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Department Of Theatre And Media Arts

UnMasking Storytelling in Theatre

Adam Houghton Presented Handmade Masks at International Conference, Uses Them in Department of Theatre and Media Arts Classes

The phrase “hiding behind a mask” is being challenged in Professor Adam Houghton’s mask performance class. The TMA professor and Acting Area Head has found that working with masks allows his students to tap into their imaginations and experience increased vulnerability and freedom. As for the masks they use in class? Houghton hand-made 16 of them and presented them at the German Puppet Theatre Conference in Northeim, Germany. Both the professionals at the conference and the students in the classroom have deemed them a success.

Houghton crafted the masks using the ancient and influential technique of Venetian mask making. This process involves sculpting a clay model, creating a plaster negative mold from the model and then using layers of paper and glue to create a mask in the negative space of the plaster mold. The hardened paper mache is then hand-painted and finished to have a matte, durable surface that looks like real skin. Each mask takes about 40 hours of labor, none of which would have been achievable had Houghton not been on a leave of absence. Houghton said that he made the masks more durable than he typically would so that they could be washed and handled for many classes to come.

At the German Figure Theatre Conference, the masks were tested by professionals in the puppet and mask performance industry to see if they inspired the wearer to create a character. These experts chose a mask and then stepped on stage where they improvised and interacted with each other as their new characters. The actors got to experience the way that the masks provoke a variety of different kinds of emotions that can be performed. Back in the classroom, the masks provided a space for freedom where students could explore play in a new way.

“At BYU, we are very fortunate to have a curriculum that includes two classes in mask performance that build off of each other,” Houghton said. The mask performance classes teach students storytelling skills that are based in physical action as opposed to other classes that focus on psychological based skills.

Houghton said, “I found it remarkable how the mask is a tool of transformation. It unlocks a sense of play that many of us as children had, where we engage fully with our imagination without inhibition.” He explained that during childhood, people are able to tap fully into imagination. However, during adolescent years, people begin to see the world and themselves differently, which creates inhibitions. “It was evident in class that the mask unlocks that [childlike] freedom.”

Eden Bostrom, a TMA student taking Houghton’s class, has experienced firsthand what Houghton is describing. She said, “Playing and immersing myself in a pretend character when I was child — even without a mask — was so easy, but as I have grown up I have lost touch with that ability. This class gives me an opportunity to go back to those core roots as I explore each mask and develop them as my own original cast of characters.”

The confidence and skills the students are learning from the masks can be applied to their other acting courses and performances. Houghton feels that BYU TMA students are learning a unique set of skills that students in other theatre programs might not get. He said, “The performance programs at BYU are so blessed and fortunate to have support from the college to shape the curriculum. All of these classes and experiences add together to help our students gain important skills.”