As a child, I would often hear my father say: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” The most pressing thing on my mind at the time was: Why would one want to skin a cat at all?
I still haven’t answered that question. However, I do know there’s more than one way to get something done. And I have been trying a good number of approaches as I work on the masks for the Maya project: different styles, different materials, different processes.
There’s also more than one way to feel successful. I think some of the success of a mask is measured by its accessibility. It is a really satisfying feeling when a person can pick up a mask I’ve made and instantly feel that they know what they will do with it. There is a feeling that the mask is strongly and clearly communicating its nature to the performer.
I’m not trying to say that masks can’t or shouldn’t be mysterious. Many a mask can take some work to get to know and to perform well. However, when there is a sense of recognition in the actor’s eyes because they can intuit the nature of the character, or see the possibilities in the mask, I feel I’ve done a good job.
Materials, working conditions, and needs of the performance are often in flux, so I find that adaptability is key. I have my preferred methods of creation when on my home turf, but while in India there are a number of differences. For example, used cardboard boxes, brown bags, and newspaper are not easy obtainium in Mumbai as they are in the US. Here they are commodities that can be purchased if you know where to look. The challenge can then become to use what you have in front of you to get the work done.
Furthermore when working on a project as large as Maya, often previously approved ideas need to change slightly to serve the show. Sometimes the choreography, blocking, and the style of mask just don’t synch up and to be successful we find how we might change.In some cases, the choreography can be altered with minimal fussiness. In the case of our peacock character, Prasad was so amazing and alive in physical characterization that it was better to change the position of the mask to match what he was proposing.
Five Sprites, Please
Just a few days before all the basic structures and paint jobs were due, I was asked to make the antlers of the deer masks removable. This would permit easier shipping from venue to venue on the tour. I decided to use old bottles and their lids as the mechanism for this request. A 600 ml Sprite bottle had the perfect neck, but also a very short lid to which I could attach the wire and foam antlers. But it would have to do. I went out into the madness of the Dadar market to purchase five Sprites, trying to decide whether I would drink any or just pour it out. It was a hot day. But I couldn’t find a single one. Then I found a plastics shop (owned by Shahish, incidentally. See parrot pic) that carried long neck bottles with tall lids. Success!
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