Students produce dramatic masks during collaboration with Commonweal Theatre

Lanesboro art teacher Stena Lieb displays some of the dramatic masks created to celebrate the Commonweal Theatre’s 30th season. MICHELLE ROWLEY/NEWS LEADER
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Comedy and tragedy masks represent the two fundamental human emotions of joy and sorrow, and universally symbolize theatre and acting. Both an artistic and theatrical creation, it is fitting that Commonweal Theatre Company and the Lanesboro Public School‘s art department are collaborating on the formation and public display of student-created masks. Images of the masks will also be used for a gigantic banner that will be displayed on the side of the Manion Law Firm building.

Visually publicizing the theatre company within Lanesboro is an ongoing aspiration for Commonweal; currently banners celebrating its 30th season decorate light posts throughout town.

“We have our marquee, but the fact of the matter is that it does not actually say ‘theatre’ it just says ‘Commonweal,’” explained Adrienne Sweeny, external relations director. “We were thinking of how and where we could put a giant sign that says ‘theatre;’ while talking with Tom Manion, he said he would be happy to let us use the side of his building.”

Instead of a boring banner proclaiming “Theatre,” the company decided to use the visual symbol for theater — comedy and tragedy masks. In late March, Sweeney approached Lanesboro School’s art instructor, Stena Lieb, about having her students produce the masks. Intrigued by the project, and also looking for ways in which her students could impact the community, Lieb implemented the project immediately.

This art assignment was also a history lesson for the students. Emergence of comedy/tragedy masks in Western theatre dates back to Athens, Greece, at approximately the fifth century A.D. Used in large open-air theatres, the masks enabled actors to play many characters and prominently demonstrate emotions to large audiences. No physical evidence remains of these masks, which were thought to be constructed from organic materials.

“We discussed Greek masks and the reason actors used the masks during performances,” said Lieb. “Depending on the age of the students, I shaped the discussions to their ability and understanding.  We also discussed how to assemble, build and construct masks using the materials we had for each class.”

Lieb instructs students in grades K to 12, teaching a range of art media forms appropriate for age and ability. All students chose to design either comedy or tragedy masks. The kindergarten class masks were formed from paper. First and second graders decorated plaster mold forms, which Lieb’s sculpture class, a mix of middle and high school students, made by applying plaster to mask molds.

“I had a few sculpture students who were okay with putting the plaster on their faces,” Lieb elaborated. “We put Vaseline on their faces, so it would release, and covered their faces with plaster strips.”

Lieb’s ceramic students made masks out of clay.

In total, approximately 93 masks were made. The masks, with parents’ permission, will be digitally photographed for Commonweal’s building-sized banner.

A selection of these masks will also be displayed in Commonweal’s events hall.

“We have a dedicated wall, on the south side of that room, and we call it the art wall,” said Sweeney. “Essentially, we try to do exhibits that further enhance the production that is happening.”

The Lanesboro students’ masks will simultaneously premier with the opening-night production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” on May 12.

“’Spelling Bee’ is a celebration of kids, and kids in the world,” said Sweeney. The masks, which celebrate the elementary and high school students’ artistic talents, pair nicely with this production.

 For more information, or to buy tickets to “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” visit

Lieb will be giving a presentation on the students’ collaboration with the production after the Sunday, May 20, matinee as part of Commonweal’s Salon Series, which is free and open to the public.