Butler Theatre Professor Wendy Meaden was one of the almost 10 million viewers for the premier of reality competition show The Masked Singer. The program, which is now in its second season and was renewed for a third in 2020, pits disguised celebrities in elaborate costumes singing in front of a panel of judges and a live audience.
Being a costume designer and professor whose work has included mask design, creation, and research for more than 20 years, Meaden felt like she had to watch The Masked Singer. But she didn’t make it past the second episode. She enjoyed the show’s mask designs, which are created by artist Marina Toybina, but Meaden was hoping for more emphasis on the masks themselves.
“I can understand the spectacle, and her designs are really good,” says Meaden, who has designed masks for Butler Theatre plays and leads the Masks class in the Department of Theatre, “but it seems to be design for design’s sake. When masks are designed, there is usually some reason or connection for the aesthetic choice.”
Meaden says creating theatrical masks banks on the audience meeting the performers halfway. It takes a lot of practice to be able to design masks that draw audiences to use their imagination and let themselves be transported into the story.
To help future mask makers understand that dynamic, Meaden is in the process of writing a textbook, Masks Inside Out. She knows there are lots of books about masks already, but she says they concentrate on individual aspects: history, cultural significance, design, and how to perform while wearing one. Meaden aims to create one book that combines it all.
“There is so much to learn about masks, but there is no textbook on the market to address masks the way I want to,” Meaden says.
In collaboration with Michael Brown, a former Indianapolis artist now teaching at Columbia College Chicago, Meaden will submit the final manuscript next summer, and she expects to publish it by late 2020.
Masks in the Core Curriculum
Growing up, Meaden never wore masks for Halloween. She remembers noticing masks for the first time when she saw Adam West and Burt Ward’s wearing them in the old Batman TV show.
“I remember thinking ‘They’re not disguised at all. It’s clear who they are,’” Meaden says, laughing.
Meaden created her first masks while she worked as a costume designer for The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which needed billy goat masks for a performance called Three’s Please. She’d never made a mask before, but it seemed like a natural next step to the costume design she’d been doing since 1986.
“As a costume designer,” Meaden says, “I’ve always been interested in presenting characters and transforming actors, and I love the process of creating costumes. Sculpting masks is an extension of that passion.”
Meaden’s masks made their Butler debut during the 2001 production of Hamlet. Made of plaster and cardboard, they portrayed the characters of the Duke of Vienna Gonzago, his wife Baptista, and their murderous nephew, Lucianus. They were then given a worn, weathered appearance of being buried in the dirt, just like poor old Yorick’s skull.
Theatre students that worked on plays with Meaden were enthusiastic to learn more about mask-making and the Masks class at Butler was established in 2003. It’s now part of the Perspectives in the Creative Arts Core Curriculum. Some Theatre majors still take the class as an elective, but many students outside of the Jordan College of Arts enroll, too.
On just the second day of class, students start by creating masks of their own. After protecting their hair with bandanas or plastic bags, they start gluing cardboard and paper over their faces.
“They sit and look in the mirror,” Meaden says. “The class is usually chatty to start, and then there’s a quiet. Everyone stops talking as they are totally focused on the mirror and putting things over their face. What’s fascinating is their sense of transformation—to understand that you can put something on that is your face, but it’s not your face. I am me but I am not me.”
How the brain reacts to masks
In the first chapter of Masks Inside Out, Meaden explains why people are often either intrigued or repelled by someone wearing a mask.
“How does your amygdala react?” Meaden asks. “Your brain’s initial reaction is usually fight or flight, but then your neocortex kicks in and tells you it’s a thing on a person. You’re going to be safe, you laugh, and you enjoy.”
Meaden’s research has found that masks are an extension of humans’ fascination for seeing faces—from selfies to picturing faces in inanimate objects. Faces are why we connect to other people, she says, and a mask on a human face usually brings about feelings of mystery, intrigue, or creepiness.
“Faces are how we judge our safety, how we pick potential partners, and identify family. Our aesthetics are wrapped up in how we perceive faces. And masks are a way we tell stories. They are potent ways to communicate. They are a way of connecting with nature, the spirits, ancestors, the gods, disguise, and protection. We use them in so many ways. They are universal.”
While The Masked Singer relies on glitz, glamour, and reality TV brassiness, millions of brains are reacting to the masks, no matter which celebrities are behind them.
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