I was recently interviewed about mask making materials associated with Commedia dell’Arte Masks. I thought I’d share this mask makers response here.
I know you’ve worked (fabulously) with neoprene and other synthetic materials. What would you say to the traditionalists who believe that a mask needs to “breathe” or be made of “organic” materials in order to have life on stage? How about those hard-core people who say Commedia masks were and always should be leather?
What makes a mask play is connected to the level of sophistication as concerns the rhythmic expressive form of the sculpture itself. The material the mask is made out of does not affect the ability of the mask to play. It is the skill of the sculptor and the success of the form that allows for the play of the mask to succeed or fail.
Neoprene is an organic. All of the materials used to create it come from plants (its rubber).
I would ask the traditionalists if they themselves make masks and whether they can articulate with sophistication why a mask plays. What makes it play and if it does not play why? I would also ask them how much have they worked with different masks from different cultures, different materials and different time periods?
Leather is certainly the most comfortable because the actor’s skin does breath through the material. Wood is also organic but it is not a material that allows for the skin to breath through. The Balinese and Noh masks are some of the most sophisticated theatrical masks created and they are wood. They are far more sophisticated than the commedia forms and much more difficult to create.
Masks in many places of the world are made out of wood, paper, clay, metal and fabric. If they are sculpted by a knowledgeable, skilled mask maker then they play. This would imply that a commedia mask should then also play whether it is made out of leather, paper, wood or neoprene.
How a mask “breathes” is connected to the success of its form much like a puppet not the material it is made out of (in my opinion of course). How the material breathes is a different conversation.
I would say the traditionalist who creates broad rigid generalizations concerning what should and shouldn’t be or what has always been and therefore should always be; that they are the death of art and performance. There are no shoulds or musts in a true world of art. Only what can create success in the moment. I would say to the traditionalist who makes such claims then that their knowledge is limited and their worldview is small.
If the mask makers of the 16th century had the materials we have today they would have used them like every artist of every era.
All of that said, the difference between a leather mask and a neoprene mask is the difference between a wool polyester blend and cashmere or the difference between a Stradiverius and a Balzarini. One can do extraordinary work with both.
If I were doing commedia all the time and wanted the deepest best connections, best fit and best comfort for the actor then I would choose leather. It is in my opinion, for those of us who can tell, the most beautiful material and the most alive. These qualities do not, however, rule out other materials as being valid and vibrant for commedia masks. If I had to buy masks for a classroom, a short tour or the limited run of a show I would choose other materials since there is less labor involved and therefore the cost is reduced.
If you have questions about quality and play, buy a mask of every material and watch them come to life!