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Under Lecoq, Sherman was trained in the commedia dell’arte, a form of improvisational theater from 16th century Italy in which masked actors assume roles from a set of stock characters. He continues to specialize in and teach the tradition. “You can see some commedia in vaudeville, you can see it in cartoons, you can see it in opera, it’s a major foundation of theater and entertainment,” said Sherman as we stood in his kitchen while he prepared fresh hummus. Following World War II, commedia enjoyed a revival stimulated by performers such as Carlo Mazzone-Clementi and Lecoq, who began using masks as pedagogical tools. After observing sculpture classes at Beaux Arts and developing his own leather-working techniques, Sherman began to create masks for his own shows and for others. Today, commedia character masks, striking and heavy-featured half-masks with exaggerated expressions, remain a significant part of Sherman’s mask-making repertoire.
While commedia is Sherman’s primary influence as a clown, he says that his performances are Jewishly inflected and inspired. The Talmud, Sherman added, places great value on entertainment and clowns — in tractate Ta’anit, the prophet Elijah is asked who will have a place in the world to come; he responds that there is none. Then, walking through a marketplace, Elijah points to two men. “He says, ‘Hold it, no, those two over there. They’re clowns. They make people laugh, they help people relieve their misery,’” Sherman recounted. “They bring them joy.”
Sherman noted that mask work is best approached with care — wearing a mask can allow one to go beyond one’s limits, and that expansiveness can sometimes prove dangerous. In 1996, Sherman created a mask for WWE wrestler Mick Foley, also known as Mankind. The design was inspired by the bumbling servant character from the commedia, and featured a free-floating moveable jaw supported by leather straps. In addition to becoming the most well-known mask of the wrestling world, the mask freed Foley, Sherman said. Foley’s character blossomed; he began to appear out of nowhere during matches and read poetry at length, drawing laughs with comedy skits involving Mr. Socko, a sock puppet. “The mask allowed him to do all those things. Of course it also allowed him to go further than his body actually would let him,” Sherman explained. “And he quit.” After sustaining multiple injuries, Foley left the ring, making national headlines. “The whole thing is to be able to fly, without any inhibitions or any stops,” Sherman said of mask work. “That is where you have to be careful — you have to know when to stop, when to take care of your body.”
As a matter of course, Sherman always warns recipients of his masks not to look at themselves in the mirror with a mask on to ascertain how they appear. “That’s trying to control the image, and in performance, you have to let the image free,” he said as the sun outside neared its lowest point, encircled by fog. “You have to let the image fly. Having things fly is very important. That’s that trust. Trust in God, trust in faith, its like being able to walk on the edge of the cliff and know you’re gonna be fine.”
Laila Caron is a freelance writer and copyeditor based in New York.