How Actors Act, Part Three: Masks and Clowning

Early in my acting career, I relied on my intuition on stage to guide me through each performance. I felt like I had a decent understanding of the flow of dialogue and natural inflection, and I prided myself on my comedic timing. 

Naturally, my college professors weren’t as impressed with my gut approach to acting, and I, too, was looking for something more substantial to cultivate. Two acting techniques – and their potential for combination – that really stood out to me were mask work and clowning. 

Masks have been a part of the theatrical tradition since the very beginning. The Greeks relied on masks for their utility: The exaggerated expressions were easy to see from the back of the audience, and they allowed actors to play different roles in the same play. 

Sixteenth-century Italians used masks to great effect in Commedia dell’arte performances, during which recurring characters could be instantly identified by their masks alone. It’s no wonder why the iconic symbols of the theater remain the comedy and tragedy masks. 

There are inherent challenges to mask work, however: It’s impossible to emote with your face from behind the mask, so all performative work must be done with the voice and the body. On the other hand, the mask is a great instructional tool for the actor because it informs all of the choices the actor will make on stage. 

An exaggerated smile, for instance, must be accompanied by exuberant movements and gestures. A mask twisted in agony likewise dictates how the actor will move and gesture. In addition, the juxtaposition of opposing performative qualities can be a very effective tool in creating an unusual character. Imagine a figure skulking into view, hunched over and limping, only to turn its face to the audience and reveal a twisted grin. 

These same qualities can be used with blank masks as well, in which case the physical performance “paints” the mask to reflect the qualities of the actor. This blank-mask technique becomes even more interesting when you remove the mask and begin to express the same physical qualities with your own blank face. 

Some of the most celebrated comedians were or are deadpan actors. Think about Buster Keaton or Bill Murray, and so much of what we enjoy about their performances comes from blank-mask techniques in combination with clowning. 

Clowning, I feel, is the logical next step after physical training and mask work, and though there are many types of clown (the red-nosed, painted-face variant being the most common), I think theatrical clowning is less about the slapstick and accoutrements and more about the work of conveyance from actor to audience. 

Clowns are funny because they know much less about the given circumstance than the audience does. The audience sees the big hole that the clown is backing toward, but the clown doesn’t. The audience knows what the joke is going to be long before it happens, and the anticipation of the inevitable is all part of the gag. The more the clown exaggerates and prolongs the inevitable outcome, the funnier it becomes. 

Likewise, the clown can make the mundane hysterical. A clown never just puts on a hat, for example. He must first see that the hat is there; then he looks to the audience for reassurance that others also see the hat. Another look toward the hat, and back to the audience. This time the clown is asking permission. 

The clown reaches out and grabs the hat, but he doesn’t put it on. Instead, he looks back toward the audience one last time to make sure it’s all right to wear the hat, and then he puts it on. This game is all about engaging the audience in a direct way, yet it can be done completely without facial expressions or spoken words. It’s extremely effective in creating connections, which is why we find clowns endearing. 

These techniques almost always go hand in hand on stage. Actors wearing masks use clowning to convey to the audience what their faces cannot. Clowns may use the fundamentals of mask work to create exaggerated facial expressions, or they may paint their faces to enhance certain qualities of their performance. 

Both methods are about conveying simple and effective messages to the audience in an immediate way, and whether they’re used as the foundation to craft efficient characters or to subvert expectations, they remain two incredibly powerful tools in the actor’s arsenal. 

Now that we’ve laid out some of my favorite acting methods and techniques, next time we’ll put them all together to create a character from the ground up.