Interview with Mask Designer, Tara Cariaso

The story and design of Tornkid is based on Southeast Asian and Pacific Indigenous mythology, which is rarely seen on the American stage. We asked Tara Cariaso, the phenomenal mask designer of Waxing Moon about her design inspirations for Tornkid.

What is your vision for the masks in the show?

For me, masks are the ultimate metaphor for how to present identity in TORNKID. The play is a fascinating vehicle for the creative team to examine how we express identity.  Tornkid wrestles with their identity. At the same time, actors in the piece pick up a new role every few minutes. That means the symbols that we use to express identity again and again are loaded metaphors:  who are you playing and what is important about the way that is imparted to the audience through mask?  That kind of consciousness about the symbolic act of wearing a mask is really fulfilling to me as a designer.  

What roles do masks play in this work?   
The masks I am exploring in TORNKID are meant to serve as 'masking' for a small cast of actors playing many roles each.  At the same time the masks have serve that character's specific purpose in the play metaphorically.

Masks as a way to hide:  There are masks for hiding, a prime example being Venetian Carnivale masks, where folks wore masks meant to hide their identity.

Masks as a way of portraying the interior character: Some mask forms like to tell you about the struggles of that character through their face, like in the stylized masks of the Italian Commedia Dell'Arte, or in "Character" masks.

Masks as presenting your social information:  Another way of using mask, prevalent in masks used by tribal and indigenous communities, is to let the mask represent your role or your community.  I think of this as a mask that presents cultural information, including status, traditions, occupation, etc.  These are Noble masks.  They don't speak of a character's complex interior, but instead talk to the character's role in society.

TORNKID's masks cover all of these territories, so there's a spectrum of mask uses and that is very exciting.  We're also integrating a kind of cross-pollination between self-puppeteering and d.i.y. mask play, which feels unexpected and really delves the depths of our metaphoric use of mask.

What are your design inspirations?

I was really inspired by sculpture and origin stories from the Philippines, and also by biographical research I did about powerful matriarchal figures from both Vietnam and the Philippines.  That's where it started. 

But I am Filipino American, and to be honest, it was thrilling to get to think about making masks that represent these non-toxically powerful women characters who looked something like myself!  My strongest design work comes from looking for connections between myself and the characters I create. However, in most of my mask making work, I have had to take my Fil-Am parts OUT of the characters I design because culturally those parts have felt out of place in the theatre world.  Unfortunately, in 10 years as a professional mask maker, my work has NEVER invited me to bring my reality as a Fil-Am woman into play before, so I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to find myself in these pieces in such a personal way.  In that way, being Filipina has been my design inspiration.  

What do you hope to achieve in creating these masks?
In making these masks I hope to help other AAPI folks feel seen and empowered to bring themselves into the Baltimore theatre community.  There has tended to be an disappointingly generalized attitude in Baltimore towards casting, one that seems to say, "actors can act like anyone they want." Times are changing, and I'm grateful for the shift in consciousness which says that it's not okay for non-minority actors to usurp the roles of minority-written characters.  I'm glad that performances that do not consider/honor appropriate representation are being called out.  Context is becoming important in our Baltimore theatre community's dialogue.  The marginalization of people of color in main stream theatre and media in the US is more apparent than ever, and is being more universally understood as unacceptable. This is all great progress. As a long-time professional in this field, I have felt the exclusion that comes with being Fil-Am, with not being cast-able because of my ethnicity.  Making pieces for TORNKID makes me feel valuable and seen, and I want that feeling of being cast-able for all the theatre kids out there, young and old. Maybe they will see TORNKID as further proof that in the Baltimore theatre community, We count.

TORNKID opens on May 23 and runs through June 9.