How to Make a Large-Scale Paper Mask for Your Next Walking Tour
A step-by-step guide.
Here at Bohemian Storytelling Tours, masks allow us to take our theatrics to the next level. On our Burnside: Menace to Society tour, we bring masks, wigs, props, and other costume-bits along for our audience to wear, and it helps us appreciate one of the major themes of that performance: letting the freak flag fly. And on our Happy Birthday Hawthorne tour, we summon the oracle of the Hawthorne Bridge (the oldest still-standing vertical lift bridge in the U.S., probably the world), which turns out to be a giant puppet that approaches our audience from across a downtown park, then dances to an improvised flute solo.
I was inspired to bring maskwork into these tours after a two-week class, called Puppetry and Portraiture, at Penland School of Craft in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Classes at Penland's summer program are full-day immersions, and with studios open 24-hours, most students and teachers will work late into the night, too. Faculty and students live on campus, and with meals provided, the focus is on making art more or less nonstop.
In this lens, we'll walk you through the process of how we created our large-scale, lightweight paper mask for the Happy Birthday Hawthorne tour, and how we use it in performance. We offer pretty detailed instructions that, with luck, will allow you, too, to create a large sculptural object out of recycled materials that can come to life through performance.
Here's the intro from our Happy Birthday Hawthorne tour. This is the tour that inspired us to create and use a large-scale mask, and you'll see our process unfold in the images below. I'm carrying the mask on my back during this video; we keep it concealed until the pivotal scene when our puppet--the Hawthorne Bridge oracle--appears ascending a hill approaching the tour group.
supplies you'll need
Not shown here: cardboard. You'll need it for the armature. The bigger the better, so think refrigerator boxes, or free stuff the furniture store is looking to get rid of.
You're not eating it, so it can be the cheap stuff. A 3-pack like this one would get you through a staggering number of masks.
Try to find reused bags or big plastic that'd just get thrown out anyway. Note that bigger plastic is better in this case, and thin plastic works best for our purposes.
Any strong tape will do for this project.
Old newspapers and paper grocery bags will work just fine too.
I asked my local bike shop for the inner tubes they were throwing away; they don't have to hold air anymore to work for this project.
Any scrap wood will work, including tree branches if that's what you have. The lighter the better.
I love this tool. A staple-plier is like a staplegun crossed with a regular stapler. It gets your staples through multiple layers of cardboard, and closes the staple on the other side. Not necessary, but very, very handy for a project like this.
step 1: make drawings
These first two drawings are the work of genius artist Clare Dolan, a veteran of Bread and Puppet Theater, and one of two artists who co-taught the Penland class mentioned above.
You might have an idea in your mind of what you want your mask to look like, but trying to get it on paper is going to challenge you to think about it in a different way. A more tangible, practical way.
For the Hawthorne tour, we knew we wanted a face that would illustrate some very specific lines of dialogue, and that the mask would have a specific function during the performance. Those kinds of things are important to consider at this early stage, and drawing it out helps bring any lingering questions to the fore.
You can hear Clare Dolan interviewed in an August 24th, 2013 NPR story about Bread & Puppet Theater's 50th Anniversary! Check it out here: Bread And Puppet Celebrates 50 Years Of Paper Mache And Protest
step 2: more drawings
We had some technical matters to consider as well. For example, we knew the mask would only be used for one scene, but that everything we use on these tours we have to carry along with us for the entire walk. The mask would need to be concealable, carry-able, and would need to come together quickly for a rapid transition into mask performance.
step 3: build the armature
If you take long pieces of cardboard roughly between six inches and a foot wide, you can staple them together, end to end, to make a ring. Do this, and make the ring roughly the size that you want your finished mask to be. Then begin adding cardboard onto that ring to create the basic shape of the face. You can fold the cardboard to help separate the forehead from the eyes, and to help define the broad strokes of the face. But for the features, Clare taught me to use balled up newspaper taped onto the cardboard, as shown above. You can get pretty good eyes, cheeks, chins, and noses, mouths, etc, out of newspaper.
This structure will be your armature, or the mold on which you'll create the mask. Bear in mind as you work that you'll be casting your paper mask onto this surface later, so if there are deep wells or complicated negative spaces, the mask might not come off the mold so easily. If your armature is starting to get heavy with all this added material, don't worry; your giant mask will be light as a kite.
step 4: cover the armature
You might want to set your armature up on a big table at this point, and you'll need to make sure it's laying flat on whatever surface you have it. You'll be adding weight on top of this armature (in the form of corn starch and paper) so this would be a good time to build up a pile of crumpled newspaper underneath the armature, to prevent it from sagging under that weight.
Now make some cornstarch paste. Try to get it to the consistency of gravy. Then, smear the past all over your armature. Be sure to get it everywhere. Next, lay the plastic over the mold. It'll stick as long as you used a good amount of corn starch. Make sure the plastic gets into all the crevices, so that this plastic layer captures all the great detail of your mold.
step 5: apply paper and starch over the plastic
The next step is to shred up your brown paper or newspaper into piles of strips and scraps. The paper strips shouldn't be much bigger than your hand, and note that the smaller the paper strips, the more detail you'll end up capturing. Get some of your corn starch paste into a bowl, and dip the paper strips into the corn starch mixture, then lay them flat onto the plastic covering your mold. Complete one full layer of paper over the plastic before you begin working on a second layer. Ultimately, you'll need about four or five layers to have a mask sturdy enough to perform with-- depending on what kind of paper you're using.
Notice in the photos that I was working outside in the driveway, so it wouldn't matter that starch and paper scraps would be getting everywhere; but this is a process that takes days. If you make your mask in Portland OR, where I made mine, you'll have to find a covered area, or you'll need to wait until the summertime. Your work can't get rained on part-way through.
step 6: peel the paper mask off of the armature
Once your mask has dried completely, you can peel it off the mold. Usually, the plastic comes off with the mask, and in the other hand you've got a soggy armature (though it will dry and could be used again if you need multiples). Then you just peel the plastic out from the inside of the mask, and you're left with a light, thin, paper cast.
I should probably say that when we talk about the mask you see here, we call it "Lady Hawthorne", which is language we use on the tour to speak of the bridge as a diva. Here's the text we were working from to create it:
"Hers is the face of a classic beauty, a silver screen starlet, with a rivet placed just so, like a beauty mark. Hers is a face with geometry; angular. Hers is the face of the moon, distant and bemused. Her brow is lined like waves below a trussed and towered tiara. She winks at us, secretively--knowing, but unwilling to divulge her secret. Nevertheless, loving, and understanding of us at her feet. She smiles at us as if to say, how young you are, as if to say, how young we both are."
step 7: make it wearable
Here's where those bike tire innertubes can come in handy--they make some fine straps for wearing your mask. Another thing I learned in class that I'd recommend would be to cut a branch or piece of scrap wood to a length that matches the height of your mask. Stick it into the inside of the mask to make a kind of crossbeam to sturdy it, as well as providing a handle that will allow you to hold and move the mask for performance. Put a bottle cap on the outside of the mask where the wooden beam meets the paper (as a kind of free recycled washer), and drill a screw into the bottle cap (which will grab the paper) and down into the wood. Do that again on the other side.
step 8: perform with it
Did you notice the walking stick I carry with me in that earlier shot? To create the puppet, I hook the walking stick into loops of innertube rubber connected to the crossbeam inside the mask. I unfurl the fabric--which is attached to the mask where the chin would be, and which has been hiding the mask for the duration of the tour until that time--and it becomes a kind of body. By hoisting the walking stick high above my head, I can make the puppet pretty tall, and by moving the walking stick over my head I can give the puppet either sharp or languid swaying dance moves, as needed to match the flute. I can also pull the mask close to my body to change the shape of the puppet and give it still other kinds of movement.
step 9: perform some more
Here's Jay performing with the mask. For this scene, we've tucked all the fabric into the mask and tied it around the crossbeam. Jay is holding the crossbeam and bringing the mask close to his body. Without the fabric, the giant mask seems to be attached to normal-sized legs, and the effect is more comic.
Do you want your mask to be more amusing or more mystifying? That might determine how you consider your mask in performance, and how you imagine your mask to have a body (or not).
image and video credits
And especially, let us know if you gave this project a try! How did it go?