St Albans exhibition marks 40th anniversary of mask and physical theatre company

Masked students from Trestle Theatre

The St Albans based theatre company is celebrating 40 years with an exhibition at St Albans Museum + Gallery - Credit: Trestle Theatre Company

Trestle Theatre Company uses masks and playfulness to not only move audiences but to help vulnerable people. A new exhibition celebrates its 40 years of creativity. Words by Julie Lucas. 

After endless months wearing a face mask to help cut the spread of coronavirus, it seems fitting that I am standing amid an exhibition of masks which have also had a positive impact.

The eclectic collection is the creation of Trestle, a mask and physical theatre company based in St Albans that is celebrating its 40th year.  

Trestle Theatre Company was created in 1981 by students from Middlesex Polytechnic: Toby Wilsher, Alan Riley and Sally Cook working with their course tutor John Wright and later joined by Joff Chafer. 

Sat around a kitchen table, the group’s idea was a to create pop-up theatre, following in the footsteps of the Italian commedia dell'arte. Popular in the 18th century, the form was characterised by its use of improvisation and masks.

Trestle became one of the leading mask companies in the UK, developing a distinctive storytelling style, combining physical theatre with masks, puppetry and music and also touring as Trestle Unmasked.

The Behind The Mask exhibition at St Albans Museum + Gallery is a whistle-stop tour of the company's history explains Trestle's creative director Helen Barnette, charting the extraordinary productions as well as outreach work the company has done.  

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'It was very much a passion of creating theatre that was accessible and open,' explains Helen.

‘The early shows were all music and mask sketches with no dialogue at all. It really transcended barriers of language. The masks really allow a physical score and physical communication that is really interesting.

It is an approach that has translated effectively to the wellbeing work the company does today.

The handmade masks range from elaborate full head helmets to half masks, and children reticent to participate in theatre are often the ones who benefit most from them, Helen explains. 

'We often get comments from teachers that the students that are the most invested and engaged are the ones that they never get to see really responding.'

The exhibition is on until September 5; entry is free; St Albans Museum + Gallery, St Peter's St, St  AL1 3DH; stalbansmuseums.org.uk

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