Hi, I’m Carolyn Cronin and I’ve been a member of People’s Company for three months. Before moving to Southwark I’d never acted – acting was scary, for those more confident than me, or unavailable. Luckily, I discovered People’s Company and during my short membership I’ve learned a lot about myself, my capabilities, and my creativity.
Our first session building up to The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle, was one of my favourites. I have the honour of being the first People’s Company member to write for this blog, and of telling you about it. If you think it sounds fun, do come along next week! We are based at Southwark Playhouse.
When I arrived at the theatre—after trekking through the kind of downpour only appreciated following a heatwave—soothing music filled our rehearsal space. These melodies, symbolic of melodrama, played throughout the session and set a thoughtful mood. The atmosphere felt different immediately: Constantine’s cameras stood on tripods, ready to film us for the project; a table strewn with props stood at one end of the room. We were all intrigued.
Diving straight in, our first activity explored melodrama’s origins in Greek theatre. Volunteers took turns reading facts ranging from theatre architecture, typical genres, and Greek deities. We discussed them in more detail after each reading. Learning about melodrama’s history was a good introduction, as not only did it give us a better understanding of what we were about to explore, reading aloud limbered us up for performing.
Next up, we used masks! In groups of four, we took to the stage and John assigned us each a simple, white paper mask with one of three expressions: smiling, frowning, and neutral. I was part of the first group and received a smiling mask. With John’s guidance, we adopted the mask’s personality in a short, silent performance accompanied by music.
Thanks to People’s Company, I’m comfortable improvising with words, or learning and rehearsing lines – this kind of performance was new to me. I found the experience daunting initially. Moving around and engaging the audience felt difficult; I did nothing but stand and smile behind the mask. However, once I turned to my fellow actors I felt compelled to hug them and cheer them up with my smile alone. Still, the mask stifled me. I felt stiff and awkward.
From the audience, I realised how masks conceal the wearer: you’d expect to see their eyes and mouths behind them, but you can’t – the mask itself is the focus. Watching the others move about the space taught me a lot. Sad faces combined with cowering postures and hand wringing. Happy ones danced around and threw their arms in the air. Those in neutral masks acted shocked, angry, or curious. Movement was more important than ever!
After this practise, John arranged the masks on the floor and asked us to walk amongst them until we felt drawn to one. A frowning face drew me in, as I’d already acted with a smile. Once we’d chosen, we had time to decorate our mask however we wanted.
For some reason—I’m still not sure why—I decided to colour one half of my frowning mask blue and leave the other white. I emphasised its expression with wrinkles, frown lines, and eye-bags.
Our next performances were as before, with groups improvising with a mixture of expressions, only this time personalisation added an extra layer of meaning. It was amazing how the masks’ decorations changed the scenes. Instead of sad, happy, or neutral actions, whole characters sprung to life before my eyes. When we allowed the masks to move us, stories formed naturally despite the lack of speech. Improvised scenes had the audience in stitches, or aww-ing sympathetically.
Eloy’s mask, with a lolling tongue and exaggerated smile, made him act with a cheeky, inquisitive nature. He poked and prodded at Kim’s sad mask and mimed pulling her from her hiding place with a long rope.
Barton’s mask looked bloody and bruised. On his knees, he reached out to me. I wanted to comfort him initially, but once I took his hand the feeling flipped. It was almost as if he was trying to pull me towards danger, instead of begging for my help. If his mask wasn’t decorated, I doubt its impact would have been as strong.
More experienced with the masks, I felt freer during my second performance. I didn’t have to worry about my expression – I could adopt the mask’s.
During my scene, I made use of the halved element of my mask. While I was unhappy—slumping to the floor, hiding in corners, covering my face with my hands—I was open to being rescued from my sorrow. When Lillian came to me, I noticed colourful flowers covered her mask. She mimed handing them to me and helped me from the floor, leading me around the space while I cowered behind her. Again, if my mask was a plain frown, I think I’d have refused and remained on the ground – my personalisation and interpretation of the mask defined its character and changed the story.
Overall, it was a fascinating session and I thoroughly enjoyed playing with masks. Learning the basics of melodrama—as we’ve only scratched the surface—was a great way to start skill-building to tell the Coronet’s story.
I’m already looking forward to next week, as I know there’s a lot more to explore!
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Past present future
Music and animation
Euan Vincent on Horror
Tiberius Chis on Chaplin
Final Curtain Call
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Walworth Street Festival
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital