Mask without the Mask

Updated: Aug 2

Mask without the Mask

One of my signature exercises at the School of Improv is ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ It’s a way to play with masks even if you don’t have any.


The exercise involves mimicking someone's expression to create an imaginary mask to create a character. It works great for online classes as well.


Here’s how I was inspired to create it, and how to play it...

Mask and Improv have gone hand in hand for centuries. The commedia dell'arte performers of the sixteenth century would improvise around popular scenarios and stock masked characters, some of them becoming huge stars that played for Kings and Queens and amassed fortunes.


Fast-forward six hundred years and commedia dell’arte is all but lost, but its essence and joy is still alive and thrilling audiences through modern mask work.

I have used my own set of masks, lovingly made with layers of paper mache and glue for years. They live in a special case on my shelf and I sometimes hear them calling at night!



About twenty years ago I was teaching an improv workshop where I was trying to get the class to act on instinct, to get them out of their heads and truly in the moment. I knew masks would be the perfect answer. I had worked with Improv master Keith Johnstone in Canada and his ‘Trance Mask’ style was truly transformative for me. There is something strange and almost super natural about the way we become ‘something other’ when we put on a mask – no wonder some people are terrified of them! But alas I didn’t have my masks with me. What could I do? Then in the bathroom as I splashed water on my face and looked in the mirror it came to me. I had always been blessed (or cursed) with a stupidly expressive face!

Feel free to scream


I could be the mask!

A mask has a fixed expression – a moment frozen in time. The audience project life onto it. It is a side effect of pareidolia – the brains tendency to find patterns and faces in random objects.


I know!

So, I went back into the class and invited them to come up one by one and copy the expression I made. They had to keep it frozen just like a mask – never letting it drop. To add some ritual to it (all good mask work starts with a ritual to create an atmosphere of ‘other’) I asked them to place their hands on either side of my face and imagine they were pulling of a tight latex mask from my face, and then fitting it to their own face. It would be so tight that it would mould their face into an approximation of mine. They were not doing an impression of me, but had to let the ‘mask’ change them.

They were not allowed to see themselves, they just had to 'see' how this expression made them feel. Then I invited them to make a vocal sound that seemed right for their new face.


The transformations were amazing! Suddenly there was a room full of weird and wonderful characters. Next, we started swapping each other’s expressions. We now had a bottomless chest of masks to try on and play with, each unique and born in the moment.

I named it the ‘Mask of Fu Manchu’ after a famous super villain who had the power to mesmerise his victims and it is now of my go-to exercises when teaching.

Give it a go, and if you have any questions about the exercise drop me a line.

Keep safe and carry on Improvising. x

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, UK

+44 (0) 333 050 9463

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