Devising mask theater

thesnowstormHoping for a Remount in Fall 2015!

Over the course of the last three years, I’ve had the great pleasure to work with Many Hats Collaboration’s Jessica Wallenfels and Eric Nordin (and a slew of other talented artists) on the development of an original work of dance theater, The Snowstorm.  It’s been a great journey, and I want to share a little of that process with you in this post.

Beginnings

Creating original work requires a lot of skills, in addition to having a vision for the show. Among these are communication, collaboration, being present, creative problem solving, flexibility, comfort with ambiguity, etc. The process was always a pleasure—largely due to the talents and leadership of Wallenfels and Nordin—and it also took us in many directions.

I played a couple of roles throughout. Initially, I worked as an actor to help develop physical vocabulary for some of the key scenes. Through this process, Wallenfels was able to get a sense of what it would take to tell a clear story through movement set against the music of Rachmaninoff.

Placeholder masks were used the 2013 workshop. We were trying to determine if masks were the right fit  for the show.
The Hawk, the Bear, and the Hen in rehearsal for the 2013 workshop at Portland Actors Conservatory. One of these actors was eventually cast in the 2015 production.

A year or so later, after many such experiments, a short evening of scenes was presented. One of the things we were trying to determine was if masks were a good fit for the show. Since it was just a test, we used placeholder masks that approximated the feeling of each of the masked characters.

We found we weren’t sure if masks were the best solution. Early in 2014, Jessica and I met to discuss our thoughts on the approach. I had just returned from Bali—and Jessica had been there herself, years earlier—so we thought we could also explore shadow puppets.

Fox tries to free the chicken
Fox tries to free the Hen
Shadow Bear!
Shadow Bear!
Hawk of Darkness
Hawk of Darkness

I decided to create a shadow puppet show that used the same two pieces of music in the first scene of The Snowstorm. I performed it with a second puppeteer for a Puppet Slam produced by Beady Little Eyes last spring. After more discussion, we decided that the shadows would likely be too difficult to see clearly in the thrust stage at the CoHo. We held on to the possibility of using both masks and puppets as we began to meet with the entire production team.

The patterns are all from various Russian folk patterns. Though I didn't pursue this further, the final wolf mask does have some textural similarity.
Though I didn’t pursue this further, the final wolf mask does have some textural similarity.
The surface treatment is  borrowed from various Russian folk patterns.
The surface treatment is borrowed from various Russian folk patterns.
I was considering a variety of materials to make the masks, including fabric.
Fabric was one material I considered using for the mask.
In an early iteration, all the masks were face masks.
In an early iteration, all the masks were face masks.

Researching the various animals in the story came next. Through our meetings, we had decided to go with masks. I tried to find a design concept that would serve the multiple needs of this particular production: a fantastical quality, a handmade look, and an ease of movement were among these needs. As I was working in India, I  would make sketches and email them back to the production team so that all of our designs could work well together. Nothing was feeling like it hit the mark, so I tried to think of other ways to solve the problem. Finally,  drawing on my recent experiences making a peacock mask for Maya, I proposed using a kind of helmet mask for the showThis option promised an interesting transformation onstage and seemed exciting to build.

The actor sees through a stylized opening in the mask.
The actor sees through a stylized opening in the mask.
The actor puts the mask on like a hat.
The actor puts the mask on like a hat.

Preparing for rehearsal

Typically, I prefer to provide the finished mask at first rehearsal. I feel this way because it allows the actors (who may have no experience performing with masks) to get used to the different performance style they will need to employ. With this show, we knew we wanted to have a little more flexibility and room for discovery. So with the design we thought we wanted in mind, I generated some rehearsal masks to give the actors a sense of what it would mean to perform in the masks.

Hawk's rehearsal piece gave us both a way to test the scale of the mask.
Hawk’s rehearsal piece gave us both a way to test the scale of the mask.
I made these cartooned masks from cardboard and bike tire.
I made these cartooned masks from cardboard and bike tire…
... and a simple head ring.
… and a simple head ring.

With the information from the rehearsal room, I was soon ready to sculpt. The discoveries did not really end there, which is really the fun of the whole thing!

Weighing options on the sculpture of the wolf.
Weighing options on the sculpture of the Wolf.
IMG_5260
Hawk gets his glare on.
I used different colors of paper mache to help the actors see the image of the character before it was painted—but we liked the handmade quality so much we kept it!
I used different colors of paper maché to help the actors see the image of the character before it was painted—but we liked the handmade quality so much we kept it!
For the wolf, I used a more varied color palette and texture.
For the Wolf, I used a more varied color palette and texture.
Rehearsing with the real masks provided lots of information about lighting, movement, and comfort. This is a lot of foam, which I later disguised with black broadcloth.
Rehearsing with the real masks provided lots of information about lighting, movement, and comfort. This is a lot of foam, which I later disguised with black broadcloth.

The Final Masks

The actors brought the masks to life beautifully! (Shadows still appear in the play, even though they are not the primary element. Knowing the process, it’s interesting to me to see how all of the different artistic impulses eventually found their place in the show.) Here are a few shots from the performance.

Beth Thompson as Bear. Photo: John Rudoff
Beth Thompson as Bear. Photo: John Rudoff
Eric Nordin (pianist) and Jamie Rea (Swan). Photo: Brud Giles
Eric Nordin (pianist) and Jamie Rea (Swan).
Photo: Brud Giles
(L to R): Beth Thompson as Bear, Elisha Henig as Fox, Brian Demar Jones as Hawk, and Kira Batcheller as Hen.
(L to R): Beth Thompson as Bear, Elisha Henig as Fox, Brian Demar Jones as Hawk, and Kira Batcheller as Hen.
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Triangle Technology

You may have seen this video circling around:

Among its charms are the masks four of the dancers wear. One thing that caught my eye was the texture of the face. It reminded me of Buckminster Fuller, actually, and geodesic domes. Granted, I know only a little little bit about geodesics, but the visual similarity is interesting.

Inside of a (rather comfy)  geodesic dome temporarily set up in Portland in 2013.
Inside of a (rather comfy) geodesic dome temporarily set up in Portland in 2013.
Spaceship Earth at EPCOT, a geodesic sphere
Spaceship Earth at EPCOT, a geodesic sphere
Wireframe Self Portrait

I followed my curiosity to the homepage of the designer Eric Testroete. Eric works often as a game designer, but also has had some side projects, including this self portrait mask from 2009.

testroete-portrait-1

Here’s a look at some of his process. (Reposted with permission from http://www.testroete.com)

There are over one hundred triangles making up this face
There are over one hundred triangles making up this face
testroete-Design-2
I often find myself using bits of skills from other disciplines when making masks. This image reminds me of flat patterning for sewing.

testroete-Design-3-pepakuratestroete-Design-4testroete-Design-5testroete-Design-6testroete-portrait-2

Mirror, Mirror
testroete-mirror-1
Mask Self Portrait, 2011.

testroete-mirror-2Eric used a similar construction technique to create this mirrored mask. I am always curious about how a mask plays in time and space, with the energy of a human beneath it, so I am really glad he posted this video it in use. And who doesn’t love a good walk in the woods?