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Neutral Mask: An Examination on Jaques Leqoc Pedagogy (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Jacques Lecoq is the founder of L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, a theatre school established with the purposes of exploring theatre through physicality and silence. Lacoq expounded upon the mask work of Jacques Copeau in order to further investigate the necessity of neutrality within a physical body, developing and defining the components of a neutral state. His pedagogies extend well beyond the Neutral Mask (masque neutre), but found within this initial phase of his teaching a student enters a process of imaginative exploration with the intentions of purifying physical movement and discovering a place of ‘active rest’. Through the implementation of neutral mask exercises, the actions of one's body are illuminated as they attempt to balance on a fulcrum containing the tension of two extremes - internal activity and physical stillness - providing an opportunity for the performer to establish the intangible province which theatre practitioners have defined as "stage presence". Lecoq’s theatre practice, when embraced, turns psychological personality into a jeopardy and nullifies the need for one's character-based intentions. It is for this reason that, although not a performance tool according to Lynn Everett,

“[Lecoq’s] pedagogy is seen to offer a viable alternative to the ‘Stanislavski method’, primarily because its theory and practice are grounded in a paradigm of embodiment rather than Cartesian dualism."

A physical, ivory mask is worn while participating in Leqoc’s exercises, hiding the face of the performer and serving as a magnifier, drawing specific attention to the predisposed errors found within the movements of a human body. (The word 'error', refers to individual, physical quirks, habitual or unconscious movements, and specific physical expressions that mark personality and reside outside neutrality). The enhancing property of the mask works in tandem with an exploration of unfamiliar, elemental movement. For example, following instructions to “be the waves” or “be the wind” reveals unconscious physical patterns and inhibitions. Stephen Knapper explains that the expedition of Lecoq's pedagogy is "a mimetic discovery of nature with its rhythms, textures and turbulences."

Waking Up

The Leqoc exercise titled ‘Waking Up’ is a journey of discovery via the imaginary exploration of inanimate components and animals. Upon waking up - opening your eyes - you are born into an imaginary world. There’s no instruction on achieving the goals of first, being born, and second, discovering the natural world around you - a world you’ve never seen before. Imbedded within this process of discovery is the establishment of a zero-point; a state where anything is possible since everything in nature is being seen through the eyes of the mask (the mask wearer) as for the first time. According to Stephen Knapper, "It is through the alchemy of exploring the elements, materials, colours, objects and animals and the transposition of that exploration into emotion that Lecoq approaches characterisation and dramatic motivation." Within this process of discovering pure and economical movement (the amount of care surrounding the management of movement), actors are faced with an uncovering of nuanced qualities found both within their motion and their stillness, allowing for the whole of an individual's body to become the communicative device; as opposed to simply relying on the face, the voice, the script or psychological intensions as primary storytelling agents. Your body is the story being told. Any movement put on by the performer, existing outside the purest parameters of a blank slate (tabula rasa), draws attention and induces a sense of unease from the perceiving spectator, because (somehow) we, the spectators, are innately capable of sensing when a person acts against neutrality. In this way, observers as well as those experiencing the exercises become increasingly aware of the value and speech of physical movement.

Farewell To The Boat

The goal of economic physicality - whereby all movement is distilled to a place of profitability, and advantageous to the story being told - is made evident when witnessing a person working through the Lecoq exercise ‘Farewell to the Boat’, where the performer is asked to commit to a series of motions and gestures. A goal of the application is to observe the transition between the various movements (run, stop, wave goodbye, walk away). Watching one movement end and another begin creates a potential complication by providing an opportunity for the performer to analyze and pre-plan transition, thereby removing neutrality and presence. The 'kyū' to 'jo' connection (referencing the treatises of Zeami and the Jo-ha-kyū), can lead to overactivity as the practitioner is met with the challenge of fully ending one movement (kyū) before beginning another (jo). Darren Tunstall explains that "The articulation of a movement phrase will have an overall duration, and peak moments, or accents, usually at the beginning and the end." The use of a mask while performing this gesture series highlights sloppy articulation and confusing physicality, making a practitioner aware of unnecessary motion, and gifting the artist with a visual and experiential vocabulary by which a distilled and meaningful series of expressions creates a clear story.

The Fundamental Journey

An equal and full body commitment to the transitioning accents between gestures serves as a measurement of physical economy. This is easily observed through Lecoq's exercise ‘The Fundamental Journey’. Engaging the imagination with a sea, a sandy beach, a forest, a mountain, a stream, a desert and a sunset from a place of genuine exploration and neutrality proves to easily challenge an actor’s physical economic articulation due to a necessary commitment towards what is happening now, while having a knowledge of what will be happening next. The performance tendency to pre-plan intention, moving forward in your mind to the next objective before ending a current objective, is anathema to a pure and clear performance. Wrestling with the tension found within accomplishing a series of engagements produces active presence; the foremost goal of exploring the neutral mask.

Embedded within this mode of discovery and imaginary intercourse with nature lies the paradox of bustle & noiselessness, motion & inactivity, animation & quietude, labor & tranquility. ‘To experience’ is the sole motivation, generating the continuous states of reception and being. These two associations carry us forward through the pedagogical journey in hopes of achievement, allowing us to shed off our physical points of resistance, and gifting us with the precious quality of economy within movement. And insomuch as Frank Camilleri is correct when stating that "neutrality per se is a construct that does not correspond to an achievable state", a neutral mask pedagogy is an unending process of refining all actions that are not neutral, not truthful, extracting from a performer all falsehood put on by insincerity and pattern. My former acting coach, Patrick Sutton, of the Gaiety School of Acting, would oftentimes reiterate the phrase “Fear not simplicity”. Our qualities of performance can so easily be reduced by physical over-complication. A Leqoc pedagogy addresses many reasons why we are unable to produce what is simple.

Part two coming soon.

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