At the edge of the gym floor at USM’s annual Thinking Matters conference, Matthew Dobson, a senior theater major, showed how he can make demons appear on stage.
The Thinking Matters conference encourages students and faculty to display the work they’ve accomplished together over the year in research and scholarship.
Hundreds of students, professors and members of the Portland community milled about the exhibition floor at the Thinking Matters poster session in the Sullivan Gym last Friday, perusing the projects of students who stood by to explain their work.
Projects ranged in scope and expertise: from two juggling theater majors showing off the talents and equipment of traveling theater troupes to one student explaining the effects of stellar radiation on the brain and how those effects might be reduced.
In the corner of the exhibition floor, Dobson showed off a pair of silicone masks he had designed, inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.
One of the silicone masks, Dobson’s interpretation of Mephistopheles, was covered in smooth, dark scales, with two devilish horns protruding from its forehead. Dobson flexed its silicone polymer skin and explained how the pliant material allowed the mask to react to and display an actor’s facial expressions underneath. In contrast to Mephistopheles, the other silicone mask, which Dobson said represented the sin of Gluttony, grimaced at passersby with jagged teeth.
Dobson explained that he is interested in using modern technology to bring the supernatural to life on stage.
“The way that it’s been done in the past has been by using lighting changes or by holding up a wooden mask,” he said. Dobson explained that in Marlowe’s time, actors would have worn white makeup and held up a mask when playing a demon.
“With our technology now, I can bring that demon to life on stage,” Dobson said, holding up the mask of Gluttony and tugging on its skin folds thick with snaking, violet veins.
“He’s going to move, and he’s going to talk, and you’re not going to know the difference between that and an actor.” Dobson said, moving the mask’s mouth open and closed with a finger. “And for that one little moment, where you can just sit there in a dark theater and watch that story, you’re going to be in the story. You’re not going to worry about cooking dinner, driving home or paying taxes. You’re going to experience Christopher Marlowe’s story — better, I think, than Christopher Marlowe could have presented it.”
The masks were the product of six months worth of work in design, Dobson said, and would not have been possible to realize without a grant he had received from the university.
“Alone, this is 700 bucks,” he said, pointing to Mephistopheles’s scaley head. But Dobson, who plans to continue to push the limits in terms of theatrical costume design, considers that money well-spent.
“It’s all learning technique for me, and that’s what these [masks] allowed me to do. They allowed me to explore a learning option that I hadn’t had before.”
Dobson said that he will work further as a theater makeup and special effects artist and is planning on pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree. However, he is unable to do that at USM, even though he would like to.
“I would love to continue learning here, but [the university] doesn’t have anything for me here anymore. Even though they have an MBA for business, and they have one of the best arts programs — or used to until they started cutting it — in New England, I can’t continue because they don’t have an MFA in the arts. They have doctors in all these fields, but I can’t learn from them because they’re not allowed to teach me a higher level degree.”