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The Body and Mask in Ancient Theatre Space - home page

The Body and Mask in Ancient Theatre Space - Research Project

Research Questions

The proposal concerns the body and mask in ancient drama - specifically in terms of intercultural performance and perceptual experience. Using leading-edge 3D technologies it will address fundamental questions concerning the conditions and actualities of the ancient theatre. What can be inferred of the actor’s technique and use of mask and body? How does their semiosis relate to other performance traditions and to constants of human perception? How were these phenomena experienced in the differing theatre spaces of Greece and Rome? How can one reconcile the roles of practice and study of the surviving iconography in this research process, and how can 3D technologies be brought to bear at their interface?

Other questions derive from these that concern the anthropology and psychology disciplines: how do theatre-related artefacts (such as miniature masks and statuettes) function within material culture, and what is their communicatory role? How does perception of masks compare with that of mobile human faces,  and how far can methodologies concerning visual perception inform that of the ancient mask? Is it possible to situate masks of different types and periods within multi-dimensional ‘face space,’ and how could this illuminate long-standing problems of classification?

Bringing together representatives of different UK research traditions on ancient drama, the Project aims to carry into new domains the use of 3-dimensional technologies to recover the practice of ancient mask theatre, situate it within virtual worlds, and contextualise it with reference to mask traditions of other cultures. The application takes account of feedback to a bid submitted through the University of Glasgow in 2003, notably by specifying plans to integrate the performance research within 3-dimensional ancient theatre spaces. 

Aims and Objectives:

  • 3D scan selected ancient mask miniatures, including those of Roman periods and of tragedy, and create by 3D printing artefact-size replicas and full-size masks for practice-based research.
  • Conduct dynamic 3D motion capture involving practitioners from different world performance traditions.
  • Situate the resulting data in virtual ancient theatre spaces, and interrogate the results for their significance for theatre studies and for wider research communities.
  • Co-organise events - public exhibitions, workshop conferences and performances - to promote the study of ancient drama as a vital legacy within world masking performative traditions.
  • Consolidate the resulting Project assets into the Institute of Classical Studies Theatre Archive and develop that resource as a UK study centre for ancient drama.

Research Context

Different UK and continental research traditions have addressed the iconography of ancient theatre masks and performers - notably the programme based over the past 60 years at the Institute of Classical Studies - but have done so from a primarily archaeological perspective. More recently David Wiles' groundbreaking Masks of Menander has helped prompt a shift towards performance, exemplified by the research through practice of scholars and directors such as C.W. Marshall, Greg McCart and Thanos Vovolis, while in the field of intercultural performance the work of Eugenio Barba is especially germane. Other congruent research initiatives in the study of performance have included PARIP, the Centre for cross-cultural Music and Dance Performance, and those more specific to ancient drama (the APGRD, CADRE, and the Open University Reception Project). Much however remains to be done, particularly in harnessing new technologies to create more valid and informative datasets and to obviate wherever possible subjective mediation of the abundant ancient iconography.

Two initiatives which have led the way in this respect, and whose investigators will join forces for this Project, are the 3D reconstruction of theatre spaces undertaken at Warwick under the direction of the present applicants, and the AHRB Menander Masks Project at Glasgow, in which theatre-related artefacts were central to the investigation of the performance of New Comedy. The Warwick team – which from September 2005 will be employed at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College – has created highly accurate and detailed models of numerous ancient theatres (such as the Theatre of Pompey) which have challenged established views of the performance and staging conditions. Working chiefly with early Hellenistic comic masks, the Glasgow Project has investigated the hypothesis that the better quality miniatures hold sufficient information to scale up objectively to a performable mask, exhibiting aspects and observing ratios for correct fit. They are thus not only the best available evidence for the lost originals, but far more informative than hitherto realised: the process chain of 3D scanning and reverse engineering the mask thereby assumes prime importance as a means of accessing latent information. The synergy of these research teams will bring practice-based research inside the ancient theatre space itself. Situated at the intersection of transcultural performance studies, theatre anthropology and computer science, the Project aims to establish objective metrics to document the specifics of ancient masked performance using virtual environments, and to promote the study and recuperation of ancient mask practice by creative interchange with practitioners of Eastern traditions.

The Project activities will interest different research communities in the following ways:

 - 3-dimensional scanning of selected artefacts will record information that hitherto could be only partially and subjectively sensed (e.g. through 2D photographs). The creation of replica artefacts by rapid prototyping will facilitate their study by researchers in classics, archaeology and theatre studies. Deposited in the Theatre Archive of the Institute of Classical Studies, they will enhance and supplement the largest existing resource on ancient theatre monuments. But it is anticipated that they will also interest the facial perception research community as examples of caricatured faces designed to convey changing cues of expression whilst remaining immobile.

 -  The use of 3D motion capture to record practice-based research (following extensive successful proof of concept work by the Glasgow and Warwick teams) will be directly relevant for studies of performance -  notably for how it can inform precise description of gesture and movement, and qualities such as  breathing, energy, and dilation. It will also help to conceptualise notions of virtual performance. Involving practitioners from key Asiatic traditions, who will be imaged using both Greco-Roman masks and masks of their own traditions, the work will have wide cross-cultural relevance. The output footage, being repeatable and manipulable in 3D environments, will form an objective basis to investigate perception of masked performance, and to isolate how specifics of shapes, tensions and body configuration are read both by those acquainted with different performance traditions and those unfamiliar with them.  The location of these results in 3-dimensional ancient theatres will raise issues relating to performance spaces and their history of general interest within theatre studies, including the difficulties of working with masks in large semicircular auditoria, and the differing experiences of mask and body for spectators at different angles and distances to the stage.

 - The Project will organise a series of international workshop conferences, involving leading practitioners and academics working on their respective traditions (such as Phillip Zarilli, John Emigh and Sears Eldredge), and will publish the proceedings. The conferences provide an opportunity for practitioners to share and interrogate findings, and the published outputs will be of relevance to classics and theatre studies communities.

 - The presentation of these activities through both museum exhibitions and live performances will be public manifestations of the research endeavour in the different strands of the Project. The Project will seek to build on the success of the exhibition Behind the Mask (Banbury Museum, 2003) in which replicas of New Comedy artefacts as display and handling objects with a video installation of performance were situated within a presentation of masks of different major traditions. The Project will propose an enlarged configuration of this exhibition to UK and continental museums, potentially including antiquities as loan objects.

 - The Project will include a production dimension, following successful performances of Menander's Epitrepontes in Lecce and Siracusa, and Dyscolus (Milan, 2004) organised by the Glasgow AHRB Project in collaboration with Venezia INscena, in which for the first time New Comedy plays were presented using both an authentic small cast sharing masks and roles, and masks reconstructed by objective criteria. The Project would make in-kind contributions (masks, costumes, academic consultancy) to further productions by this troupe, and facilitate others by companies from Asiatic traditions, to maximise the diffusion of the research into non-European traditions.


Investigation of Roman period and tragic masks will be conducted by practitioners whose discovery of the masks and potential physicalities will be informed by their own traditions; they will be encouraged to constructively interrogate these methodologies at the workshop conferences. The procedure will be to select a small number of world class performers from major mask traditions in India, Bali, Japan and Italy for 3D motion capture using a specific range of ancient mask reconstructions, and to examine their gestures and body language in terms of commonalities and differences when animating the aspects of these masks. Each performer will be specially chosen for their links to a specific tradition and training institution but also for their track record in transcultural performance.

This process will provide objective frameworks to critique existing conceptions of the body in performance, such as Barba's intercultural postulate of ‘pre-expressivity’. It will seek to isolate quantifiable variables in the configurations of the mask and body movement that affect the perception of viewers of greater or less experience of masked traditions, and to define cross-cultural validities and discrepancies within the emergent field of theatre anthropology.

The work will also implicate a range of methodologies at the Arts / Science interface regarding communication, and the relative saliency of face, body, gesture, speech and other contextual cues. These include within the textual dimension conversation analysis and pragmatics, with specific application to Roman Comedy in terms of joke theory and repetition, and also those of Wallace Chafe (and in classical studies E.J. Bakker) relating to consciousness and flow of information in discourse. Relevant methodologies current in facial perception studies concern facial form, expression and movement. Competing theories of how faces are stored and recognised (by key features, shape from shading or holistic processing) will be of relevance to the masks both when still and in movement. Especially important for modern attempts to classify them with reference to Pollux's types is the debate as to whether faces are categorised by their deviations from abstract exemplars or from populations in their entirety. The application of Principal Component Analysis to extract dimensions of distinctiveness from populations of faces, and to situate them within ‘face space,’ will be piloted with 2 and 3D images of the masks (using PCA software to be made available through collaboration with the Perception Lab at St. Andrews). Likewise caricaturing and anti-caricaturing software may help identify potential ‘superportrait’ effects in the masks. Issues concerning the own-race/other-race coding advantage are also potentially relevant to slave and grotesque masks which exhibit the systematic opposites of approved classical facial types.

Masks Project