Going faceless can be risky. And revealing.
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls may be best known for their sometimes spoiler status in college basketball. Or perhaps as the place where future NFL Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner honed his quarterbacking skills.
Though several years after I walked the graduation stage at UNI, Warner worked his early football magic in the UNI-Dome, a wonderfully equipped, multi-purpose indoor coliseum located on Hudson Road on the west side of campus. I saw concerts there—Chicago and The Cars to name a couple—and high-stepped the astroturf as a high school marching band tuba player.
But across Hudson Road another kind of magic was happening. Deep in the bowels of UNI’s Strayer-Wood Theatre a master teacher was coercing students to find expressive authenticity in their performances.
You probably don’t know Tom Carlisle, former Professor of Acting at UNI, but you may have a great teacher in your life, one who provokes your talent, insists on excellence and kicks your ass when needed. One who acknowledges and challenges your sensibilities to help you get better. I had that, and more, in Tom.
Though his lessons are too numerous to detail in a short post, a key learning, and one presenting itself in recent workshops I’ve led, comes from Tom’s work with us in Mask Training for the Actor. The physical development of an actor is critical, equipping the performer with the ability to adequately and believably embody a character on whatever stage.
Mask training serves up a challenge—what happens when you take away your face?
Character Mask exercises provide opportunity for the actor to put on full-expression physical masks, engage in non-speaking scenarios and allow the mask’s expression to inform—perhaps transform—their body.
Neutral Mask work also insists on the actor donning a mask and not speaking (never talk with
the mask on!), but now the dynamic of the “expressionless” mask demands neutrality from the actor. In essence, the somewhat eerie non-face takes away the actor’s facial expressions completely and the audience now looks to the actor’s body for information. Those actors who rely on their face to display emotion find this particularly challenging as they are forced to communicate in a different way, with their now faceless physical instrument.
One exercise reveals a sleeping “neutral man” who upon awakening discovers everything for the first time. The neutral man has no history, no knowledge, and no judgment as all is new to them. The actor has to discover everything they encounter for the first time. Often, when actors allow this dynamic to happen, the once static, neutral mask appears to take on new expression!
Tom guided us through this revelatory, neutral-seeking process with patient encouragement and passion. And when needed, yelling, to jolt us forward.
Great actors work hard, with or without mask work to get their whole being to neutral. A nearly impossible state to achieve, they stretch their bodies, put their vocal apparatus through countless drills and focus on free, relaxed breathing to invite the neutral man in. Neutrality provides freedom. Freedom to let a foreign character come in, to say someone else’s words. Freedom to discover another actor. And most importantly, freedom to be totally present with their audience, devoid of judgment.
There’s a moment when you step in front of your audience, one or many, and start your performance. What gear are you in? Already racing with what you want to say? Impatient because those across from you are acting at a pace different from yours?
Did you make the time to observe their rhythm?
Consider shifting into neutral—relaxed, even breath, calm face, quiet yet attentive body—so that you actually take in your audience before the show starts.
Tom Carlisle gave this unique perspective to his students. He learned it from his teacher. That teacher from theirs. A legacy of great teachers showing care and determination. And often in a nondescript, basement studio, across the street from where the spotlight shines. If only I can carry on the tradition….
Tom died a week ago. He’s probably experiencing the greatest freedom ever. Has he finally achieved neutrality?
Thank you, Tom.