From our initial designs on paper, we sculpted our masks in clay. Then we made a mold, did a test run in carta pesta (an Italian papier mache), and made modifications as necessary. We then used all of our research to sculpt the wooden matrix, which was used as the base to shape our leather. This entire process took a month. It’s such a wonderful experience to be able to take the time to concentrate on a project like this without other pressures.
After finishing the masks, we met with Giorgio Bongiovanni of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano to investigate the performance of commedia masks, and later, our own. Fabian Gysling of Ècole Gysling was also there to help us find our characters and play in the masks. The slideshow above is from the public demonstration of our work. Luckily, the theater was air-conditioned.
A Two Week Interval
After completing the Sartori workshop at the CMSG, I had a little time to kill before my next workshop. I spent an extra day sketching masks at the Museo Internazionale della Maschera Amleto e Donato Sartori in Abano Terme. Next, I went to a farmhouse in Chiesanuova to visit my classmate Barbara, and together we traveled to San Miniato to visit mask maker Matteo Destro. Afterwards I traveled north to Malcesine, where I visited costume designer Fabio Toblini. I regrouped with friends to see Marmolada in the Dolomiti mountain range (a UNESCO World Heritage site). Finally, I explored historic Roma. It wasn’t built in a day, and you certainly can’t see it in three (especially in the summer heat). However, I was able to strategize a tour of Caravaggio paintings and some awesome historic buildings (e.g. the Basilica San Clemente) with the kind help of the friends and family of a fellow Portlander! (Molte grazie a Arturo, Anna, Riccardo, Guya, and Francesco!)
Here’s a slideshow sampler of my travels!
Familie Flöz Sommer Akademie
My other study was a two-week course in mask performance and the creation of performance material in ensemble with the Berlin-based company Familie Flöz. Our classes were held in the Abbazia San Giusto, a refurbished monastery on the outskirts of the small town of Tuscania. When I told people in Italy where I was going, they (reasonably) assumed I was mispronouncing “Toscana” (aka the large region we call “Tuscany”). It only confuses the matter that Tuscania is quite near the border of Toscana.
Abano Terme, in the Veneto Region
Tuscania, in the Lazio Region
Italy, In the California Region
The Familie Flöz is pretty unique. They create original, wordless, character-centered mask performances that often play in a clown-like sense of comedy. (Check out a short film of one of their first shows in 1995, and also a trailer for their show that just swept the Edinburgh Fringe off its feet). I was very curious to find out how they devise their work and the techniques they employ to bring these full-face masks to life.
Though some students came to study how to build masks, and others came for performance training, we all began the work together each morning with a movement class. What an amazing and perfect way to start the day! Apparently birds thought so too, because they would frequently find their way into the studio—screens on windows were rare—and take a long time to find their exit.
Courtyard of the Abbazia San Giusto
A view from the tower.
The understructures for mask making were made of flower pots.
The first meal together.
Marcel explores his character through a walk outdoors.
Evening by the pool.
Me with some of the company.
Sunset over tomato fields.
Part of the molding process utilized silicone.
The first four days were conceived as a quick introduction to all of the subjects we could study more in depth beginning on day five. Not only was it a great way to survey the kind of work we would do, it also gave us an opportunity to see which of the company members had a teaching style that worked for us. In the end, I focused on Alexander Technique & Neutral Mask, Character Building in Full Face Mask, and Devising & Directing Mask Theater.
We spent a lot of time both in and out of the mask as ways to approach building both characters and scenes.Character interviews, partnered movement studies, and improvisations all flipped between these two modes. Another important idea in the beginning of the work was to remove the pressure of producing something—this pressure often only stifles the breath of creativity, and the relative value of a given improvisation can be determined the day after.
Day Off! We went to Tuscania
On the way we saw the donkeys at the lavender farm
Q&A night with the company. Also the night there was a fire and the electricity went out.
The mask I worked with to devise a scene with my group
Daily watermelon break!
A shy duo encounters visitors on the final night.
Curtain call for all the scenes performed on the final night of the workshop
The mask making group trying on their new creations.
We ended the workshop with a large celebration. This included masked characters walking around the grounds of the Abbey as visitors entered, followed by a number of short scenes —including the one our group created about a composer finding inspiration in his everyday surroundings. Then, of course, lots of food and dancing!
When I thought back over my experience, I thought a lot about what conditions made for my best work over the summer. None of these are necessarily surprising, but the combination of these things was important.
Doing one thing at a time
Working in community
Being in a supportive culture
Proactive learning: pursuing questions vs waiting to receive wisdom
Listening to my intuition
Daily movement practice / Intentional connection with the body
Remaining emotionally available
Exchange with other cultures
The same might be said of life in general.
Many thanks ! The study with Familie Flöz was made possible in part by a professional development grant from :
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.
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?
Once it was confirmed that I would be working in India this fall, I was excited to see if I could find out more about Indian mask traditions. Quick internet searches yielded little, only some tribal Himalayan masks to the north, and a number of colorful pieces in neighboring Sri Lanka.Talking with some people on the Maya project as well as other mask friends gave me a few more ideas about where to look.
Here’s a little of what I found!
Kerala is a state in southern India that borders the Arabian Sea. It is also home to kathakali, a highly stylized drama/dance. The stories told in this form vary, but many are from the Mahabharata epic.
If you arrive early to the performance, not only do you get to observer the performers apply their intense makeup, you also get a better seat. And I’m really glad we did.
After the makeup was applied, there was a demonstration of the techniques used in the dance. You must train for many years before performing in the kathakali, and the abilities of the dancers makes this clear.
The way they could move their eyes was nothing short of amazing. Eyes are very important in the communication of emotions in the drama, and these dancers have amazing muscular control. In addition, the performers of kathakali can isolate muscle groups in their face. Not just like flaring nostrils or wiggling ears—try to imagine just the tops of the cheeks bouncing up and down while the rest of the face remains calm. It’s impressive!
The character designs painted on their faces come alive as these muscle isolations occur. These facial gestures are combined with mudras, or coded positions of the hands, to complete the attitude.
Kerala Folklore Museum
In Ernakulam, a more modern town across the water from Kochi, I was excited to find a museum dedicated to folklore. There were several interesting faces inside. The museum was not always the most successful in providing context for the various images, but I did start to get a sense of mask styles from different regions.
There were also a few examples of puppets in the museum. I knew there were some famous puppets in the state of Rajasthan in the north, but these have a different feeling than their northern relations.
Museum of Mankind
We moved on to the state of Karnataka, just north and east of Kerala. In the city of Mysore, famed for ashtanga yoga and sandalwood crafts, we visited the Indira Ghandi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (aka the Museum of Mankind).
The collection features many tribal art forms from different parts of India. I was lucky to find included a couple of masks from the Himalayas in this southern state. The style is quite different form the types I had seen in Kerala. I imagine the species of wood used for carving is different as well.
Though I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t find as many masks as I had hoped, the museum also features a large collection of terra cotta figures from around India. These figures provide some insight into the style and decorative idiosyncrasies of the culture to which they belong.