Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Last Day Before Classes (i.e. a rough day)

We should have been prepared for the idea that not everything would go exactly according to plan with every mask, but it was hard to come to grips with when it finally happened.

The plague doctor masks that Francesca finished is for Act III, scene vi when Willmore injures Don Antonio, thinks he's killed him, and runs off. Our darling director, Prof. Wiley, has imagined that three plague doctors will converge upon the fallen Antonio, like vultures, to see if he's dead. The mask sculpture certainly felt vulture-like as we plastered it today. It was circling around our struggling efforts.

The incredibly phallic progression of the plague doctor mask.

Because the nose is over a foot tall, it took a lot of plaster to form the mold. ...A. Lot. Of. Plaster. And Francesca and I messed up the first batch of plaster because we tried to make too big of a batch all at once. It hardened before we could pour it. [Insert wordless noise of frustration]

Franny, prepping the plague doc for plastering.

Franny & Nick didn't forget the soap!

The second try went better, but it took an entire bag of plaster to make the mold. An entire bag. And over an hour (and exhausting hour) of mixing and pouring. I'm not sure a mask of this size was worked into the budget. Usually we can get two or three molds out of a single bag, though this was certainly not a usual mask.

I'm not sure we figured making mistakes into the budget either.

Just to add to the day's frustrations, the mold of Ellie's star mask she did today came out with a bunch of air holes. It's going to need lots of patching. SIGH.

The progression of Ellie's star mask. Gorgeous!

And, in addition to everything, we had to clean up Room 222, where we've been working, to prepare for classes tomorrow, as well as clean up the cabinet corner.

It's clean now. I promise.

Thankfully, Prof. Matt Allar stepped up to help us out in our lack of space by offering us the shelves where the fall semester scenic painting class usually stores their materials. Also, hopefully, we'll be able to use one of the dressing rooms as a workspace as soon as Sinfonicron vacates.

On a happy note, we have gotten a lot done. We have all three Columbinas and all SIX fish.

Fishes, Columbinas, neoprene trimmings, oh my!

We also have neoprene drying for one of Ellie's nuns, one of my Horny Men, and one of my playing card masks. I'll pull those tomorrow morning. But since we've reached not only a breaking point in our schedule (i.e. the beginning of classes), but also a break in our to-do list (i.e. all the ensemble sculpting is done), we'll probably organize some sort of meeting in the next few days to discuss how we'll proceed.

Farewell, pre-classes intensive session! It's been fun!

P.S. I'll post about my research for the Horny Men soon! Stay tuned!

The Plague Doctor

The only thing more obscure and solitary, or obscurely solitary, than blogging is probably maskmaking. Except for maybe medeival plague doctoring.

The plague doctors, or the Medico Della Peste, were the unlucky, usually unsuccessful doctors that found themselves treating those sick with the plague, bubonic or otherwise.

It is important to know that, because of their constant exposure to disease, these plague doctors were generally social outcasts, spending a large chunk of their life in quarantine.

Nota Bene:
Nostradamas was famous for his plague doctoring. His most brilliant piece of medical advice for not contracting the plague was to leave town.

Everything about the plague doctor costume was designed for maximum plague protection. It was believed that the plague was carried by birds, so the shape of the mask seems to derive from an they-who-giveth-also-taketh-away assumption. In this beak, the physicians placed various herbs and spices to mask the smell of the dying, rotting, barfing, ect. Crystal covered the eyeholes, giving the impression of spectacles.

The visual result of all these protections is really menacing. The Plague Doctor became a popular character in Venetian Carnival, celebrating Memento Mori, or "Remember you will die."

Here are some examples of modern plague doctor masks I found in this summer in Venice.

The first one is very traditional, and the second a more artistic interpretation.

Our doctor was a group effort. Hayley began with a rolled-newspaper base to support our clay beak, Nick constructed the basic outline of the mask from clay, and I finished it up, bringing its features to a theatrical level. Rather than a standard plague doctor, I chose to give it an accentuated expression, trying to translate human elements of the original wearers into the mask. It is important to look at a mask from all different vantage points. The dramatic nature of this mask's beak, looking from the front and the side, demonstrates how a mask can shift expression based on angle.

 UPDATE: The Final Products.

The final masks ended being this interesting mix of adorable and creepy, depending on the angle viewed and also the body language of the performer. Their paint job is very traditional, white, and incorporating the black spectacles to protect the eyes from the plague. I however, used shadow and highlight to suggest more human features, such as a brow, and to accentuate the eyes.

For the production, the Plague Doctors had their moment in the spotlight in a transition, in which they waddled out in long black robes and medicial probes, and proceeded to check the audience for diseases. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pre-Class Intensive: Day 2 & 3

My fingers. Are so. Cold.

Seriously, they're like pale little popsicles. January is not a good time of year for mask-making. The plaster has to be done outside because it's so messy, but half-way through mixing the plaster -- with your bare hands, mind you -- you're pretty sure your fingers are going to snap off. Icy, icy fingers.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Where did we last leave off? Sculpting! Right.

Thursday. Sculpting of the Horny Man and the Nun: DONE.

Horny Men will each have three horns attached externally;
trying to sculpt horns would not go well.
The weird eyebrows are problematic enough.

Had to take side pictures. Just look at those noses!
The Nun masks will have painted-on eyes, like in Swiss carnivals.
The actual eye-holes will be cut just beneath the painted eyes.
It'll be super cool.

Next? Pour plaster over the sculptures. Between Ellie and I, we remembered all of the steps in preparing and pouring the plaster, and it did indeed take both of us to remember. However, we're both majoring in artistic fields, therefore we can't do math. We nearly filled my entire bucket before we managed to fix our initial mistake of pouring the wrong ratio of plaster to water (which is 2:1, by the way -- good to put that in writing). And it still wasn't quite enough to cover both of our full-face masks. It takes a lot of plaster to do full-face masks. And we froze. FROZE. It's so cold outside.

While waiting for the plaster to dry, what comes next? That's what is crazy about doing this pre-classes, intensive session. We do a step, and don't have classes and homework to run off to (yet). We do a step, and then go on to the next step. CRAZY.

Since we're going to use a few of the plaster molds from last semester's class for some of the ensemble masks, we decided to pour some neoprene in those preexisting molds: Ellie's fish mask and Francesca's Columbina mask. Outside. Freezing. (Have I mentioned that it was cold outside?)

After the neoprene pour, Ellie and I broke to divide and conquer. She's working on paper-mache gargoyle masks. Originally we planned on making two duplicates of Nick's gargoyle mask from class (we kept his mold, along with a few others), but Ellie's enthusiastic about designing new gargoyles for that interlude. But since we hadn't figured new gargoyles into the budget, we're doing those with paper-mache.

Speaking of the budget, that's one of the things I did when we divided: walked over to the Charles Center to turn in our undergraduate research proposal so we can get funding for this project. Cross your fingers! We could really use this money. ...Like, really. Plaster and neoprene is expensive.


And try doing it with frozen fingers.

Have an aneurysm, trying to pull the face-positive-plus-clay-sculpture out of the plaster mold. Why is it always SO HARD? God, that was the hardest part of the process in class, and it's the hardest part even now. What did I learn from pulling these positives? MORE SOAP. (Soap. Yes, liquid soap to pour over the sculpture before pouring on the plaster. It's lubricant and it's VITAL.) I need to remember to use more soap.

The battlefield.

Plaster molds for two masks done, neoprene for two other masks poured. PRODUCTIVITY. Cold, icy productivity.

Actually, the weather was going to be a problem for the neoprene, since the liquid neoprene is freezable, and 20-degree temperatures were forecast for Thursday night. And drying the neoprene has such a specific timetable that it was going to have to be overnight. (Pour, wait 2-4 hours, pour out the excess, wait 8-12 hours, peel the dried mask. It's specific.) So, after pouring out the excess, the plaster molds with the drying neoprene had to be taken inside.

But where inside? There is nowhere inside. Room 222 (where we've been sculpting out of the cold) is upstairs, plaster molds are heavy, and we can't make too much of a mess up there. The design lab is freezing and usually locked. That leaves...

Super high-tech... hallway... facility for drying neoprene.

That's right. The mini hallway outside the Studio Theatre, just outside the entrance to the scene shop, by the cabinets where we've been storing our materials. That's how we roll. Put down some butcher paper, instant work space.

Despite FREEZING, it was a productive day. Finished sculpting, poured plaster, pulled clay out of plaster, poured neoprene, poured MORE neoprene-- it was productive.

That was Thursday. How about Friday?

Friday began with pulling the raw masks from the plaster mold.

Raw masks. Creepy plastic goiter-fringe and all.

Franny's Columbina and Ellie's Fish! Love it. Pouring, scheduling, and peeling the neoprene is probably my favorite part of the process because, after that (fairly simple, if not lengthy) step, you get the beginnings of the actual mask. It's the first time that you have the mask itself in your hands.

After pulling the neoprene and pouring the next batch (because Columbinas and Fish only travel in groups), I inadvertently stabbed myself several times with an xacto knife as I tried to trim the edges of the raw masks. Ow. But after that comes the Dremel, which is a magical, magical tool. All those ragged edges left by one's bloody xacto knife? Miraculously made smooth by the glorious of the Dremel.

Fish Mask looks even more alien from the back.

Paint the back of the mask black, and... next?

Waiting to peel the next round of Columbinas and Fish, I prodded Prof. Liz with a question she was probably not expecting: NEXT? "Go forth and sculpt!" she said. I'm paraphrasing that. So I began my next sculpture:

Yes, it's simple and small,
but the dimensions were carefully measured

and the paint-job/decorations will Make It

It's specifically sized to look like a playing card. There will be four, one for each suit. It'll be lots of fun to paint and decorate. And then, because I was STILL waiting for neoprene to dry, I poured plaster over the mask -- though less plaster, since it's a half-mask.

Saved plaster,
but still trying to figure out how
to pour neoprene without spilling

Of course I forgot the soap. HOW DID I FORGET THE SOAP? (Because Ellie wasn't there to remind me, obviously.) Wasn't too bad. Fingernails, wooden sculpting tools, and dental tools -- eventually got all the clay out, or at least as much as I was willing to scrape out with my bloody, xacto'd fingers. But I had time to scrape clay, because I was waiting for neoprene to dry.

Around 9pm, the neoprene was finally dry enough to peel, so I could peel, clean up, and go home. (Didn't pour any neoprene for an overnight drying tonight, though. It can wait 'til tomorrow.)

The Horny Man and Nun plaster molds might be dry enough to pour tomorrow, so maybe that's the next, next step. It takes about two days for plaster to be ready.

Well, there's still more Fish Masks to pour too. (Seriously, we need six of those. SIX.)

Time to put some ointment on my fingers, go to bed, and dream of more masks.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stop talking! Start sculpting!

Because we realize that there won't be much time to devote to masks as soon as classes (and the upcoming production of Rhinoceros) begin, Fearless Leader Ellie and your humble author returned to Williamsburg early to do as much work as we can in the week we have before the first day of classes. Dorms aren't even open, but the two of us (and our dear professor, Liz) are huddled up in PBK Hall, freezing and getting covered in clay. Being theatre people, we could talk about Our Plans endlessly, but we soon acknowledged we needed to JUST START. Dig our hands into the bucket of clay and get dirty.

Ellie of the pink hair and I, hard at work.

Aren't the paint jumpsuits super sexy? (And by "sexy" I mean "ridiculous".) It was just so cold in the design lab that we put them on for extra warmth. Protecting our clothes from stray bits of clay was just a bonus. Eventually we admitted that it was just too cold to work in the design lab, so we moved upstairs to Room 222. We laid down a tarp, covered a table in butcher paper, and got messy. The first batch of clay was way too wet -- like trying to build with mud -- but the second batch was much better. We need to figure out how to dry out that first clay a bit; we can't afford not to use it.

So what are we working on? Well, because we're hesitant to work on masks for the principal characters before the show is cast, we're focusing on the ensemble "masquers" for now. I'm working on a mask for the Horny Men (literally, horny -- as in with horns) that appear in Act I scene ii, and Ellie's working on a mask for the nuns of an opening sequence in Hellena's convent. Because most of the horns for the Horny Men will be external pieces attached later -- possibly carved out of furniture foam -- the mask itself will be fairly simple, except for some extravagant eyebrows. Ellie's nun mask is much more fun: pointy nose, bulging cheeks, and almost no chin. Very funny in its caricature of severity. I'll take pieces of the sculptures tomorrow.

Ellie and the beginnings of her nun.

Ellie's so good at leaping right into the sculpting process; I tend to dilly-dally with base layers of clay before getting to the distinctive features (and like to use words like "dilly-dally"), but this is definitely Ellie's strength, the sculpting process. My strength is really just my enthusiasm. I'm not particularly talented when it comes to artistic pursuits, but I love to plan and design and create paperwork. It's the planning and organizing that gets me excited. I may post some of my charts later. (Not as exciting as photos, I know, but I think they're exciting.)

Well, that's all for now. If we're lucky and work particularly hard tomorrow, we might finish our sculptures soon and get to pouring the plaster. Though I'm not sure we even have any leftover plaster. That would be a problem. Money to buy supplies for this project is a general problem all around that we're having to contend with. More on that later.

Time for bed. Ellie and I have a long day of sculpting ahead tomorrow. Good night!

Oh, and P.S. We're currently sharing PBK Hall with Sinfonicron Light Opera Company, which is currently working on an upcoming production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience (probably my favorite G&S operetta, so I'm very excited). Come out and see the show!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

For your amusement...

...O Gentle Reader, I submit to you:

Image courtesy of Live On Stage

Jeremy Irons in the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Rover in 1986.

I find this somewhere in the realm between "awesome" and "hilarious" -- you decide the exact location.

Yes, this has nothing to do with mask-making, but it IS The Rover, and it IS awesome/hilarious, and therefore is related to our mask-making. Obviously. Vaguely. Somewhat.

D'aww, isn't he dreamy? (Notice how they just can't bear to cover his fresh and adorable 30-something-year-old face. He even has roguish facial hair. Swoon!)

Also from Live On Stage

That is all.

Monday, January 10, 2011

In the beginning, there was neoprene

If we’re to document the process of our team’s designing and constructing these fifty-some-odd masks for this spring’s production of The Rover at the College of William & Mary, I suppose it would be best to start, O Gentle Reader, with where we first learned the basics of making neoprene masks.

It all began with an intensive seminar which lasted three weeks, from August to September, led by guest artist Vivian Appler and Prof. Liz Wiley (the Rover director). For three weeks, we (I think there was a dozen of us in the class) spent at least an hour of every day on our masks, though -- dear lord -- it was never just an hour. Each student completed two masks, which meant that the long, multi-step process of making a single mask had to be done in about a week and a half. The first mask took about two whole weeks, leaving the second mask to be done in just one week, but any task is easier the second time around. I digress.

When I say “multi-step,” I’m not kidding. Let me detail those steps.

Step 1. Each student had a mold made of his or her face out of plaster strips to be used as the first negative -- with the help of a partner, of course. That way, the masks made using the resulting positive (step 2) should fit that student’s face. It was very eerie to lie on the floor with one’s eyes closed, having one’s face slowly covered by cold, wet strips of a coarse fabric that slowly hardened and heated. It was somewhat like being buried alive, or wrapped up like a mummy.

Step 2. The plaster-strip negatives of our faces were then filled with Hydrocal, a white gypsum cement (sorry, no pictures, my hands were full). The cement-filled negatives had to be held for several minutes while they dried enough to be able to sit on their own, and, yes, they were as heavy as the adjective “cement-filled” would suggest. Thankfully this process only had to be done once, since we would use the Hydrocal positive for both masks. Hydrocal is so durable that a Hydrocal positive will last for years. Vivian’s being using the same positive of her face for thirteen years and counting! But, geez, are they heavy.

Step 3. Sculpting! We built clay sculptures on top of our Hydrocal positives to make the faces looked like how we wanted our masks to look. On the left, Francesca is in the first stages of her sculpting, just piling on clay into the general shapes of the features of her mask. On the right is Ellie’s finished fish mask-sculpture.

Step 4. The sculptures (which are positives) were then covered in plaster and left to dry for about 45 minutes, shaped up into those creepy-alien-egg-looking things. The inside of a plaster mold will be a negative of the mask-sculpture.

Step 5. After that 45 minutes, the Hydrocal-and-clay positive is pulled out of the plaster negative. The trick of this, as some of us learned the hard way, is to put plenty of clay around the base of the sculpture so that it pulls easily out of the negative. With my first mask, I had not done this. For several, several hours, I chipped away at the plaster that had leaked under my sculpture, trapping the edges inside. Eventually I used a screw driver and hammer like a chisel, and that worked quite well, though I vowed to never let that happen again. (Pictured is our mask guru, Vivian, assisting with the chiseling, using an old butter knife. Yeah, our tools are high-tech.)

Step 6. When the positive is pulled out, the clay of the sculpture is usually left behind inside the negative, so has to be peeled out. Pictured is Prof. Wiley’s positive and negative. All of her clay came off the Hydrocal positive, though that demonstrates how the negative is formed by the features of the sculpture.

Step 7. The clay is peeled out, exposing the clean negative of the clay sculpture. Pictured is my “He’s Very Concerned” mask negative, clay-free. See the forehead wrinkles?

Step 8. Liquid neoprene is poured into the plaster negative. While this step is easy, it takes the most time, because the drying of the neoprene has a very specific schedule. Pictured here is when the negative is completely filled. That’s left to dry for about two hours. After that, the excess neoprene is poured back into the container, using a strainer to keep out the oogie bits. What’s left inside the negative (after the excess is poured out) is a layer of neoprene about a quarter of an inch thick, which will be the raw mask.

Step 9. The plaster negative is turned negative-side-down and propped up so that the neoprene that’s still liquid-y drains out (and thus doesn’t collect and solidify in the noses or chins, disrupting the weight-balance of the mask). That’s left to dry from eight to twelve hours. So, while this step is easy because the materials just need to be left alone, it takes lots of time and has to be carefully scheduled so that the neoprene doesn’t get too thick or too hard. How we usually scheduled the steps is to pour mid-morning, pour out the excess around lunchtime, and return for Step 10 that night. (We felt very sketchy hanging out in the theatre building loading dock at 9pm!)

Step 10. The dried neoprene is peeled out of the plaster negative, creating the raw mask (a positive to that negative). At that stage, the neoprene is still kind of floppy, so the peeling is pretty easy, though noses are somewhat of a challenge if they’re particularly long.

Step 11. The raw mask is completely extracted from the plaster negative! Yay! Pictured is my “He’s Very Concerned” mask. See how the positive and negative are mirrors of each other?

Step 12. Trim away the excess around the edges, and create eye and nose holes (and mouth holes, if desired). Mat knifes or x-acto knifes are good for this. Also, though not pictured, we used a Dremel to sand the mask smooth, particularly the edges of the eye holes. Dremels are magical tools.

We’re almost done, I swear...

Step 13. The back of the mask is painted black. I’m not exactly sure why. Something about light not shining through, I think, though don’t quote me on that.

Step 14. Give the mask (the front, this time) a base coat, though the base coat doesn’t come through the final paint job as much as you’d think, as demonstrated by the 14 & 15 pictures.

Step 15. Add highlights and shadows. By far the most challenging part of the process for us who are challenged with paintbrushes. For my first mask, I actually used a flashlight to see how actual shadows were made by the mask’s features. (See how almost none of the base coat is visible? Told you. It’s all about the highlight-and-shadowing.)

Step 16. Perform with your mask! Trust me, when you have a finished mask, you can’t help but put it on. We did improv performances with the masks we made, each performing with another student’s mask so we could see our own mask being performed. It was a great experience. Pictured is Prof. Wiley modeling her own second mask, being adorable.

That was the three-week seminar. Crazy, huh? After all that, one might wonder why any of us wanted to do more of this, but it was actually a lot of fun. In my case, making masks was one of the few creative things I’ve been able to do in the theatre department, being mostly involved in stage management (not a very creative field), so the process was very exciting and gratifying for me. Everyone needs creative outlets, particularly us theatre kids. Thus, most of the class was eager to do more of this. Which brings us to The Rover...

In April, the College of William & Mary theatre department will be producing Aphra Behn’s The Rover, a seventeenth-century play that takes place during the Naples carnival (hence the need for many, many masks). A good chunk of the class applied to be part of the mask-making team for the show, and six of us were selected. The Rover mask-making team.

I’ve looked at the calendar and looked at the play breakdown charts, and it comes to about forty-seven masks that need to be made in a six-week period so that the masks will be ready for rehearsal. (And we thought two masks per student in three weeks was bad. Ha!)

This will be an extraordinary experience. It seems fit to document it.