Review: Mask: Making, Using and Performing by Mike Chase

Mask front cover

This review was written by Peter Howe, and we thank him for his wonderfully thoughtful and warm consideration of the title.

Masks have accompanied human cultures since the beginnings of time. Spiritual leaders, healers and story-tellers used them to embody ‘the characters, spirits and gods from the stories, which would guide the ethical choices and moral development of society.’[1] In contemporary Western society, however, their use became marginalised, as human consciousness grew increasingly distant from its origins. Designs became ‘either sentimental or grotesque.’

Mike Chase’s great achievement, in a lifetime of designing, making and working with masks, and now in the writing of this outstanding book, has been to reconnect the medium with its spiritual origins through the use of archetypes; ‘to seek out meaningful cosmologies, ordered wholes, on which to develop my practice as a mask-maker… the temperaments and other archetypes, including the seven planets and the zodiac, have been the foundation stones for my mask designs.’ In his work as a teacher, therapist and theatre director, with community groups, specialist colleges and in prisons, he has rediscovered the healing, embodying and educating roles of mask. In a culture whose focus is almost entirely on the individual, he reinvents mask-use and design for the self-understanding, development and balance of individuals and groups.

He sees it is a medium through which the individual can find their voice and tell their story. ‘The outside of the mask becomes the externalised expression of an inner state, boiled down to its essence, arriving at an archetype that also has meaning for others. Filling the mask from the inside with the expression and breath, the body and gestures of the heightened state of the wearer open a doorway into another world. This vast and awe-inspiring world, both beautiful and terrifying, can be managed, named and expressed through the container of the mask.’

This is a beautifully produced book, illustrated abundantly with Jane Chase’s colour photographs which are works of art in themselves. It is endorsed by Clark Baim as ‘a generous book, full of clear guidance and practical wisdom.’ It is a practical handbook for making masks and their use in many educational, therapeutic and social contexts, but it is so much more. In an effortless yet energetic style, Chase weaves together practical instruction, wise, emotional understanding and a theoretical underpinning laid out in economic, jargon-free language.

In particular, Chase’s work is based upon the use of one set of archetypes: the four temperaments – choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine and melancholic. He cites others who have applied an understanding of the temperaments in modern contexts: Carl Jung in psychotherapy, Katharine Cook-Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, used extensively in the business sector), Michael Chekhov in drama training, Rudolf Steiner in education and teacher training. ‘What captured my attention,’ he says, ‘was the simplicity and depth of this cosmology and the manner by which it is applicable in all walks of life. This can be a tool to understand the self, relationships and behaviour, managing a classroom, training actors for the stage, mask makers for the theatre and design, mask using as a professional development process in education, business, therapy and theatre performance.’

A fifth mask is included: the neutral, ‘the mask of unmasking.’ This is about being present in the here and now, and a preparation for entering into the ‘powerful and extreme states of being’ which are encountered through the four temperaments.

The book is in four parts:

  1. Background to masks and to the four temperaments.
  2. Mask-making. Clear instructions for designing and constructing masks.
  3. Mask-using. A host of exercises, involving three elements: bodily movement, imagination and the spoken word. With charming line drawings by Allmut Ffrench.
  4. The application of mask work across many fields: education and special education, teacher training, psychotherapy and psychodrama, organisational and leadership training, community groups, theatre. And, not least, some stories from the author’s extensive experience, which range from deeply moving to hilarious.

As well as a handbook, MASK is also about what lies behind the masks we all adopt every day. ‘… a relationship begins to develop between what is seen and what is still unseen… The psychology of masks as they challenge the notion of identity invites us to reconsider who the “self” or the “other” might be. The elemental psychology of the temperaments seems to awaken an ancient tacit knowledge of human nature, inviting us to consider the masks we might be wearing. These masks are not cultural, or social, but rather correspond to a constitutional self situated somewhere between the body and the soul.’

In an age when loss of meaning, the struggle to find the self and to understand the self, all contribute to illness, mental health issues, alienation and criminality, this book is a source of understanding, recovery and even comfort. Every library, school, college, drama department, therapy centre, community and arts centre will be enriched by this; teachers, trainers, actors, therapists and facilitators will be inspired and assisted in their work. As John Wright says in his Foreword, ‘You learn through ‘doing’ with Mike and this is the quality that comes out when you read his book.

[1] All quotations are from the book.

Buy the book here…