Masks in therapy - an interview

1. You work with masks in therapy, tell me what that means?

Mask therapy is not as yet a defined therapeutic process, as no finite form has been established as yet. Unlike other arts in therapy like painting, dance or speech therapy, mask therapy is what you make of it. Of the four therapists I know of who use masks, each has their own approach ands so do I. The basis of my approach is the Humanistic, client centred therapy. I use masks as a symbol and channel to assist the client in defining what thoughts, feelings or impulses are at issue, and through the mask as tool, to bring life energy and movement into the situation to create relief for the client.

2. How did you get into it?

I got into the therapeutic application of mask through my work in theatre. I started out 20 years ago as a mime, using puppets and masks, and discovered that the mask had the extraordinary capacity of liberating the user from self created boundaries. Entering into parts of my self that were wild, rich and unknown, I was able to be far more creative . Lots of energy, vibrancy and expression came to life in the mask, and I found this release and expression unintentionally therapeutic. I would feel more myself, energised and communicative. So the obvious destination for me with my interest in the development of human consciousness, use masks in self development, ands focus on the therapeutic application.

3. Where does it come from?

Masks have been used by native cultures in Africa, Asia and the Americas for thousands of years. More close to home by the ancient Greeks, whom like those before and after, used the mask as a tool to get in touch with their gods. These masks represented Gods, Nature spirits or demons who needed to be thanked or appeased. They would perform cleansing rituals with masks representing the offended god, or rituals in preparation for an impending battle. For us now in the modern world these gods, spirits and demons are seen as living inside of us as powerful feelings, thoughts and intentions. I feel that masks have an important roll to play in eliciting, identifying and creatively developing our relation ship to the challenging states of mind that we find ourselves in more and more to day.

The back ground for my use of masks in therapy comes from three main sources. Sub personalities, defined beautifully by the humanistic Psychologist John Rowan in his book Sub personalities, through Mythology, exemplified by Joseph Campbell and James Hillman, and the by Spiritual Philosophers like Maesiglio Ficino and Rudolf Steiner.

4. How does it help people?

I have found through 1000Â?s of contact hours with groups, students and clients over the years the key feature that the mass offers different to other therapies is an accelerated work with three elements. The first is identity, where the mask by its very nature of covering the face challenges how we see yourself. Who am I, and what are these other faces , some of whom are in conflict with in me. The second is emotional intelligence, where the mask can help to define and give names to unconscious feelings. This can help us live with challenging parts of ourselves, and learning to work with them consciously and creatively. Thirdly the mask is a concrete tool for developing personal mythology as bridge between individual and the universal. Here where masks are a tool to go into or inner life and out in to the mythological and spiritual life to see where we stand in context to the powers of our existence.

5. Who benefits from this kind of therapy?

I think everybody can benefit from the therapeutic application of the mask, as there is there is something universal about it. For example we all have a relationship to Archetypes like the hero, trickster, mother, fool through fairy stories and film. But some people have a fundamental fear of masks, perhaps because of something that has happened in child hood, which would first need to be over come. Also this work in not analytical, and heady, and requires the participant to be able to go into their imagination and body, which some people find very difficult. Working with masks can also be very powerful and quick to bring up feelings and areas of the unconscious which can be challenging to cope with. So the people who benefit most from mask work are courageous enough to enter into a dramatic relationship to their psyche, with dynamic and creatively inspired interventions.

6. What kind of people attend your class at the moment?

At the moment most of my clients are students between 16 and 24 who have challenging behaviour, usually due to a degree of abuse in their formative years. Our work here at the Glasshouse is to help these youngsters to find a degree of independence and maturity so that at the end of their 3 year stay here, can find their way as creative individuals out in the community. Besides a few individual clients I also run 8 weekends a year of mask work which I call Soul Drama for mature adults who want to work therapeutically in a group on issues of self development.

7. Is it an open ended treatment or will just one session help?

Usually we do 6 sessions to try out whether this kind of approach is going to meet the needs of the client. If it feels good for both of us, we may continue for up to a year or more. The processes ore ongoing, where clients might make a series of masks over a period of time, and bring them to life in a ritual taking months to create. Like any other therapeutic process there is no instant result or relief, yet mask work can be very effective in getting to the point. It is always a question having got there how long it will take for the client to internalise and make the insights and changes a fundamental part of their life.

8. What kind of things happen in an ideal session?

There is a basic structure to a session, where we talk, do some movement, perhaps martial arts, or movement improvisation, to see what issues are close to the surface or the clients in the moment. Then we look at masks either on a theme or just spontaneously. If we are working in a large group, I usually start with a theme like persecutor and victim, or power and vulnerability for example. Polarities are a strong basis through which to measure ones sense of self. Otherwise we might start quite spontaneously with choosing masks which one is drawn to in the moment. This is usually followed by going through to the drama studio, crossing the threshold to the movement space, where we act out the masks, exchange the masks, try things out, following the theme which the client is energetically relating to. When a point of clarity is reached, a real a-hah moment, or impasse is reached, we return to the talking room, a cognitive space and shear what has gone on trying to make it conscious.

9. Due to the very nature of mask therapy I imagine that no 2 sessions are the same.

My work at the moment is in groups of 2 or 3, and so progress is very dependent on where the clients are at in the moment. Some times we just need to talk, play around with masks lightly until some one gets energy to work with a particular issue. The atmosphere has to be created for the clients to open up otherwise we just get superficial drama skimming along the surface. Other times when the clines arrives, they are bursting to get going on an issue and we can dive in deeply very quickly. One client might only need to look at the masks to go into a process, while another would need to see the mask inhabited on another participant . While others might need to put the mask on and loose them self in it for a while before getting to a point where we can process it and work more consciously. So no two sessions is the same, and that is what keeps me going.

10. How does it work?

The mask has two sides, the inside and the out side. The out side is created by the mask maker, containing information like a cipher: Shape, features, expressions, texture, colour. The inside is then used in a dramatic way by bringing it alive in the body, with shape, rhythm and feeling. So it works in two very different ways.

We can either create them or use them, and both are effective therapeutic activities.

A mask created with a specific feeling, character or archetype in mind helps the client to focus and concentrate on a particular theme. These could be a feeling like anger, or depression, or the theme could be something archetypal, like a mentor, a devil, the shadow. Working on such themes by drawing, and modelling in clay requires the client to ask questions about the subject which deepens ones relationship to it.

Masks can also be created spontaneously in a very short period of time, which by passes the intellect and taps into the unconscious. This can bring up deep material which can be processed in the second stage of using the mask. Some times clients are invited to design masks blind folded, which gives rise to many rich and varied themes to create the mask from.

The inside of the mask is filled with the body of the client. The body needs to comply with the mask, with the appropriate shape, rhythm, emotion, sound and energy. So the mask works as a focus for the energy of the client. Representing an extreme, a total one-sidedness the mask requires the users to live in that extreme for a moment, to totally forget all ells, and enter into the one-sidedness with ones whole being. When the mask is removed from the clients face, the body shape, rhythm, sound and energy is left behind as well. This can offer two outcomes. Firstly the client usually feels energised, and alive, as a degree of catharsis has taken place. Secondly this extreme has been used at the will of the user. So a client who is working with their anger, has poured that energy into the mask with out destroying anything, entering into it at their own will, and exiting, leaving it behind. This objectifies the extreme and gives it a name and the possibility to begin a conscious relationship to it.

The masks can also work by having another client, a player putting it on, so the protagonist client can have a dialogue with it, exploring in the safe work shop environment what it might t be like to handle ones own conflicting energies in a rehearsal for life.

11. How does peoples work/ behaviour change through sessions. Is there a pattern to this?

Over time the client develops a relation ship to the different parts of them self, entering more and more deeply to the core of the issue or conflict which they are experiencing. This work is about intrapersonal relationships, the handling of one self in the most constructive, creative and productive way. Clients usually become more objective about them selves, developing more self esteem, creativity and courage.

About the author:

Article written by Michael Chase

Author: Michael Chase
Copyright © 2023 Michael Chase. All rights reserved

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