September 22, 2008 — A mask can provide an image for the audience and at the same time act to "demask" the actor, providing freedom, according to Carlos Garcia Estévez, an international artist who leads acting workshops based on the techniques of the 16th-century commedia dell'arte.
Last week, 15 University of Virginia undergraduate and graduate drama students worked with Estévez in a 12-hour workshop learning mask techniques.
In traditional commedia dell'arte, actors' actions are prescribed by the masks they wear; the swashbuckling soldier, doctor, man of wealth, servant and rogue all have distinct ways of walking and talking.
By contrast, Estévez's approach focuses on body movements that develop from within the actor and techniques that engage the audience with eye contact through the mask. Although his method is based on the commedia dell'arte tradition, it calls on actors to "go to the roots of the action, to call on inner expression and not stereotypes or clichés," Estévez said.
Marianne Kubik, an assistant professor of drama who teaches stage combat, movement and dance based on biomechanics, often uses full masks in her classes. Estévez's workshop, she said, "reinforces techniques while presenting different skills of comedy with a mask. It provides a different perspective and reinforces what the actor needs to be aware of in the space they occupy."
Graduate student Laura Rikard, who has trained in commedia with Italian master Antonio Fava, said, "Carlos has a more organic approach. He teaches you to create your own commedia character that exists now in the moment and is built based on the people we see today."
Throughout the workshop sessions, held on three consecutive evenings, Estévez led the students in physical warm-up exercises that reinforce the actor's use of the space in a very precise way, paying particular attention to how they engage the audience. Estévez explained the process as "creating a dialogue between action and the audience."
Next followed a body awareness session in which the actors imagined they were performing a task, such as cooking something in a defined space. They repeated the actions over and over at faster rates of speed and in shorter periods of time to "work for the essence" taking their actions from smaller to broader movements.
Throughout the session, Estévez reminded the students of topics they had talked about earlier — movement, timing, improvisation, scene composition and interaction between the actor and the audience.
Then it was time to don a mask and present the cooking exercise.
The three-quarter face masks Estévez uses are handcrafted of leather by a member of the Teatro Punto troupe. Estévez likened the three-month process to the craft and skill required to make a handcrafted musical instrument.
He reinforces that sense of craft in acting with the students. "When you put on the mask, the mind does not make the decision, the body makes the decision," he said. "An actor is in the service of the action and the story. The actor does not exist, only the story and character. Put yourself in the place of the mask."
The presentations were an exercise in linking how to put the techniques and skills they had learned in the exercises onto the stage, Estévez explained.
After the four hours of intense work, the students were tired but also energized. Comments to Carlos about what they had learned included: "I feel braver, aware of my body and how powerful it can be." "Focus on doing one thing at a time." "The way you use space is important." "Make contact with the audience."
"Physical theater is extremely difficult and it is a real craft that demands a lot of work," said fourth-year student Alyssa Lott, the only non-drama major in the group. "Carlos taught us the importance of being a consummate professional, dedicated and concentrated and always in the work."