The half mask, when played correctly, tends to disappear. Instead
of watching an actor in a mask, one finds oneself watching a character
who just happens to have a six inch nose.
As a maskmaker, the three elements I work with to nurture this effect
are the eyes, mouth and the leather itself. The eyes are most important;
they are the window to the soul. Since ninety percent of human communication
is visual, I make large eye holes that conform both to the character of
the mask and the actor's face. This allows the actor to see and
be seen. Contrary to the popular misconception, the wearer of the
mask does not hide behind the mask, but rather uses the mask to reveal
aspects of his humanity which may have been hidden.
The ability to speak is essential for commedia actors, who are, after
all, actors, and not mimes. A funny thing happens when the mouth
is not completely visible: the actor cannot be understood. If an
overly down-turned nose or misplaced facial hair blocks the audiences'
view of the mouth, the actor will die on stage and the maskmaker will
die soon thereafter. This tends to explain why most actors made
their own masks during the often violent Italian Renaissance.
The leather itself is the final key. Since leather is, after all,
skin, the variety of tone, color and texture of the mask start to reflect
the actor's skin and form a uniform character face. This effect
cannot be duplicated with any other material. The maskmaking technique
I use is over five hundred years old and is the same that was developed
during the Renaissance.
Each masked character in the Commedia dell'Arte has certain traditional
characteristics which must be incorporated.
Pantalone, from Venice, has almond shaped eyes and a beard which reflects
the bill of the duck on which his physicality is based.
Dottore, from Bologna, has a mask which covers only the nose and forehead.
It can be brown or black.
Arlecchino, from Bergamo, is a poor boy from the mountains with a hard
head, big appetite and black face from laboring in the sun and cleaning
chimneys. He always has a carbuncle on his forehead where his master
Capitano is a rooster. Period.
Pulcinella is from Naples and the mask reflects his name: day-old chicken.
The lovers, Leandro and Isabella, both from Florence, never wear masks
except in disguise.
Columbina, from the Veneto around Venice, also plays without a mask.
However, both her name and her character are based on the dove.
Playing in half mask is different from any other style of acting, and
although they are related, the half mask is profoundly different from
mime, clown, full-faced mask and the San Diego Chicken.
- James Letchworth