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!