How Niagara University theatre students switched from wearing medical masks to ones used to train commedia and silent mask performance in theatre
By Abbey Mylock and Ben Hayes
Special to Niagara Frontier Publications
The coronavirus pandemic has been infamous for instructing everyone to wear masks in order to combat the virus. But what if I told you that the mask has helped a group of students study a specific theater artform?
Communicating with others has become a whole different game. A smile one may give to someone they know at the mall now has the obstacle of a face covering. The way of communicating in a world where we combat this virus, has now changed. But through this change, adaptation can emerge.
Within the Niagara University Theatre Department, along with the vocal, acting and dance classes offered, there is one underlier you may not think of. Physical Theatre, taught by Teodoro Dragoneri and Mara Neismeis, explores how the body can tell a story as much as words. The class combines everything you learn in dance, acting and vocal courses to bring forth expression through devised pieces. The primary aspect of Physical Theatre focused on here has to do with masks.
Masked performances have been around even longer than the United States, meaning it has a rich history and prominence in human history. Teodoro Dragoneri has worked in the mask field for many many years, “Masks come alive within the actor, so making them I made them come alive in my hands”
With this knowledge in hand, he has brought it to NU where in one hour and 20 minutes, Dragoneri teaches his class a certain stage of mask. For freshmen, they learn ensemble collaboration as well as using animal physicalization to tell a story with the body. Sophomore year is when mask work begins through silent performing. Junior year, the vocal aspect of a mask performance is brought in with Commedia dell'arte. In the final year, students learn clown, which combines what you learn in mask and commedia.
Niagara University Theatre students Alyssa Garmone and Matthew Ball both experienced this class. Alyssa Garmone got to experience this class pre coronavirus pandemic, during the coronavirus pandemic, and now, with her classmates all being vaccinated and able to perform at certains without the medical mask. This is Matthew Ball’s first time experiencing this portion of this class within an in-person and he was able to work with the neutral mask, while Alyssa Garmone worked with the commedia mask for her classes last semester.
The Physical theatre class has taught students how to incorporate their bodies into silent mask performance, but the students were able to better grasp the concept of this, through the usage of medical masks because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Teodoro Dragoneri, instructor for the Physical theatre mask work section of the class, shares his passion for the theatrical view of things and the usage of mask work. Last semester this class was held over zoom because Teodoro is from Toronto, Canada and was not able to cross the border to come to the Niagara University campus.
Dragoneri’s silent mask passion began by him being very interested in “performance art”, which is theatrical things that involve works of art. Dragoneri “felt drawn to working theatrically through performance art medium.” His career began by making masks since he was interested in art. Then this is where he made the masks “come to life”. He explained how by holding the masks, he would create a sense of character and bring them to life. The intimate object of a mask is brought to life by the actor.
Teodoro added “The whole world is wearing a mask, as a mask maker I would have made millions.” The theatrical mask makers during this time I think all felt the same way. The coronavirus pandemic made masks mandatory but as a theatrical mask actor it was like everyone was living in our world.
“In mask work the focus on your face is mainly towards the eyes.” “People with masks in public rely more on body language.” Garmone commented on the transition from public masks to those performed in. So now that everyone had to wear a medical mask the idea of this focus on the eyes was mandatory. People were no longer able to read lips while conversing, the focus was now on the eyes. In mask work, the focus is drawn to the eyes and mouth. The order of focus usually goes “Eyes, mouth and then nose.”
Teodoro compared the idea of focusing on the eyes to something like a “Bullseye” on a shooting target. This relates to the work of clown that the senior physical theatre class gets to do. The focus point is the clown nose, just like in mask work it is the eyes. The clown nose is the “smallest mask” in mask work that the actors get to work with.
Also the idea of how wearing a mask makes people find each other more attractive was brought up by Teodoro. Since eye contact is mostly mandatory in order to socialize with people, the covid masks created a sense of a deeper connection with humans by this consistent eye contact.
The CBC website (https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/covid-masks-face-recognition-perception-1.5901300) brought up a valid point on how these masks make us not recognize each other, which went along with what Teodoro was saying “Typically when we look at another person's face, our brain works at lightning speed to compute the distances between the individual features — the nose, eyes, mouth, and other features — all at once to determine who we are looking at. The researchers found a mask disrupts this holistic approach to facial recognition.”
So, the use of the covid masks actually helped students learn how to use physicality in their bodies and eyes more consistently. Body movement and over exaggeration of the eyes is very important in mask work, so the covid masks had some sort of benefit towards the theatre community. Matt in his first time learning this work agreed in some ways. “I would say yes to a degree, because you are forced to use other parts of your body such as your arms and legs.”
From an overview perspective of all the courses offered in the theatre department, having to wear a coronavirus mask has restrictive qualities such as the limiting of getting a full image of the performer's face. However, as found through the experience of students learning physical theatre, those classes now have more of a familiarity to work with masks. The sophomore year class in particular focuses on silent performing, to only focus on the physicality of a character.
Coronavirus masks come into play because in a way they limit communication through generic facial expressions. This is a way most people communicate through but in a silent mask, using the face isn’t an option. During this semester, students have realized and identified a connection between having to communicate physically with a medical mask and the ones used for the class.
Students participating in Teodoro’s classes have found that eye contact has been the most successful way of communication with a mask. A primary technique taught to students is known as “reporting to the audience”, as Teodoro would coin it. Keeping the crowd engaged is what creates the entertainment of mask work, the craft thrives on a sense of participation with people watching the show.
Comparing this to the masks everyday people now wear to combat the pandemic actually support this technique in a way. The safety masks themselves actually highlight the eyes which is part of why clown noses are so prominent in that form of theatre. Alyssa chimed in on this point when talking about silent mask work, “Every little detail matters.”
Another primary point to be addressed is that what makes coronavirus masks a form of silent mask in the way. They completely cover up the mouth which is done in the designs of the performance masks to limit the characters from speaking. But the eyes are still made prominent just like in safety masks. People now need to be able to read others through their eyes which has been a recurring habit in the theatre department.
The Niagara University Theatre department creates very intense classes within their program. Physical Theatre being one of the most difficult, but also most different classes. Not a lot of other colleges get this opportunity to work with things like masks and aerial work.
The medical masks for sure had a valuable impact on the students taking this class because it helped them to develop silent mask skills earlier on in their careers here at Niagara University.
Niagara Frontier Publications works with the Niagara University communication studies department to publish the capstone work of students in CMS 120A-B.
These articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of NFP, NU or the communication studies department. Moreover, efforts have been made to encourage the proper use of sources, and discourage anything that would constitute plagiarism.
Comments or concerns can be sent to the NFP editorial department, care of the managing editor.