Advanced printing technology adds new dimension to the Greek Play
Caitlin Oder ’18 sits still as classics professor Amy R. Cohen scans her head with an iPad and 3D imaging software.
When Daisy Howard ’17 signed on to help with Randolph’s Greek Play, she couldn’t wait to throw herself into the practices of ancient Greek drama. She knew the production of Oedipus the King would be challenging, but she looked forward to helping bring back a part of the ancient world. So it was a bit surprising when she discovered her first task as a cast member was to have a cutting edge, three-dimensional scanner record a digital representation of her head.
Actors in the 2014 Greek Play wore masks made with help from a 3D printer dubbed “Medusa.”
Randolph’s Greek Play tradition has always emphasized the use of authentic, original practices. In the first 40 productions, performed between 1909 and 1954, the actors delivered their lines in Greek. Ever since Center for Ancient Drama Director Amy R. Cohen revived the tradition 14 years ago, the productions have emphasized the use of dramatic masks made with materials that would have been available to Greek thespians 2,500 years ago.
This year, though, Cohen began using modern 3-D printing to make the masks more realistic. Of course, Sophocles never had a 3-D printer. But Cohen loved the irony of using cutting-edge computer technology to help recreate ancient drama.
“We bring all of our modern ingenuity and modern sensibilities into understanding what was so good about what the ancient playwrights did,” she said. “That’s exactly how the ancient Greeks would have solved problems and made things work.”
Masks By Medusa
“Medusa” uses a plastic filament to print a 3D model of a head.
One of Cohen’s first assignments as a new classics professor in 1999 was to try reviving the College’s old tradition of performing Greek plays in the Dell. She felt lucky to find an institution that shared her interest in studying ancient theatre by performing it.
“We get closer to the playwright’s art and meaning if we use the same rules that the original actors had,” Cohen said. “If I was doing the plays, then I wanted to do them as much as possible the way the Greeks did them.
“That means there would be masks.”
In the first play Cohen produced at the College, Antigone, students wore papier maché half masks fitted with doll hair. Cohen knew they needed something more authentic.
Months and years of research helped Cohen and her students deduce what the ancient Greek masks were made of and how they may have looked. They devised a way to make plaster molds of people’s faces and then use those molds to create linen masks. But that process had several shortcomings, including the difficulty of making the masks the perfect size while preserving facial details.
Recently, at the suggestion of physics professor Peter Sheldon, Cohen began to consider emerging 3-D printing technology as a possible solution. Printing a model of an actor’s head might make it easier to create molds that would yield lifelike, usable masks. Thanks to financial gifts from the families of Martha Roddenbery Scott ’57 and Margaret Ellis Johnson ’31, as well as a partnership with the physics department, Randolph was able to purchase a MakerBot Replicator Z18.
One classics student named it “Medusa.”
Mark Patterson ’15, who had an internship with a 3-D imaging company, scanned the heads of several cast members. The scans were then enlarged and “printed” in plastic. In August, several students used the plastic heads to create plaster molds and linen masks.
The process required a week of work for each mask. “It’s something that you have to have the work ethic to do,” said Howard, who helped make the masks. “You have to be willing to get your hands dirty. It’s a pretty complicated process.”
The 3-D modeling technology made the final products more lifelike and detailed than ever.
There was even a moment when Cohen did a double take while one masked actress reviewed the script before a scene. “It looked just like a guy in a beard reading a book,” she said. “I think we really got it right this time.”
Amy R. Cohen, classics professor, talks to Daisy Howard ’17 and Marianne Virnelson ’17 as they polish 3D-printed plastic models of heads.
A New Twist
In addition to new masks, Cohen wanted the play to take on new meaning. Oedipus is one of the most read and best-known ancient Greek dramas today. “It’s a challenge to surprise people with a play they think they know,” Cohen said.
Cohen coached the actors on ways to help the audience to feel a part of the play and empathize with the characters’ tragic plight. On the first night of rehearsal, she reminded Marianne Virnelson ’17, who played Jocasta, the queen of Thebes, of the importance of her role. “Your job is not just to talk to the audience, but also to turn them into Thebans,” she said.
She also directed the actors to make the formal language that Oedipus and Jocasta use toward each other sound more endearing. It was another way of making the play different. “I want the audience to see that they are a good couple,” Cohen said.
As a result, Oedipus was presented as a good, caring king who tries to always do what is right, but still meets a terrible fate.
The ancient conventions, the modern technology, and the characterization made the play truly unique. “It’s something that can’t be seen anywhere else,” said Eric Huber ’18, a member of the chorus.
Although thousands of years separate him from the first actors to perform Oedipus, Huber believes there is still good cause to reproduce the ancient tale. “The world changes, but people don’t change that much,” he said. “There are many old plays that are still very relevant.”
Other students agree. “The ideas that the Greeks held important are very similar to ideas that we have today,” Howard said. “It’s important to keep performing these plays, and keep reading them and be immersed in them.”
Amy R. Cohen works with cast members in Randolph’s Greek theatre.