Masks are very powerful. I remember being in the dressing rooms of John Vacarro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous, at La Mama in the late ’60’s, when they were putting on their make-up and getting ready to do one of my plays. First they would apply clown white, and then different colors, and then finish with bright glitter. The transformation was incredible; normal, every-day looking people were turned into Kabuki-clown, glitter- freaks. Not only did they look completely different, but also the mask gave them the power to act completely different: crazy, uninhibited, totally wild on stage.
When I joined Para-Troupe in Seattle in 1973, I taught them the Playhouse make-up. Immediately they felt the transformation. We did things in public we never would have thought of doing without the make-up. Masks have an effect on both the wearer and the audience. If I put on a tiger mask, the person watching can say, “Oh, I get it, he’s supposed to be a tiger.” The visual is enough to let that happen. One time I did a street show in Manila, and I had made a makeshift mask out of a poster for a local woman pop singer. After the show, a young man came up to me and wanted to know how I knew about her, and if she popular in America. I had to tell him that I didn’t know and that I was just “putting on another face.” He was disappointed in me, because for a moment he assumed I was somehow “being” his idol.
I love the idea of constantly changing how I look in a show. I’ll put on a new mask, say something that I think makes sense coming from the mask I am wearing at that time, and then discard it and put on another. This way I can be any number of characters in a show. I might wear a “monster” mask, or a warrior, or a sexy woman, or a dog and the audience will accept the pretense.
Most of my masks are made out of cardboard because it’s always available, and it will let you do anything you want with it. I add a couple of pipe cleaners, rubber bands, and gaffer’s tape and then I paint on it whatever I want. Some are just colorful fantasies, others are more specifically human, but all of them become props in my shows, enabling me to keep changing my visual, and hopefully moving along the story or theme of my show.