In Conversation: Russell Dean

Russell Dean studied at Aberystwyth University where he gained a first class degree in Drama. He worked as a freelance designer/maker and facilitator for Trestle Theatre CompanyWelsh National OperaTheatre Company Blah Blah Blah amongst many others.

Russell has been a writer, director, designer/maker, performer, project manager and facilitator on nine productions and hundreds of workshops for Strangeface since 2001. During this time he has also developed a reputation for being one of the country’s leading mask makers. He designs and makes commissions and box sets of masks for schools, groups and other artists, such as VamosBootworks and Mick Barnfather.

Image courtesy: Maurice Gunning

Image courtesy: Maurice Gunning

Russell, your skill with creating, using and directing masks and puppets is legendary. What drew you to this form of storytelling?

Serendipity. I saw Trestle Theatre’s wonderfully anarchic show ‘Hanging Around’ back in the eighties. After leaving college several years later I applied to be a Trestle outreach worker. I received a letter back saying they already had plenty but saw from my CV that I was also working as a designer/maker, and would I like to come in and show them my portfolio? Next month I was designing their next show ‘Bitter Fruit’ and making over twenty masks. A baptism of fire!

Masks are everywhere in society, both soft and hard: make-up, Carnival, veils, Halloween, balaclavas, the niqab, and the Guy Fawkes symbol associated with the Anonymous movement. Has our essential concept of the meaning of masks changed?

Mask is a very broad church. Some masks act to disguise identity, such as a traditional Venetian carnival mask, others create new identities, often exaggerated and beyond human. In a period when identity is being so sharply scrutinized and questioned, the mask becomes a go-to symbol of seeming and reality.

The more I work with students and performers, the more I am convinced that humans are happiest when they are given the opportunity to inhabit several roles. To wear a disguise mask can be a thrilling retreat from one’s own identity (and raise the apprehension of the viewer), but to create a new identity with a character mask, which moves, breathes and expresses itself in an entirely different but truthful way, can be exhilarating. You may be playing the same (bodily) instrument, but the music is radically different. The meaning of the mask, as such, is bound up with this feeling.

Where our apprehension of masks may be changing is in the field of robotics. Instinctively most people draw back from the idea of being cared for by a robot rather than a human being, however I have observed that particular masks will win an audience’s affection and trust far quicker than any unmasked actor. I suspect this effect may be put to good use in care robot design.

Image courtesy: Mark Dean

Image courtesy: Mark Dean

The Woolf focuses on literature and narrative. Masks loom large in storytelling across the globe, from Greek drama, Japanese Noh theatre and commedia dell’arte to contemporary superheroes. How do you explain this ancient attraction to the mask?

Masks allow us to see ourselves from a different and often exaggerated perspective. In the case of Greek drama, the mask allowed a society to view itself in abstract. It was a distancing technique, allowing critical analysis (on an emotional and intellectual level) of what it means to be a citizen and the rules that bound society. Noh theatre’s attraction is perhaps more dreamlike, with its emphasis on tradition, music and stylised movement. It also makes use of one of the mask’s most beguiling aspects—to create a world with its own rules into which the spectator must enter. This creates the possibility of mixing supernatural and natural worlds with ease. Commedia dell’arte exploits a mask’s tendency toward anarchy. The extreme physicality, improvised routines and word play emphasize the ridiculous folly of being alive. As an audience we love this, particularly when it is our ‘betters’ that are being lampooned. With regard to superheroes, perhaps the attraction is that in obscuring the face we are removing the limitations we usually impose on our human identity and open up the possibility of other powers.

Mask image Russell Dean

Image courtesy: Russell Dean

Another way of looking at it is from a sensory perspective. Humans are survival machines. Subconsciously we are constantly analysing information from our environment and those around us to determine our safety. Once you remove a major source of that information, the face, you enter a state of greater alertness. This is activated by an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for the fight or flight mechanism. In order to compensate for the lack of facial information we become more conscious of body language and are reassured if the performer provides a clear physical narrative.

Personally, I feel this reordering of the senses is what has made mask work so attractive over thousands of years. The art of the mask performer is to ride this heightened state of audience awareness to comic or cathartic ends. As a side note I believe this is why Berthold Brecht held such a strong fascination with masks. They can be an extraordinarily powerful tool in creating the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ or ‘making strange’.

In your TEDx talk, you mention how audiences tend to reproduce a narrator’s expression as a feature of empathy—in the same way that children imitate facial manifestations of surprise, joy or fear when listening to a fairy tale. Would you say this recognition of emotions on a face makes mask work so powerful?

In part yes, but I think the relationship can be more complex. To answer as a mask maker, my aim is to create masks that may hold two, three or even more expressions. Often if you are creating one strong exaggerated expression the mask is then limited to playing or playing against that expression.

However, if you bury hints at other expressions in a mask you create greater possibilities in performance. We crave information when the performer’s real face is hidden. Any clues buried in the mask are taken up avidly by an audience, which is why it is important to take time to introduce a mask to an audience in order for them to recognise its possibilities. There is a powerful empathetic connection with a good mask, but this is then modified when the audience begins to project the possibilities they have seen back onto the mask.

Stanislavski v. Meyerhold: the former believed an actor had to experience the emotion to convey it to an audience, whereas the latter thought physical mechanics and facial expression could create the same effect. Masked performance and puppetry seems to lean to the latter. How do you see it?

Both. Performance can be technical, but the mask or puppet performer can also really feel. The audience is of course the most important ingredient. A good mask or puppet design will allow an audience to take in the possibilities of several emotions and then project them back onto the masked performer according to the situation they see performed. Often this can be to the degree that members of the audience will say that we changed a mask or puppet subtly to fit a certain scene. Good performers and makers know how to exploit the human tendency to project.

Image courtesy: Russell Dean

It’s worth asking yourself, are you really looking at the face of the friend or lover you are talking to, or just projecting what you assume to be there upon it? It’s why we sometimes miss the new hairdo or change of glasses. We shouldn’t feel guilty about this apparent lack of awareness. It’s an evolutionary way of saving brainpower. Taking in every detail takes energy and time, any portrait artist will tell you that. Mask and puppet work exploits this cognitive shorthand heavily.

I’m not sure mask or puppet performance would be really enjoyable if it were purely technical. The moment one sees one’s face transformed or brings a puppet to life, there is a visceral thrill and curiosity to see who this new creature is, how it moves, to discover its desires and disappointments. It is intuitive.

And going on from there, mask performances seem less like a projection and more like a conspiracy. The willingness of the audience to collaborate, internally voice the characters’ thoughts and engage with the experience seems to be part of the whole event.

The mask is another world full of possibilities. Like a fairy tale, we have to go to it on its own terms. There we accept the seemingly impossiblethe supernatural, the extreme, the absurd. The rules are not necessarily ours. It reminds us of being children, and through a mask we see in a childlike waywith awe, wonder and possibility. It is simultaneously artifice and truth. It is safe in the sense that all is pretence, but at the same time articulates and exaggerates primal emotions. Beyond conspiracy it is a compulsion.

Puppets are able to talk but most masks use silence. Yet that dialogue with the audience is based on a common understanding of body language and timing. Does that work internationally? Do gestures and the movements of the head translate?

Image courtesy: Maurice Gunning

Image courtesy: Maurice Gunning

Some hand and head gestures are culturally specific. For instance, when performing in Iran it was important for us to remember that giving a thumbs-up means the very crude opposite to the Facebook ‘like’! However, moving from specific gestures to the body as a whole, there are universal emotions that can be expressed. When the body slumps we see sadness or depression, when a fist clenches we understand rage. Beneath the cultural, one can always find the universal.

Many people consider puppetry and masks as something more appealing to children. But one of the most strikingly innovative pieces of theatre I’ve seen was ‘Shockheaded Peter’ and much satirical comedy employs puppets. Where do you see this ancient form of storytelling in the future?

The mask is constantly reinventing itself and, as we discussed, its possibilities have been exploited by myriad cultures across the globe and throughout history. Its manifestations range from the instructive to the subversive, from children’s entertainment to political dissent.

A mask can be as painstakingly crafted as a Noh mask or as simple as a paper bag over the head. The principles and art of mask performance may have a bearing on the futures of robot design, virtual reality and gaming.

Image courtesy: Mark Dean

Image courtesy: Mark Dean

Personally, I believe that as we enter a time when the battle fought by politicians and advertisers to control our narrative is ever more fierce, the mask can offer an antidote. In exposing our desire to participate and collude in the lie of ‘the mask’ whilst experiencing very real emotions, the mask lays bare our own narrative-making abilities. The way we choose to interpret the world is just one story amongst many possibilities. We may choose to have that story provided by others or we may create our own. This is a very empowering prospect.

And, finally, the Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, a wonderful dystopian novel set 2000 years in the future. Using a modified and witty language reminiscent of Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange, the story melds elements of religion, shamanism, puppetry and black humour to chart man’s ability to escape or repeat the mistakes of his past. Definitely worth a read.


You can see more of Russell’s masks in The Woolf’s Gallery.

Russell’s company Strangeface are currently touring their Wellcome Trust-funded production investigating cognitive dissonance, ‘The Hit’. 

A dedicated website for Strangeface Masks can be accessed here.


Author: J.J. Marsh

Writer of The Beatrice Stubbs series, founder member of Triskele Books, columnist for Words with JAM magazine, co-curator of The Woolf magazine, Bookmuse reviewer, blogger and Tweeter. @JJMarsh1

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