Hi! It’s been awhile. But for great reasons! I’ve been working on lots of projects in the last few months. Here’s a little about one of them.
Canby High has a team of about 25 dancers who participate in large dance competitions around the region. The dances are performed on a large gymnasium floor, with some sort of scenery specific to the concept of the piece. They have been working with choreographer James Healey for the past few years, and have made some stunning work. This last October, we began a conversation about masks they could wear… on the backs of their heads.
The concept had to do with shifting perception and multiple ways of seeing. So my goal was to conceive of a design that would come alive on the performer with all of the limbs moving slightly differently to how we are accustomed.
To communicate over digital media, I took shots of the mask from a variety of perspectives.
It was decided that the show would have three designs, but multiple copies of that design.
I used an existing mask to try out a helmet strategy for wearing. We scrapped it.
James shared some images and we talked about the feeling the masks should have. I sculpted with these emotions in mind, and also tried to capture the faces in a series of planes, slightly abstracting them.
Neoprene glows nicely when backlit by the sun!
Another strategy for wearing. Closer…
We knew the rest of the design would be in blacks, grays, and whites, in keeping the conceptual element of one way vs. many ways. It was decided that I would form the masks, and the arts students at Canby would paint them using my advice.
So many faces!
Priming the neoprene to prepare for painting.
An inspirational image. The director wanted to incorporate some reflective surfaces on the masks to match the costuming. (Thanks Lauren Adams of White Bike Ceramics!)
The students explored how best to paint the masks. High contrast was necessary for the sculpture to ‘read’ in the large dance space.
The dancers came into my studio early in the process to determine how the masks would need to be arranged to carry out the choreography. They were so much fun! And they were very excited about the masks… which I think you can see in some of the photos below.
Welcome to my first blog from Italia. In short, it’s amazing! The study is engrossing, the people wonderful, a wine costs just a couple euro.Because of difficultly in previous years of the workshop, we aren’t allowed to take many pictures during the workshop, so instead of lots of mask process photos, you’ll enjoy shots of everyday life, gorgeous scenery, and lovely people. I’m sharing a flat for the month with another student from New York, and across the hall are wonderful artists from Firenze and Toronto. There are also more students from Italy, Spain, Mexico and the US.
A view of the kitchen balcony from my bedroom balcony
A view of apricots just a few feet from my bedroom balcony
The best sort of coffee machine for the studio. Though I dislike orzo as a coffee alternative. ;P
<INTERPOLATION> Why do cities names changes in different languages? As in, why do we call Firenze “Florence”? It’s a proper name, not a random vocabulary word. Or why do we call Venezia, “Venice”?or Deutschland ,”Germany”? or Nippon “Japan”? I can imagine changing the spelling in your language to make the same sounds, but actually changing the name? It makes more sense to me to call places what they call themselves, but that’s not how languages and culture work apparently. Or is it? After briefly searching the internet, the reason for difference between endonyms (what you call yourself) and exonyms (what others call you) often stem from the evolution of language itself. Firenze is the Italian derivation of the Latin Florentia, but Florence was the English derivation, and Florenz the German. So maybe we did try the spelling trick way back when, but the world changed and language didn’t. Still, why can’t we be on the same page about this? </INTERPOLATION>
Trying to design a mask with planes
Trying out a mask design in a new method of papier mache. It will be a study for my upcoming work in leather.
The Colli Euganei, just south of Abano Terme. Fourteen other small towns are connected to these hills which inspired poets and bring forth wine.
View from the Riviera Albertino Mussato of some houses that would have been outside the 1300s wall of Padova, but inside the city wall of the 1500s
Basilica San Antonio
As I said, the work is interesting and challenging. There is often an interpreter, and when there is not, many of the students are multilingual—so the ideas aren’t too difficult to grasp. You can really see and feel the inheritance of trained sculptors in this work. It’s not just actors who make masks—it’s artists who bring their knowledge of materials, sculpting tools and processes and strong visual arts skills and concepts to the work of theatrical mask.
Sarah Sartori and Paola Piizzi, leaders of the workshop
The muses on the ceiling, upstairs at Caffe Pedrocchi
We have been doing studies in preparation for making of the leather mask. The traditional forms didn’t use paint to help augment the shaping of light and form. Instead, they rely on the sculpting of panes in the mask to give a sense of volume and life to the performance object.
Tall towers showed prestige.
The sun plays beautifully over the planes of the former tribunal.
I enjoy the lack of signs.
Sunset, arches, and mopeds. 🙂
I find it really interesting to consider this idea. The planes reflect light. And the abstraction of the forms of a face into simpler planes also helps us project our own experience on to the mask. Puppets can work in much the same way. In Understanding Comics, the artist Scott McCloud noted that as a face is rendered in increasingly specific detail, the easier it is to regard that face as something outside of ourselves. But as a face is simplified in its depiction, the easier it is for the viewer to regard it with a feeling of identification… it becomes more of an Everyperson.
So with these simplified planes, perhaps it becomes more possible for the actor and the audience, together, bring the object to life.
Christo’s Floating Piers at Lago d’Iseo— a mask of space?
This show was produced at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, and designed by Professor Michael Olich. I worked as the movement consultant for the actors and as an assistant designer/ builder of various mask and puppet items.
Seven months before the show would open, we met to share broad concepts, discuss exciting opportunities, and forecast potential hurdles. At this early point, it became clear that some things needed to be tried in a rough form to solidify the approach of the design.
One such element was the parrot. The first task was to figure out from where it would be manipulated. The parrot couldn’t be designed properly without that key information.
(click on each photo to see full size and captions)
The basic concept was tested in scrap foam, construction paper, masking tape and bamboo
Testing motion with upgraded materials
Feathers were cut from craft foam to match Durandarte’s color palette
A spray bottle and styrofoam ball were the understructure.
The aim of the design was to echo the elements in the human version of the character while providing a clear sense of focus for the puppet
A second parrot (with folded wings) for the scenes after the parrot was caught.
After trying a few options, including operating it from above, the most feasible and satisfying conclusion was to puppeteer from the stage deck.
At first I thought I might have to trigger the flapping of the wings through a mechanism on the control rod, but using gravity to activate the foam wings was pretty satisfying.
Stag & Bear Masks
The show was not cast until September, so many issues of scale had to be determined at that time. To know how big to make the mask, it was better to know the size of the body supporting that mask.
I thought topographically to create the individual pattern pieces for each layer of the stag mask.
One of the early trial material was this translucent coroplast.
Actors working in rehearsal masks are great sources of information as a builder.
An early test of the rings had them suspended by thin gauge wire. Eventually we used scrim for the dual purpose of masking and connection.
Stag 2.0: bigger, wider, and ringed.
The best solution for both stag and bear characters was a helmet mask—the stags were mounted on construction helmets, and the bear was, itself, a helmet.
I made trial pieces to test my construction methods.
Eventually, a bandsaw was a better solution for cutting out all the pieces. Exactos remained important for the connector slots, however.
Mask attached to helmet.
The layers of bear, from front to back.
I made this larger rehearsal mask for bear, which also allowed me try out a few different attachement methods.
The final bear used coroplast lined with metallic fabric, and scrim covered the open mouth.
I love how the planar design helps the mask transform in motion and contributes to the magic of the play.
The Laughing Statue
The script requires an enchanted statue that comes to life and laughs at key moments in the story. The designer had a clear idea of the look of the statue and a general sense of intended scale early in the process. Once the part was cast, I could determine measurements that would allow the actor’s face to be seen and permit her arms to reach the control mechanisms.
Strategizing internal structure
The scenery shop provided the first step , a steel ladder and on a wooden base, with two metal support ovals.
To help us all visualize, I constructed a hasty mockup in cardboard. It helped me strategize how I would eventually use the fabric-covered foam to create the cape.
My friend Bill helps by patterning the Y20 foam
Fine-tuning the contours
Anchoring the hood of the cape
The third strategy for hand construction worked. They were designed in a way parallel to “topographic” approach to the stags and bear.
Extra supports and surfaces were needed as I listened to the materials I was using.
The order of operations was difficult—and necessary—to determine, much like constructing a garment in a costume shop. The pieces were unwieldy, so it was very nice to have assistance from student workers.
Even then, it was a challenge! I was using many materials and adhesives that were relatively new to me, and doing so in a short amount of time. We would joke frequently about how every single solution created two new problems. It was a relief to have the advice and help of both my friends in the puppetry community and also my collaborators on the show as I learned about making this statue.
It’s amazing to me how much expression can be manifested with just a few movements. The only movements available to the actor were the flex in the statue’s hands and those of her own face, but she was able to find great levels and variety to play.
I had an amazing summer of work, which has lead right into some great projects this fall. I have been so occupied with doing, I haven’t had much time to share.. so here are just a few quick highlights!
The Creation Story: Lincoln Center Education & Carmen DeLavallade
After taking part in a second summer of Lincoln Center Education’s Teaching Artist Training program this July, I had an excellent opportunity to put those new and exciting ideas directly in to practice. Working for LCE at the nearby Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, I lead experiential workshops to introduce a group of seniors and a group of youth to the immense body of work of the late renaissance man Geoffrey Holder.
Then we moved on to the next phase of our work, in collaboration with the wonderful and imaginative Chris Green. Chris designed a number of puppet images (based on the work of Holder) to be used in a performance of The Creation Story by Holder’s wife and longtime collaborator, Carmen DeLavallade. Working with Chris, Carmen, and her team, I engaged the students in finding the movement to bring each of these images to life.
Hagoromo: Wendy Whelan at BAM
Right after that project, I was lucky enough to continue working with Chris as a rehearsal puppeteer in the early stages of development of Hagoromo. The show, premiering at the BAM Next Wave Festival in November 2015, is a huge collaborative undertaking. It stars Wendy Whelan, former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, and features musicians, puppets, a mezzo-soprano, tenor, and a large chorus. Check out the NY Times article!
The story is adaptation of a Japanese Noh play. For this multidisciplinary opera, there are two life-size puppets based on body casts of the incredibly talented Wendy Whelan. Our initial job was to work out the kinks.
This summer I was hired by a production company in New York City to make five large fish puppets. This is their story.
The puppets needed were to be operated outdoors by a single person over the course of a few days. I needed to find a lightweight solution that could respond to wind and other variations in weather.
The build time was short, and I only had a week to make a prototype before heading to New York for other work. I asked Bill Holznagel, an excellent builder and performer for Tears of Joy and his own company Signal Light (if you live in Portland and haven’t seen their show Playtime with Pete and Randy, do yourself a favor).
An emphasis was put on the desired “flowiness” of the puppets by the client. In an earlier test, I’d looked to find that element with a combination of materials and performance. It’s show here in shadow, ’cause when you’re videoing your self, you make sacrfices.
Finalizing the Design
In New York, I worked with my friend Sam Hill, a fellow mask maker and sculptor, to finish the build. We worked in studio in Greenpoint to figure out the final details.
A few more tests…
We took the first puppet out to see how it moved in the outdoors. You can tell from the video noise that it was windy day.
Opera-matic, a collaborative arts group in Chicago, contacted me this last spring to make a mask for The Moon on the Lagoon, The community performance featured lullabies and the faces people find in the moon. What a cool idea!
Part of designing the mask is figuring how it will align with and/or cover the performer’s face. The producers knew they wanted the mouth of the performer available, so I approached it much like a three-quarter character mask.
Variations on a Mantis
Inspiration and discovery continue throughout the process of making. Those moments are my favorite in my process. These inspirations can manifest in an accident, through a coincidence of timing, etc.
The first version of this mask was made for the Grand Guignolers company in Los Angeles. It was to be human in scale, which directed my choice about how to create visibility for the actor.
This amazing insect was so inspiring, it started appearing in other projects, like the shadow puppet show bugged, created with Rollin Carlson.
Working in shadow encourages an essentialization of form. It’s interesting to look back and see which elements carry on and evolve through the various iterations. After this further exploration of this form through puppetry, I realized wasn’t quite satisfied with the silhouette. I jumped at the chance to improve it with my next commission for the insect.
I refined the eye hole to be even more incorporated in the geometry of the sculpture. The next time I had the opportunity to work on this mask, I played around a little with color. Research images guided my thoughts.
I’ve learned great things each time about this he next time I work on this mask, I want to explore greater width. Here are all the versions so far:
The working title is The Epic Project. It is a three year endeavor to weave contemporary and classic stories into an epic narrative suited to our times. The actors have been devising for nearly two years already. I was invited to be a part of that exploration this last February.
As a part of their exploration of character and archetype, I worked with the actors to create animal-spirit masks. The inspiration for this work came in part from old mask and mummer traditions from Europe and also from animal and spirit masks from around the world. I asked the students to engage with familiar objects and new materials as they uncovered the spirit of the animal within.
Enough chatter. Here are some pictures!
Digging further into materials
Uncovering the animal spirit
We did many experiments with materials and forms, then took what we learned and started making the mask for each actor.
Come see the workshop performance in this phase of the Epic Project in Studio 116 at UMKC’s Performing Arts Center (4949 Cherry St.) Previews run from Friday Mar 6-8th and runs Mar 11-15th. Shows at 7:30 with the exception of Mar 15th at 2:00pm.
Seating is very limited so please reserve your FREE tix at 816-235-2782.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 show. This option promised an interesting transformation onstage and seemed exciting to build.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Eric 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?