New Methods in Engineering Greek Theatrical Masks

Sophia S. Dill

Randolph College

Helmet masks have been used in theatrical performance for centuries. Evidence for ancient Greek theatrical masks comes from contemporary texts and imagery, but no actual masks have been found. The best evidence suggests that Greek masks were constructed of linen hardened with glue. Since 2006, full helmet masks have been worn in Randolph College’s original-practices Greek Play series. Using the limited evidence for how the masks were once constructed, researchers have created and continuously updated a method for construction. In 2016, several improvements for different aspects of the maskmaking process were developed by the research team, who have necessarily kept within certain parameters: a short timeline, limited budget, and students with various skills and experience put practical constraints on the possible techniques and materials used. Given these constraints, a balance has been reached between modern and ancient technology. Construction of the masks is done as economically as possible with available technology, as long as the final product consists only of materials that could have been used in ancient Greece.

This poster details the current methods of engineering the linen masks: following the construction of a mask from start to finish, the presentation expands on the developments in methodology during and after the 2016 production. The 2006 method was originally documented by Cohen in Didaskalia and demonstrated at the Annual Meeting in 2009. In 2014, 3D scanning and printing were added to the process to create the oversized heads which form the molds and parts of the masks themselves. The key recent development is the internal structure of the helmet. Previously, a skullcap (suggested by the work of Vervain and Wiles) and a clay nosepiece sat on the performer’s head, holding the mask away from the face. The skullcap structure has been discarded, and clay blocks are now added at the back of the head and at the temples. Connected by crossing pieces of basket reed, this structure suits the needs of the performers and falls within the project parameters. The presentation also details attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, to solve other challenges of the maskmaking process: sealing the plaster mold, facilitating the release of the mask from the mold, and shortening the mold drying time.

This project furthers research that has proven—through practical application—important ideas about the conventions of Greek drama. The method produces masks that allow actors and chorus to move freely without compromising sound. This fact means the plays could have been staged by the Greeks in whatever way the logic of the action demanded, and that the chorus could move and dance in any direction while they sang. The goal of the presentation is to share the method to encourage others to repeat these results.

Session/Panel Title:

AIA/SCS Poster Session (Friday January 5)

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