Trance Masks club puts a new spin on improv

Cydney Hayes, Reporter

Putting on a mask is the perfect way to find a more authentic face for Communication junior Alexander Kohanski.

Kohanski is the founder of Northwestern’s Trance Masks club, which, starting Oct. 18, will meet weekly to perform with small papier-mache faces that cover the top of the wearer’s forehead to the top of his or her lips. Trance masks are decorated with paint, faux hair and other accessories to give each mask its own distinct persona. When people put on new masks and look in the mirror for the first time, they assume an entirely new identity, Kohanski said.

“Trance masks allow you to take a break from your personality, take a break from your social self,” Kohanski said. “Just practicing with the masks once feels so freeing — it feels like you dropped something you didn’t need to be carrying.”

This brief departure from oneself is not only fun, but also can be very helpful when it comes to managing the stress of college, Kohanski said. To encourage fellow NU students to temporarily say goodbye to their everyday selves, Kohanski has recently taken steps to promote the Trance Masks club on campus.

The first 30 minutes of each session will be dedicated to a warm up that resembles an improvisation workshop, and the last hour will be set aside for developing each mask’s personality, which, Kohanski said, grows every time the same person wears the same mask.

Kohanski’s club held an information session earlier this month to give the audience a taste of what trance masks are and how they can benefit students. Since the spring of 2015, Kohanski has been backed by Wave Productions, a student-run theater board on campus.

“Wave helps people find their passions and bring those passions to the rest of campus,” said Communication senior Matt Dial, Wave’s special events coordinator. “I think (trance masks) could interest anyone, but to a degree, our target niche is students with some improv knowledge.”

Last spring, Kohanski held two trance mask workshops as a trial-run for the club. Members of Wave as well as individuals from the broader theater community participated in the sessions, including Wave’s campus engagement coordinator Jason Clark.

“The masks add somewhat of a spiritual element to the culture of Northwestern that is so good for students with strict schedules,” the Communication junior said. “Stepping back from tangible stress and being a part of something slower, something almost mystical, can be very beneficial.”

This lack of preparation that Clark appreciated is one of the core tenets of trance mask performance created by Keith Johnstone, a British improvisation specialist, and preserved by his student Steve Jarand. Jarand taught Kohanski the summer before his sophomore year at NU while he worked at Jarand’s Loose Moose Theater Company in Calgary, Alberta.

According to Jarand’s website, he only holds trance mask sessions in Canada and Europe, so Kohanski’s club promises to be not only fun, but also a very rare experience.

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