What do masks have to do with books? It was the first question I asked myself when I found out I would be running mask workshops in schools as part of Shrewsbury Children’s Bookfest back in 2015. As it turns out, quite a lot.
Books have a magical ability to immerse the reader in an alternate reality, to make us invest in a character so wholeheartedly that we are with them from cover to cover. Really, really good books make us invest so emotionally that often they stay with us for life – and it’s the same with mask.
When we open a book, the words on the page are open for interpretation, our own emotions, life experiences all impact on how the story connects with the reader. With mask theatre, words are not thrust upon us by an actor telling us how they, and we in return, are feeling or should feel, the physicality of a mask character, their pace, a gentle tilt of the head, an isolated movement suggests a feeling, and we interpret it with empathy, an understanding or remembrance of a time when we too have felt like that – and that’s why, like when reading a book, you connect with the story or character.
We were invited back again this year to run workshops for schools by Shrewsbury Bookfest. Each year, I am always buzzing to be greeted with children dressed as Harry Potters, Aliens in Underpants, Hungry Caterpillars and even Oompah Loompahs – it’s World Book Day, of course, and I know it’s going to be riot of excitement and enthusiasm.
This year the students looked at their own physicality. I think a few of the children thought I could mind read at first when I told them exactly what they were thinking without speaking with them directly. They later learned that I had observed their physicality and body language and how we might be able to use an awareness of physicality in our own descriptive story writing.
Then to performing in the masks – cue lots of laughter and boundless imagination. Learning to hotseat one another – a technique used to develop a character and their ‘story’ was a particular highlight. The students got to completely lose themselves in being a masked character, another identity, and with their reactions to questions asked by the audience they began creating a whole story about their character using just their physicality.
In an age when everything is digitally interactive, so easily accessible and libraries are no longer the first port of call when you want to occupy yourself for the weekend or find out more about “Knitting with Dog Hair” (a real book with a delightful hat-wearing Bassett Hound on the cover), Shrewsbury Children's Bookfest is helping students connect with literature in new exciting ways – and above all reminding us of the importance and power of our own imagination!