Thursday, July 06, 2006

Supporting the Mask

Before we could go ahead with sound testing, we faced two dilemmas; the first was how to keep the mask off the face. Our initial ideas were for either a skull cap or a thick headband, upon which the mask would rest. We settled on the skull cap for two reasons: practicality (just how would we attach a mask to a headband/visor arrangement?) and precedent (David Wiles’ and Chris Vervain’s masked experiments used skull caps to good effect).

We made the skull cap itself with the same plaster-impregnated gauze used for the casts of the actors’ faces. For our test models, we used the Styrofoam heads (courtesy of Sally's Beauty Supply for $2-3) used to store the masks from previous plays. I covered the crown of the head with Vaseline (later plastic wrap worked just as well), then laid down three or four layers of the plaster. My first skullcap (Picture 1) was too big; my second, at 4in. by 4 in., was much more workable.

Then we soaked the birdseye cotton in the wheat paste/white glue mix and used it to cover the vaselined Styrofoam head. We had a problem with excess fabric over the crown; this fabric template (Picture 2) helped us cut down on that problem. This template will need to be adjusted for the size of the face, though. The glue takes about a day to dry.

Then out came the hardware. (Picture 3) Using a hacksaw, I cut 1-inch lengths from a ½ inch wide dowel. (We were told later that furniture stores sell these pre-cut for repairs; we may test this later.) After testing several types of tacks and nails, we settled on regular thumb tacks with wide heads. The real nails were thicker and had smaller heads; these sometimes split the dowels, and the small heads made them hard to hammer in at a proper angle.

It’s much easier from here if you tack the dowels to the skullcap from below, making a sort of pre-fab skullcap (Picture 4), which you then cover with the mask itself. I blackened the top of the dowels with a marker so that we could target them through the mask. We then (carefully!) tacked the mask onto the dowels. Pushing the tacks in and then tightening with the hammering was less perilous than hammering the whole time.

This leaves the mask off the face so that the actor’s jaw is free of interference--and we hope so that the actor's voice resonates in a powerful way. Picture 5 is the complete construction from the inside, so you can see the dowels and lower tacks, and Picture Six is from the top with the upper tacks.

The second dilemma that I mentioned earlier is the reason that none of these test masks have an open mouth—we don’t know how high, how wide, or what shape the mouth needs to be for the best sound quality. We plan to find out by making several experimental masks, with a variety of mouth sizes and shapes, and taking them out to our “sound lab” and stage, R-MWC’s Dell.

Next up: making a full face to cast.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Research: Glue Materials Tests

Still feeling that we hadn’t gotten the stiffness we wanted and needed for a theatrical production, we did two independent experiments involving mixed materials. For one, we used our second solution glues (the 75% glue mixture) with a double layer of gauze, hoping that we could add some strength to our most workable material. In the end, though, we still had more glue than fabric, which did not bode well for a painted mask, let alone one what would have to hold up through multiple outdoor stage performances. This led us to discard the gauze as a candidate.

Next we mixed a solution of 45% water, 45% flour, and 10% white glue in hopes that the glues would mix well and exhibit a sort of hybrid vigor. This experiment succeeded beautifully, giving us one of our three glues that made it to our final round of testing.

Our three finalists were the white glue/wheat paste blend, the 75% white glue solution, and the 66% flour wheat paste solution. We used these glues with both the cotton crepe and the muslin, stretched over a lifesize plaster cast of our own faces. (We used the plaster gauze casts, described earlier, as molds for plaster of Paris to create positives of the faces.)

Our first contestant, the white glue, stretched well and held its detail, but was not as sturdy as we liked. Again, the cotton crepe proved more workable than the muslin, although by now were able to minimize the effect of the extra fabric by folding it under the chin. (Picture 2)

The second, the 66% wheat paste concentration, was difficult to spread and took a long time to dry; one of our samples was removed too early and the glue contracted (Picture 3). In addition, it dried very brittle.

The white glue/wheat paste blend, however, was thin enough to soak the fabric in and had the sturdiness of the wheat paste without being brittle. The cotton was our winning fabric—the weave as midway between the loose gauze and the relatively thick muslin, making it easy to stretch, and it absorbed the glue best. (Picture 4) This will be our material for our next round of experiments—finding a mask shape conducive to speaking in the Greek theater. For these, we have the perfect laboratory: the R-MWC Dell, a proportionally authentic Greek theater.

Research: Fabric Materials Tests

In order to make our masks as authentically Classical as possible, we looked at as much contemporary source material as we could. This mostly consisted of vase paintings, which tell us what the masks looked like—full-face, wigged, more realistic than later masks—but not how they were made. The most useful source for this information proved to be the Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia which draws from more ancient sources. The Suda indicates that the Classical masks were made of linen or muslin stiffened with glue. We have no surviving masks, which would make sense if they were made of such perishable materials. Also, no other ancient evidence directly contradicts this theory.

Picture 1: The muslin--probably the hardest fabric to work—didn’t stretch over the face well at first.

With this information, we gathered materials both ancient and modern to simulate the ancient masks. We tested three fabrics—muslin, a loose-weave cotton crepe, and a cotton gauze—which were absorbent, flexible, and--after being wet--held their shape when dry. A loose weave helped flexibility. The glues ranged from modern to primitive and included Elmer’s white glue, wallpaper paste, Yes! Paste for crafts, Sobo fabric glue, and wheat paste (flour and water). Experimentation ruled out the wallpaper paste, which was not water-soluble, and the fabric glue, which did not stiffen when dry.

Our first solution was 50% glue and 50% water, the
second 75% glue to 25% water (except for the wheat paste, which was not workable at that ratio and had to be mixed 66% flour to 33% water). The white glue and the wheat paste consistently yielded the best results, defined by us as stiffness and detail retained when dry. It should be noted that the higher concentration of wheat paste, while effective, had the consistency of peanut butter and had to be spread on the fabric in a similar manner—we weren’t able to soak the fabric in that glue as we were the other solutions.

Picture 2: A later cotton crepe mask with wheat paste; by this time, we had worked out how to minimize the leftover fabric on the lower part of the face.

Picture 3: The cotton gauze, our most flexible but least stable material.

This first set of experiments helped us narrow down our potential materials and gave us a better idea of what we could accomplish. Next up: a more intensive battery of experiments.
Update: After we learned that our cotton crepe wasn't a regular item at the fabric store, the helpful people there suggested a replacement in the form of a bird's eye weave cotton. This worked just as well as the crepe. Here are some pictures of our fabric swatches to give you a better idea of what we're working with.
Pic A: New kid on the block: the bird's eye weave cotton.

Pic B: The muslin, heavier than the others and with a tighter weave.

Pic C: The original cotton weave.

Pic D: The gauze, our most flexible but least durable material.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

How-To: The Initial Cast of the Face

Our mission for the summer is to research authentic Classical masking conventions and apply them as closely as possible to the 2006 Greek play, The Clouds, while remaining relevant to a modern audience. After delving through a lot of material, ancient and modern, we’ve come to a few conclusions—but that’s another post.

Our very first step, before we even began our research, was to borrow the faces of our cast for the summer. This was less painful than it sounds, but not by much: I had to cast the faces of the actors and chorus in plaster gauze. This entry is a step-by-step guide to the process my wonderful aides (go, go, Brittany, Kathleen, and Natalie!) and I used.

You need these materials: a basin for water, scissors you won't use for anything else, plaster gauze (we use Plast'rcraft, which comes in sheets or rolled strips), towels, Vaseline, hair pins, a small whiteboard and marker (optional), cotton balls (optional).

The very important First Step: the person being cast should apply Vaseline to all areas to be covered with the plaster. In our case, that meant the first inch of hairline, eyebrows, lips, and under the jawbone. The only areas left uncovered for our casts were the eyes and nostrils. Things to avoid, on pain of…pain: missing spots (sorry about the sideburns, Alexa) and not enough Vaseline (sorry, Kristen). Picture 1 is me Vaselined--note the high shine.

The Second Step is preparing the plaster gauze. Work goes much more quickly if the plaster gauze is pre-cut and/or some helpful person stands by and cuts pieces as needed. We mainly used strips about 1.5 inches by 5 inches and rectangles about 2 by 3 inches. Smaller areas required ½ inch by 2 inch strips and 1 inch by 2 to 3 inch rectangles. Picture 2 is the prepared strips of plaster gauze for molding my face.

Unlike papier-mâché, the gauze shouldn’t be soaked ahead of time. Instead, when you are ready to apply it to the face, dip the strips quickly into a handy container of water, then gently rub the strip until the plaster spreads and no holes are visible in the gauze. The gauze will go very floppy. If hard bits remain because some of the plaster refuses to dissolve, discard that piece.

Now we’re ready for the Third Step: to apply plaster to face. The method that worked best for us, after sixteen faces’ worth of practice, is as follows.

1) Run a longish strip from the forehead over the bridge of the nose to the chin. Use a wide strip, but pinch it together over the nostrils to avoid suffocating your subject. (Picture 3, with me surprised!)

2) Place strips horizontally across the hairline, eyebrows, below the eyes, across the mouth, and around the jaw. You should have something that looks like a ribcage—with center strip is the “spine,” and the horizontal strips are the “ribs”. Then, connect these “ribs” with vertical strips along the sides of the face just before the ears. (Picture 4)

1) With this framework established, use the larger rectangles of gauze on the forehead,
cheeks, and mouth. Overlap as much as possible to make a sturdy cast. The tiny ½ inch strips fill in the areas around the nose and eyes and reinforce the center strip long the nose. (Again, be very careful around the nose.)

Press down at various points with your fingertips to find weak spots; if you find any, reinforce themwith the smaller rectangles. In all, there should be at least two or three layers of plaster over any given point on the face. (Picture 5 )

With each piece of gauze you add, overlap generously and smooth the wet plaster with
your fingers. You want to fill the remaining holes in the gauze and make the plaster adhere to the layer below.

As soon as we covered her mouth, we gave our maskee a whiteboard to communicate. Other refinements for her comfort were a towel around the neck, a pre-stained loaner shirt, and cotton balls to keep plaster out of the ears. With two people working on a cast, applying the gauze takes from twenty minutes to half an hour, a little longer for solo maskers.

The Fourth Step is waiting patiently for the mask to dry. We used a hairdryer to speed the drying, which can take anywhere from ten to forty minutes depending on humidity, thickness of the mask, and if the person being masked has a fever. (Somebody did; it seemed to help.) When the person can feel the mask coming off the face, unbend a bobby pin and slip the unserrated side between the mask and the skin. Run this around the edge of the mask to try to minimize the pulling-off-duct-tape sensation (which can also be avoided by generous use of the Vaseline). Some poking, pulling, and sticking is inevitable, though. Then, remove the mask, lifting from the jaw and pulling up to avoid ripping any hair out.

Now the caster can contemplate the fruits of her labor (Picture 6 ) and the castee can wash the Vaseline out of her hair.

The next step to make the theatrical masks will be making a cast from the inside of the plaster gauze mask. Tune in soon for more!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Introduction to Greek Masks

Ancient Greek drama--the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes--was performed by actors and a chorus wearing full masks. (You can read my brief introductions to Greek drama and the playwrights.) We have archaeological evidence for what the ancient stage was like, and we have the plays themselves as evidence for the number of actors and many other stage conventions.

But the masks themselves present a problem: whatever they were made of has not survived in the archaeological record. We have no surviving technical manuals that describe mask construction. And the best contemporary imagery we have--on vases--is problematic, too. If a mask depicts someone wearing a mask, it "melts" onto the actor, and it's difficult to see that it's a mask and not just the actor's face. Even those few vases we have that show actors holding their masks (the Pronomos vase is the most famous) show very little detail about how the mask was made, how it attached to the head, how big the holes for eyes and mouth were. The ancient secondary textual evidence is scanty and later than our plays.

As someone who directs Greek plays and who feels that we understand plays better the more we use the conventions for which they were written, I think it's important, if we can, to find out how the Greeks made their masks so that we can make them for our productions. This blog will chronicle a summer research project designed to do just that.