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Updated: January 7, 2013 14:49 IST

Masks of meaning

Parul Sharma Singh
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Experiencing India: Dr. Terry J. Converse.
Experiencing India: Dr. Terry J. Converse.

A specialist in the use of masks in drama, Fulbright scholar Terry J. Converse has discovered genuine love for theatre among Indians during his stint in regional theatre

When the medium is as strong and stimulating as theatre, language hardly poses any hindrance. Perhaps that’s what drove American theatre professor Terry J. Converse, an expert in mask characterisation, to get associated with the Cochin-based Lokadharmi theatre company for his six-month-long Fulbright scholarship in India. 

A professor at the Washington State University for the last 22 years, Dr. Converse teaches direction and specialises in the use of masks in theatre.

He was in Amritsar recently, along with the cast and crew of Lokadharmi to perform ‘Draupadi’ in Malayalam on the last day of the 10 National Theatre Festival organised by the city-based Manch-Rangmanch group.

The play analysed the relationship between a contemporary Indian girl and the epic character Draupadi — delving into the many layers of the Pandava queen’s complex life.

Dr. Converse, who helped in the creation and use of masks for the play, sees “a lot of genuine love” among people for theatre in India. “It is unlike in the U.S., where people have little value for the love of arts, despite having some of the finest institutions in the world. In India, my most positive observation has been sensing an appreciation in people, probably because there is a lot of theatre happening in different cultures. It perhaps comes out of their temples and their villages. Here, theatre is not elitist like in the U.S.,” he points out.

He adds, “I have seen a lot of traditional theatre in Cochin and other parts of Kerala. People seem to have grown up with theatre. I deliberately chose a theatre group for my scholarship as I did not want to be associated with any university structure. While conducting workshops for Lokadharmi, of course, language was a huge barrier. But Chandradasan [artistic director and founder-member of the group] was an effective translator and could make his actors, most of whom speak Malayalam, understand the nuances of my mask techniques.”

As a Fulbright visiting lecturer, Dr. Converse brings his expertise in exploring cross-cultural themes in contemporary world theatre to this Cochin-based group. Highlighting the role of the mask as an acting tool, his three-month workshop with

Lokadharmi focused on encouraging actors to use body language more effusively since they could no longer use their faces to emote.

“Mask workshops are about aesthetics, performance and technique. When you take away the face, how to communicate becomes a challenge for an actor. The focus then is on physicalising an emotion and various body movements,” he explains.

“An actor has to create various characters using these masks and their body language. We made the participants dress in black and they would emote in front of the mirror. The idea is to strip them of any kind of self-identity. The mask becomes powerful then and we see an immediate transformation in these actors as they become a completely new person.”

Dr. Converse’s mask workshops with Lokadharmi have been warmly received and will result in a new production — a Malayalam translation of the famous play The Elephant Man written by Bernard Pomerance. 

With his scholarship ending in February next year, the American professor plans to travel extensively across India and experience various other forms of theatre in the meanwhile.

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