to create an enjoyable opportunity for children to be active and creative, allowing both process and product to be combined in a single experience.
WE found that the mixture of craft and theatre which go into a masked performance a very inclusive way of involving a large group of children in creative group activity. There was something for every talent and inclination, with a very concrete result to show for it at the end. Along the way, they had to learn how to listen and work together.
It was fascinating to see children get into the exciting possibilities of fantasy and make-believe. They were able to imagine actively, and express this imagination on stage. With some guidance, the shy members of the group were persuaded to perform with self-confidence.
After the initial testing out of boundaries, there was a great seriousness about the project, which came from the children themselves. Without much disciplining from us. They were conscientious about their tasks, careful about their make-up, props and costumes. In some ways, there was a very genuine transformation, which took place as they went on stage-no longer children. But artistes with a responsibility to the audience.
Back of the Book
This is a very accessible and practical guide to putting up a performance with masks. It can be used by children working on their own, as well as educators interested in guided activity.
Drawing from ancient mask making traditions of India, this book contains practical instructions on how to make a variety of masks and props, using easily available everyday material. Detailed and hands-on guidance then takes the reader through every step of putting up a performance, from coming up with a script to directing and producing a play.
Masks and Performance centers on the adventure implicit in make believe, to foster creative and empowering self-expression. It stresses the importance of performance in education, highlighting histories of mask and performance traditions, and ways to adapt them to suit contemporary situations and everyday materials.
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