Brenda Monaghan has been practicing expressive mask and physical based theatre processes as a performer, director and teacher for over 25 years. She has trained at the The Grotowski Institute in Brzezinka, Poland, with master teachers Dawid Zakowski (Poland), Raul Iaiza (Argentina) & Roberta Secchi (Italy), in Grotowski based processes (2009); she has a Post Graduate Degree in ‘Methodologies for Actor Training’ at the Victorian College of the Arts (2008) where she was awarded The Orloff Family Scholarship for outstanding achievement in post graduate studies; she has trained intensely in Ariane Mnouchkines expressive mask processes with Marie Dumont (Ecole Jacques Lecoq teacher); in Etienne Decroux’s corporeal movement techniques with Leisa Shelton (Meryl Tankard Company); and in directing and devising processes with theatre director Jenny Kemp (Melbourne, 1995 & 2008).
Brenda trained in Paris at Ecole Philippe Gaulier (2003) in Mask, Le Jeu and Clowning techniques, she also trained in Paris with movement coach Lilo Baur from Complicite (2003); she was awarded a Fresh Grounds Grant from the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporay Arts to develop her work ‘Slow’ (2011); she trained with Krisztya Bodonyi in Eastern European theatre techniques (Sydney, 2000); with David Latham (former Dean of VCA) in Neutral and Expressive Mask (3 years, VCA Melbourne); she trained intensively with June Jago (Master Shakespeare Teacher 1996 -1998); she completed a ‘Bachelor in Acting’ at the Victorian College of the Arts (1993-1995); she founded Scatterbox Theatre Company where she directed and produced five productions (2004 – 2007) – this included original works that toured with the Brisbane City Council, as well as devising, directing and staging a commissioned theatre production for Southbank Corporation (2006). She has produced and directed shows at Red Stitch Theatre (Melbourne, 2004) and at Metro Arts (Brisbane, 2005 & 2006).
Brenda co devised, performed, and facilitated a theatre event and workshops for Proper Job Theatre Company in the U.K. touring throughout Northern England (2009). She has also worked as an actor professionally for over ten years in television, film, and theatre (Melbourne, Sydney, UK, & New Zealand). Brenda has taught at Monash University (Melbourne), The National Theatre School (Melbourne); QUT University (Brisbane); Actors Daily Practice Space (Brisbane, Melbourne); Griffith University Applied Theatre Program (Brisbane); and Backbone Youth Arts (Brisbane). She founded Mask, Movement and Character Workshops in 2018 and currently tours workshops for actors and performers, down the east coast of Australia. She has been teaching Research & Development Labs to professional actors since May 2009 as well as being a freelance character movement coach for directors, choreographers, and theatremakers.
Brenda is also a mask maker and makes full expressive masks.
For over twenty years I have been working, teaching, and creating with mask and physical theatre practices. My introduction to the neutral and expressive mask began in 1993, when I was studying to be an actor at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), David Latham was my teacher and the Dean of the VCA (Drama) at that time.
My first experience of the mask was overwhelming and powerful. As a shy 20-year-old struggling with confidence, I was transported into a dimension of something far greater than my little actor self. With immediacy the neutral mask released me from my personal insecurities and for the first time I felt as though I was completely myself and yet not myself.
In retrospect it could be called a condition of neutrality – completely present and unhindered by my personal story. I felt a deep, almost spiritual connection to the neutral mask and without hesitation I journeyed across awe-inspiring landscapes and embodied elements with my whole being, all the while present and in control.
What laid the groundwork for this experience was my pre-expressive training at the VCA which prepared my kinesthetic awareness and impulse faculties for the work with the mask. I still vividly recall memories of my first experience with the expressive masks. With David’s permissive and expert guidance, characters beyond my scope and years instantaneously emerged with authentic conviction, physical abandon and absolute presence. Most of all the experience evoked in me a sense of pure joy, I felt creatively free and more alive than ever.
My passion for the mask and need to further my understanding of an embodied approach to creation, led me to undertake numerous projects and work with many teachers both overseas and in Australia. I am eternally grateful for their knowledge and expertise.
In Paris I trained with Phillipe Gaulier, and I was lucky enough to have Lilo Baur as my movement coach. Lilo was a member of Complicite and at that time was also working with Peter Brook. I learned a lot about character embodiment through Lilo and still practice her teaching today. In Poland, I travelled into the forest in Wroclaw to train at the Grotowski Institute, I was lucky enough to be one of 12 performers chosen from Europe to train in pre-expressive practices and composition.
To further develop my practice-based research I also went back to the VCA to undertake a ‘Post Graduate degree in Methodologies for Actor Training’. Here I worked closely with exceptional directors and teachers some of which include Leisa Shelton who trained in Paris in Etienne Decroux’s techniques and was a member of Meryl Tankards Company; Marie Dumont who trained as a teacher at Ecole Jacques Lecoq and with Ariane Mnouchkine; Richard Murphet who guided and challenged me through my research; and director Jenny Kemp, who also back in 1995 first introduced me to impulse work (not only as a pre-expressive practice) but as a process to embodying the essence of a character or work.
On my travels over the years I have met some exceptional master mask-makers, with my first purchase being in 1998 in the back streets of the ghetto in Venice – a leather mask crafted for the performer. I later ventured to Bali to discover the extraordinary masks of an 88-year-old master mask maker. I also have masks from craftsmen in France and New Zealand. Recently, I had the good fortune to learn how to make masks from Italian mask maker Matteo Destro, the rest is self-taught and I continue to create expressive masks.
Seeing the world differently for a time
Throughout my 20’s and into my 30’s I gradually lost a significant degree of hearing due to a hereditary condition. In daily conversations I encountered muffled, muted, missed words and in noisy environments my eyes became my ears as I sat back and observed. Overtime my sight sense became acutely heightened and my ability to read and interpret other people’s bodies significantly increased. The detail of physical signs that the body communicates is astounding, if you know how to look. Alongside my passion for the theatre and the physical study of characters and people, this impairment partly became my reference point. It increased my ability to see more clearly how people’s bodies betray their internal worlds and histories, both in a given moment, or day to day as they move through space, and either in support of or against what they want others to see. It’s quite beautiful to watch- the body never lies, the body is always present, even when our minds are not. My hearing condition has now been corrected but for a time it taught me a lot.
My intention is to pass on the knowledge that has been shared with me as well as my own findings from my many years of research and practice. My aim with the workshops is to provide an intensive experience, a present whole-body immersion that the actor can then go away and digest. There is something about the workshop environment that I love. It’s a short burst of inspiration, an insight, or a platform that provides prospects for artistic or personal growth. Surrounded by likeminded people to train together; to go beyond personal experience and try out new things; and of course, to play. Some may forge new friendships, others will rarely come past these same people again, but for a time a group of people are brought together to learn something and have a unique experience.
“Thank you for such a fun, glorious and informative weekend- I learnt so much and had so many laughs. It was really what I had been searching for and I’m so grateful for the experience and skills you so generously shared in such a genuinely kind and nurturing way. It really meant a lot to me and I’m sooo grateful to you and for your feedback, and that you really cared that I got it and did better the next time I got up. I’ll carry with me what I learnt forever.”
Amanda, actor, Sydney
“Best workshop ever!! Thank you so much for coming to Adelaide Brenda!!”
Tarsha, performer and theatre maker, Adelaide
“Thanks Brenda for your appreciation of the mask and all its potential.”
Anna, drama teacher, Adelaide
“Thank you for a fabulous weekend. It reignited my love of mask work. And what a lovely group of participants.”
Toby, actor, director and singer, Sydney
“That was such a refreshing workshop, thanks Brenda! I feel so content, its like coming home again. It’s so nice to go to such a non judgmental place and just let go. It’s a rare gift to be given, with your creating that.”
Lynn, performer and writer, Brisbane
“I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with you and resonate with the depth of your teachings.”
Bree, dancer and performer, Brisbane