Shapeshifter provides masks for a Commedia Troupe's forthcoming tour of Malaysia.
I've known for some time that the craft of leather maskmaking has roots in the Commedia dell'Arte, an early form of theater. I've even seen examples of authentic period Commedia masks in museums, as well as a variety of contemporary reproductions. However, I'd never actually made a real commedia mask until a few months ago.
Commedia dell'Arte was a a 16th century theatrical form which employed stock characters in improvisational scenarios. The humor was broad and bawdy - our term "slapstick" actually derives from a stick carried by one of the commedia characters (Arlecchino's batocchio, literally "bell clapper"). Each character had standard comic bits (called "Lazzi"), and each had a distinctive mask. Before the show, the actors would agree on a rough outline of a plot, and then would improvise their way through it in performance.
Back in February, I was contacted by Gene Zerna, Creative Director of SpeechMasters and actor-trainer.com, a subsidiary of HELP University College. Gene, a director and teacher, and alumni of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, was putting together a Commedia troupe to tour Malaysia, and wanted custom designed masks for his company.
Gene had some very specific ideas about what the masks should look like, but also expressed a certain admiration for my own style, and a desire to have the finished masks clearly reflect that style and vision. He sent me a variety of photos of various versions of each character's mask, describing what he did and didn't like about each. He explained in some detail his own understanding of the nature of each character, and the qualities he found most important in them.
Production Sketches: Arlecchino & Brighella
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Fortunately, our visions were very much in accord. Once I understood the characters, it was clear why Gene liked certain aspects of the photos he sent. We sent black and white sketches back and forth, settled on the forms fairly quickly, and then I set about coloring them. Though I hadn't mentioned it to Gene, from the very first, I'd had the idea that I might talk him into more naturalistic colors than are usually used on commedia masks. Traditional masks are fire engine red for Capitano, a forest green for Brighella, black for Arlecchino, etc... I had started laying in a terracotta red on the sketch of Capitano and an olive tone on Brighella when Gene's email about color arrived.
Production Sketches: Dottore & Pantalone
"I am thinking about something that is a little different from the strict traditional," he wrote, "in terms of keeping all five masks very roughly speaking in the 'flesh tone' range."
Production Sketches: Capitano
In the end, the color on some of the masks was a bit more saturated and intense than either of us had started out thinking of, because we both liked the idea of preserving a sense of the leather as leather, while remaining at least in the broad realm of possibility with regard to natural skin tones.
It was a rewarding experience, going back to the roots of my own art form, and it was a pleasure and a privilege having someone as thoroughly versed in the Commedia venue as Gene Zerna for my sometime guide and collaborator.
The Commedia Masks have now been added to my standard mask catalog.