I use this exercise with my fourth-graders when they study Ancient Greece in Social Studies. Naturally we discuss Greek Theatre, and one of the most interesting characteristics of this form is the fact that the actors were masked. For this reason it seems natural to introduce mask work at this time, and to relate it to the Greeks. However, mask work can be used at any time in a drama curriculum, and can be just as easily tied to any of several other historical forms, including Commedia. The masks used in this lesson plan are designed to be simple to make. (They can be made in the drama classroom, ordinarily in a single period and without the help of the visual art teacher.) However, if you have more time or an art teacher who wants to get involved, there is no reason you shouldn't make more solid or elaborate masks.
You Will Need
Heavy card stock, 8.5x11, enough for sheet per student.
Thin (around 1/4 inch) sewing elastic, enough for about 14 inches per student. (Often you can buy this by the yard on a large spool.)
Crayons or markers.
Making the Masks
First, determine the distance between the eyes. The easiest way to do this is to close your eyes and very gently place two fingers (thumb and second finger seem to work best) on your eyes. Open your eyes and transfer the distance to the paper and mark they eyes with dots. The eyes should be about a third of the way down the paper, and centered.
Once you have marked the location of the eyes, draw the eyes around your dots. Make them about as big as, or a little bigger than, your own eyes.
Draw the shape of a head around the eyes. The head should be as big as the paper, especially at the sides. (Otherwise, among other things, the elastic will not be long enough.) Depending on the character you have in mind, you can make the head basically oval or a more fanciful shape. Remember, though, that it should use most of the paper, or your own face will show through.
Once you have drawn the basic shape of your mask, you can decorate it any way you like with crayons or markers. Try to make your mask a definite character.
If you have the time and the inclination, you may provide students with construction paper and glue so they can add three-dimensional details.
Once the mask has been decorated, cut it out. Teacher may have to help cut out the eyes.
Punch holes on the sides, around one inch below the eyes. Be sure the holes are far enough in not to just tear out.
Carefully tie one end of a 14" piece of elastic to each hole. If the elastic is too loose, re-tie one side.
Your mask is ready to wear.
Using the Masks
(Making the masks usually takes a whole period, and I save working with them for the following class.)
With my students (who are all boys, and consequently especially rowdy) I have learned not to let them all loose in their masks at once. Moreover, the exercises work better with a few students working in front of an audience. I try, in the course of a class period, to give everyone a chance to perform.
Two or three students stand in the performance space wearing their masks. The audience and I discuss the characters we see, and I devise a simple pantomime scenario for them to act, based in part on the particular personalities presented. At the end of this lesson plan is a list of some of these scenarios.
As the students perform, I point out salient features of their performances. I remind the performers to "present the mask"--to face the audience so that the mask and its expression are visible. Frequently I freeze the action so as to better discuss a particular point.
The students soon learn that they rely heavily on their faces for expression. When this means of expression is removed, communication is at first very difficult. However, the students gradually begin to use their whole bodies for expression. (Of course this is the real purpose of the exercise, from an acting standpoint, and greatly improves the performance of young actors, most of whom tend to act "from the neck up.")
What tends to be most fascinating for the audience is the way the performers' movements and body language seem to change the masks. We know objectively that the masks stay the same, but when the performer has found his body control, we really SEE his facial expressions change with his story. We discuss how this could be. (For some reason, this phenomenon is much clearer for young people than ideas like, "seeing the emotion in a person's back," and can be used to teach composition.)
We discuss what is most and least clear about the scenarios, and what is most and leas compelling.
Usually I have the performers repeat their scenarios after criticizing them. The audience discusses what has changed and how it has improved.
(Ordinarily I have the students do these without sound. These are only a few suggestions.)
A loud argument. (The audience should be able to tell who is winning at any moment, and who finally wins.)
A teacher trying to teach a lesson to a well-behaved but hopelessly confused student. (For closure, you can have the student finally "get it.")
A tourist is given conflicting directions to his destination by two locals. (The audience should be able to tell which local is right, and which one the tourist believes.)
Two, three, or more people arrive one at a time in a crowded movie theatre, in which there are only two (or three or whatever) seats empty. (We should see each one look for a seat, locate one, and go to it. We should be able to tell how each feels about taking a seat next to a stranger, and how each feels about the next person sitting by them. For fun, I sometimes tell older students we should be able to tell what kind of movie it is.)
Several strangers (or, alternatively, not strangers) watch a sporting event, not all rooting for the same team. (We should be able to tell who the "opposing" fans are, and which team is winning.)
Someone purchases something from a sidewalk vendor. (We should be able to tell what is purchased, and who the purchaser is.)
A homeowner buys a vacuum cleaner (or a set of encyclopedias, or whatever) from a salesperson, despite the fact that he or she doesn't need it at all. (We should see the persuasion happen, and, for closure, we should see the realization, after the salesperson has left.)
Several people pass an accident on the street, with various reactions. (Or a beautiful garden, or an unusual store, or anything out of the ordinary.)
One person makes a mess almost faster than the other can clean it up.
Make up your own!