NYU Tisch School of the Arts designers are embracing masks as part of a return to live performance
Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet...through a mask? Can Romeo and Juliet fall in love if they’re always kept six feet apart?
As the Graduate Acting and Design for Stage and Film programs at Tisch School of the Arts carefully eased back into live theater in fall 2020 —performing to extremely limited audiences of NYU students and faculty—the stringent public health protocols that kept the cast, crew, and audience members safe also presented a new set of artistic challenges. Directors got creative, weaving social distancing into storylines, encouraging students to emulate the gestural stylings of silent movie actors, and even borrowing scene change tricks from 1950s live television. Scripts were adapted and intimate scenes reset so physical touch was simulated rather than actualized.
But there was no getting around the fact that actors had to keep their faces covered at all times. So costume designers were faced with a particularly tricky task: developing masks that would protect and keep actors comfortable while supporting a director’s vision and aesthetic.
In earlier productions of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Mary Seacole, costume designers opted to keep masks neutral to help them blend into the production relatively unnoticed. But for the February production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Associate Arts Professor Brandon J. Dirden—in which a socially-distanced cast of 15 performed across two stages with live broadcasting between theaters—costume designers Lauren Carmen and Krista Intranuovo took a different approach, reimagining masks as expressive costume pieces that helped advance the story.
NYU News spoke to Constance Hoffman, area head of costume design in the Department of Design for Stage and Film and Daun Fallon, NYU’s Costume Shop manager about the process of developing masks as costume pieces—and what they’re learned about safety and storytelling along the way.
Having to perform with their faces covered can’t be easy for actors. Are there ways to make masks look and feel less cumbersome?
Hoffman: Through all our shows, safety was our primary concern. The actor's opinion was, after safety, the next most important thing. We've all been in a mask that we didn't love and I can’t imagine asking an actor to perform in something they’re not completely comfortable wearing. There’s nothing more personal than the real estate between your nose and your chin. It’s the actor’s tool, it’s the director’s landscape, it’s the designer’s landscape, it’s everything. Now we’re putting fabric over it and erasing all that information and while it’s counterintuitive to our work, we have to do it. We’re working in a contradictory realm, but we’re all learning a new series of codes for how to communicate.
Fallon: When we first started, we attempted to make the masks look invisible. Now, we’re completely embracing and featuring masks. We learned a lot from the first set of plays—where we overlooked aesthetics a little bit—and have continued to refine our choices. We’ve realized that masks are not a one-size-fits-all. A quarter-inch difference in someone’s face shape can change the fit of the mask, for example, so standardizing masks can only be done to a certain extent—you have to actually figure out what the actor can work in.
It's really important to prototype that in rehearsal. Over time we’ve devised strategies that allow us to be nimble with an actor’s needs while ensuring the mask is a COVID-compliant, tailor-made costume piece.
How did you ensure that modified masks would hold up in performance conditions?
Fallon: What we learned through last year’s production of [Clifford Odets’] Golden Boy [directed by Tazewell Thompson] and [Jackie Sibblies’] Mary Seacole [directed by Machel Ross] was that even the weight of a very thin outer layer, to change the mask color or design, resulted in extra weight and muffled the actor’s voice. They also became heavier as they became saturated with vapor from breath. They were unusable.
Hoffman: For the second year production of Romeo and Juliet, the designers custom printed their designs onto fabric masks and onto gauze or mesh material that went over the base mask. The fibers on the overlay fabric were spaced apart so it was lightweight enough to not muffle sound or pull the mask down. The masks for this show featured complicated motifs and it wasn’t possible to hand embroider every mask in the shop. But custom-printing using a digital file allowed the designers to modify the design, lay it out for different mask constructions and shapes, and have ready-made alternatives if an actor needed to switch out to a different mask style.
How did the masks fit into the Romeo and Juliet story?
Hoffman: Our production of Romeo and Juliet was rather ambitious. We had four Romeos and four Juliets and multiple casting for the other parts, and the show was performed across two stages in two separate theaters to allow for the bigger cast of 15 to perform concurrently, with the theaters connected by live video feed. The designers figured out how the mask could become a real costume piece that helped the audience make connections between characters.
There is a specific Romeo design and specific Juliet design so that the audience can track who's who from scene to scene. Some of the actors needed to change their mask cover. The important thing with that is they can never have just a bare face and there needs to be something underneath at all times. The gauze material became a cover and helped us to easily switch out characters while keeping actors safe." -- Krista Intranuovo, co-designer for Romeo and Juliet
What about the love scenes? How did those work?
Hoffman: In Romeo and Juliet, you also have the masquerade scene—so another layer of mask storytelling which is inherent to the play. In the design it's a separate, half mask which is worn on the upper part of the face and only worn during the masquerade.
What has the experience been like for the audience?
Hoffman: People are so grateful to be able to participate in live theater and they fully immerse themselves in the experience. It's so interesting to see how we adapt, because I do think that audience members easily make the adjustment and acknowledge ‘OK, this is the time when we wore masks while doing our job. And that included art.”