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'Bruce Marrs’ Masks



Deborah Bell

Surely mask makers deserve their own category of expertise and artistry.Most serious mask makers—those who spend years developing their craft and reputation—acknowledge that they do not become wealthy based on their efforts. Yet muses of all sorts beckon them to continue in their work, as my recent interview with Bruce Marrs confirms...


Bruce Marrs wearing one of his demon masks, at Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, June, 2001.

1) Back in the twenties, Madam Blavatsky and others started the theosophical Society. This was the big West discovers East movement of the time.Krisnamurti was a 13 year old boy who was recognized as the next avatar, and groomed so.Very intelligent, clear, articulate.At nineteen he quit, said the guru biz was critically flawed, quit being a guru, and just spoke and wrote for the rest of his life.He has many books in print, mostly excerpts of his speeches at Universities. --

Editor's note.


Bruce Marrs wearing one of his demon masks, at Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, June, 2001.


Bruce Marrs

Bruce Marrs, a mask maker/performer/teacher for Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre for the past sixteen years, likes to work with his hands.Bruce Marrs’ muse insists that he have his hands on form; he must grope and wonder and learn through his hands.He explains that “then there is the hand/eye thing.I see a face, in reality or in my mind, and then I try to transfer that vision through the “mind” of my creative hand back to what my eye sees (again) which contemplates further what my hand hath wrought.My hands proceed to contemplate by sculpting and editing once again.The love affair between my eye and hand continue.”For Bruce, the paradox that masks reveal more than they conceal, makes them personal tools to explore the mystery of who we are.Bruce’s obsession rests in the ever compelling, ever constant mystery of the essential, distinctive humanity in each individual he tries to portray with his masks.

Bruce began his theatre career as a dancer, dancing with, and choreographing for, The Oregon Dance Theatre, The Human Dancing Company, and Southern Oregon Light Opera.He studied mime in Paris with Marcel Marceau, Etienne Decroux, and James Keylon.He acted a season with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and was a solo talking mime nightclub performer.He appeared with Vincent Price who called him the funniest mime he ever saw.Marrs was the creature movement specialist for the 1998 Godzilla, spending a year in a “motion capture computer suit” and rubber creature suit in Los Angeles.In addition to teaching at Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, he has been a guest teacher and director at various universities across the country.

Bruce understands the power of movement and music when combined with the mask.While living in Ashland, he had a friend whom he admired as a dancer and as a mask maker named Leo DeFlambeau.Leo’s masks spoke to Bruce.Bruce says, “They invited character and movement from me.I had kinesthetic responses to his masks, and I wanted to act—to give them life and let them live in me and through me.”

“I was also somebody who could “see” and draw, to some extent.Later, in 1985, I took a commedia workshop at Dell’Arte.We did mask making.I was an arrogant student, the kind I don’t like to teach.I wanted to be left alone to make masks, and not have the intervention of my teacher.Actually it was more passion than arrogance.My first mask was a demon-priest.I called him the Inquisitor.It was a good mask.I was interested in materials and usage from my first teacher, but not art, as I felt he didn’t have much to teach me there.”

“Later, I learned from a lot of teachers and mask makers.Gina Bastone, the crazy genius clown from Canada, taught me about large eye-holes so the actor could act with the eyes, and about shading the perimeter of the mask to give depth as well as the necessity to really sand spackle to make papier-mâché smooth.Then I taught mask making, and eventually taught students who had more talent, or more of a history of inquiry into art than I did.They went on to become mask makers, took everything they learned from me, and advanced on their own talent.I stole from them, competed with them, learned viscously, and learned from these students.They included Joe Dieffenbacher, Cristine Cook, and even students of theirs.I am so grateful for their creative leaps forward.”

While Bruce often performs solo using his own masks, he has a history of collaborating with others on theatre, film, television, and dance projects.He adapts well to various situations.He says, “If I have plaster positives of the actors, or if I have the good fortune of time and resources to make those positives of the actors, then in working with those positives, I am both consciously and unconsciously responding to the relationship between the actors’ faces and those of the characters they will play.In other words, I do my best, but something better than my best frequently emerges.There are qualities and life essences that come into the mask that I didn’t consciously design.Here again is the mystery that makes this work so fascinating.Then, if the production team is smart, they will allow me time with the actors and the masks, to give the actors a few mask-performance/craft notions that will help them to play the mask and to discover the unintended nuances of the mask.”

“I enjoy directing physical theatre, but I greatly enjoy working under a director too.I enjoy the relationship with a director, not being responsible for all that a director does, but the way that music directors and choreographers and designers work with directors.I enjoy taking what vision the director can communicate with me, running it through my own vision, and advancing the whole of it.I enjoy the co-discovery with a director and a cast.We are all artists.We are using the known to explore the unknown.Why else would we do this?”

Most muses demand some sort of quiet personal preparation that involves focusing or praying or meditating when beginning a project.How does Bruce psychologically and emotionally prepare for a new project in mask work?“This question reminds me of Krisnamurti’s considerations about the notion of meditation.One meditates, one finishes meditating, and then is not meditating?” he responds.“I’m never not an artist, and the bank is never empty.Well, that’s probably not true.I’m often stupid and dull. But I think that my own interest is almost always at work.Paddling a kayak against a wind is like the drama that ends up in a mask.The pain for the price of existence doesn’t get dissipated between life experience and the process of creating a mask.Beauty, a Goddess herself, thrashes us around and demands our witness.Yes, I acknowledge her demands, but I know her biblically through my own hands.So when I begin a mask, I know that I have begun already, long ago.My hands are ready to discover.There is already a question that I have been asking, about eyes, about corners of the lips, about movement as large as the human scale and as small as the nuance of mannerisms.I’m already prepared to investigate these questions through clay and the movement of my hands.I don’t want to purify or clear anything out first.Life does not exist independently of my torture and stupidity and glory and loss and foolish hope.I do not want to disavow all that experience from my new investigation.Rather, I want to learn, to reflect on all that muck, mire, and beauty of the movement that moves me to create.”

“All this does not diminish the need to consciously prepare.If I am to make a mask of an African Queen, then I will want to look at African masks, I will want to study African faces, and wonder about queenliness, the price of power, aloneness—all that—but that inquiry is wonder about all that, wonder about animals, about the notion of awareness that makes us supposedly different from animals, about the paradox of our animal and divine nature, and about the formlessness that is the design behind all form.This is my meditation.There is no place to rest from it.”

Masks have such power in exaggeration, they often relate on some mythic or archetypal level.When asked how extensively he incorporates myth and archetypal images in his mask work Bruce replies, “Well, I don’t know about myth.I guess if it is a true myth, then the images are archetypal.Archetypal means that the images, or memories, or invocations transcend any particular culture, and translate through the limitations and prejudices of any culture.I don’t respect anybody’s culture.I’m not multi-cultural at all.I hold that your particular culture embarrasses you more than supports you.Get over it.Honor your ancestors, but get over their silly cultural limitations.Be a cultural traveler, a borrower, a wanderer, an artist at the service of evolution.”

He concludes with the following idea.“The archetypal image moves forward from the mystery of the past.It takes something truer than culture forward—it advances the human drama and the unfolding of all that through the beliefs, prejudices, and limitations of current or past cultures.It is true that some archetypes die and some are born new from an evolutionary standpoint.Stereotypes don’t transcend cultures.They live and flourish in the limitations and prejudices of a particular culture, and die in the light of education, or a greater perspective.But archetypes live, and lurk, deeper than the light of our inquiry can shine, and we, as storytellers, can catch a ride on them as they move forward, beyond us.”

When asked how his sense of honesty and what makes a good mask factors into his final product, Bruce responds, “I hope I get lucky.I believe in luck.I think luck can be cultivated.I don’t know about honesty.I am as honest as I am and I don’t worry about it.I don’t mind stealing from everyone.Any notion that I steal goes through my own fingers and that is as much purification as I might need.I don’t know what honesty means.I guess it begins first with one’s self.I’m in search of knowing this self.But I’m also hip to the notion that the search itself can be a distraction from knowing what is probably too close to be noticed.So, I don’t know about honesty.It will take care of itself.”

Bruce admits that he is not interested in recreating what already exists in his conscious mind.He believes he is here to make mistakes, to take risks, to be affected by forces he doesn’t necessarily understand.He wants to discover and be surprised.“If I make a good mask,” he says, “it will have something of what I intended in it, but it will have something in it that I didn’t know I intended, and I will be able to see it and say ah-hah!A good mask must be interesting to look at, and remain interesting.A good mask must inform the actor, enrich and compel.A good mask must work without the need of the actor to work so hard.A good mask requires the actor to relax and trust that the mask is working; it will require the actor to get out of the way a bit.I need to be reminded of this last notion all the time.All of us actors seem to need this reminder: to not work so hard, to trust that the mask is working, that the magic is there, and to give it the time and space to work.”

“Those of us who make masks though do not perform in them need to remind ourselves of the mask’s ultimate purpose.What looks good on a wall or at the crafts table does not necessarily have the power or ability to facilitate the performer’s story.The temptation to incorporate extraneous detail, textures or color can too easily distract the audience.”Bruce insists that the mask either has magic or it does not.It can easily look more like a lampshade on someone’s head.While the craft of the performer bears much responsibility for the success of the mask, good acting craft cannot compensate for a dead mask.There is the amazing fact that any mask, plus the actor, combines to create a third thing.With good masked performance, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but a great mask will shape the actors more than be shaped by them.

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Experiencing Bruce Marrs’ Mask Making Workshop

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