Masking – the key to keeping the magic in theatre

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Do you remember when stage managers automatically checked that everything, but everything, was masked from the ends of the front row? If so, you probably have a bus pass. Many SMs still do check, but the evidence indicates that their suggestions, if not entirely ignored, are often treated with disdain.

Once upon a time, we backstagers thought of ourselves as magicians charged with doing everything
possible to support the suspension of disbelief. Our ambition was that the audience would accept our illusions as reality during the performance and then come out of the theatre wondering, “How was that done?”.

The curious could find out with a little research but we never thrust the mechanics of theatre on the consciousness of those we sought to entertain and enlighten. Hiding the technology was a matter of professional pride.

Then scenic illusion became unfashionable, ousted by visual metaphors. No longer was there a rising curtain to arouse expectation. Revealed to the assembling audience was a significant object in a bleak space with nowhere for the actor to sit down. Awaiting the start of the play, excited chatter became whispers. As a result of rampant misinterpretation of Brecht’s alienation theories, the atmosphere was deliberately keyed towards putting entertainment on the back burner.

[pullquote]To expose all is a legitimate production style. But if there is to be masking, can we please try harder for the likes of those who think of theatre as a house of magic?[/pullquote]

Distancing ourselves from emotional involvement with the characters, we were gathered to worry about serious issues –  beginning with trying to analyse the significance of the metaphor represented by the abstract sculpture that had replaced decor. Indeed, decor became just about the most politically incorrect word in the vocabulary of anyone seeking a serious theatre career.

By and large, however, the actors continued to portray realism – as most plays are about real people in real situations, they had little option.

The disappearance of the box set with its French windows and drinks table behind the sofa did not immediately herald the decline of masking. Significant metaphoric objects tended to be surrounded by masking boxes which eschewed canvas in pursuit of structural reality rather than illusion of reality. But not always successfully – I lit a 1960s show where the masking was steel plates but the fibreglass floor looked much more like steel.

Ceilings had gone but borders were carefully deaded to ensure that no lighting, not so much as a barndoor flap, was visible. Lighting booms were set well off-stage and tight to the masking legs to ensure that they were concealed from all but the very worst sight lines from the stage boxes.

Then exposure became fashionable. Masking was flown out to bare all. The height of  avant-garde was to reveal the radiator on the back wall.

Musicals, of course, continued to be a haven of illusion and their painted scenery gradually reappeared in the playhouses – albeit with some difficulty as we had lost a generation of scenic artists. Masking returned in a haphazard way, with token borders and legs doing little to conceal the lights. It would be charitable to hope that this was for the convenience of the lighting design, but cynicism suggests that masking is just not considered important any more.

Of course, I generalise. There are designers who still calculate every sight line in their models, plans and sections. There are theatres that take a pride in their masking if the production company will allow. But the trend towards token masking seems to be on the increase. Perhaps the audience has become so used to the sight of exposed technology that they no longer notice it – just as the Georgian audience thought nothing of an actor entering a forest through a proscenium door.

To expose all is a legitimate production style. But if there is to be masking, can we please try harder for the likes of this old codger who still thinks of theatre as a house of magic?