Peggy Schadler stands at the third act of her life, but the 66-year-old Sperryville resident has never let age hold her back. She has taken communal performance art—or “ritual theater” as she affectionately calls it—to an elevated point for 26 years with the masked theater group, 1000 Faces.
According to Schadler, the troupe started as something akin to “a birthday party or Thanksgiving dinner or what you do on Sunday mornings. I loved the idea of creating my own ritual, my own celebration. We did it really informally. I’d make a few masks and we’d run around with some drums and just have fun with a bonfire in the backyard. We didn’t even have a name.” That informal status didn’t last long as demand for more public performances grew, culminating with an invitation to dance in a local Earth Day parade. They originally called themselves Friends of Gaia, a reference to the geo-spiritual realm from which they took most of their inspiration, but later changed it to 1000 Faces. The current name can be interpreted literally—there are a large number of masks on stage during their performances—but it also evokes the concept of mask-wearing as a method of hiding our true selves. 1000 Faces seeks to investigate what happens in that latter context. “When you wear a mask, the ego is removed and the energy of the person in the mask remains,” said Schadler.
The troupe’s continued presence in the community has earned it official recognition and financial support. For the past three years, the Rappahannock Area Arts Council has awarded 1000 Faces with a Claudia Mitchell Arts Fund grant. This funding has allowed the group to perform all over Virginia, most notably as regulars at the outdoor music festival FloydFest. Currently, 1000 Faces is preparing for a show in late September at the Castleton Festival tent grounds. Provocatively titled The Half Hour News Hour from Planet Earth featuring Liberty and Justice Go Looking for America, the show takes a swing at President Trump’s border wall, stands up for Standing Rock, and features a titular scene where four goddesses go to Congress to the tune of “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads. “I was sort of nervous,” Schadler admitted when it came to pitching this year’s concept, worried that the controversial subject matter would scare away prospective vendors. “I said, ‘It’s going to be political,’ and they said, ‘Bring it on! Now is the time to speak up.’”
Every performance requires up to nine months of painstaking work, a symbolic gestational period for getting every detail right. For costuming, one of the most tedious preparations, Schadler scours thrift store racks and uses shreds of fabric from secondhand garments. “I love just ripping things up. I’m famous for ripping things. My mother didn’t want to give me any more fabric. She would give me a lovely scarf, then be like, ‘Where’d that scarf go?’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s a costume now.’” Costumes play an integral role to the success of each production, and Schadler has a particular eye for what each dancer should look like. “I do want the bodies to look like energy. I don’t want them to look like a body. I always tell my dancers, no arms, no legs, I don’t even like the waist cinched.”
Similarly, their masks are a methodical, labor-intensive process. Her masks are one-of-a-kind papier-mâché pieces, formed over a clay mold, made from recycled newspapers or craft paper, and decorated with wheat paste. Though some peg the result as rudimentary, Schadler is quick to respond that simplicity is the whole point of her work. “Some of the most powerful masks you see in African and Nepalese culture are super simple, and yet they are very powerful. More refined masks are less interesting to me.” Though the masks are quite sturdy, the confounding variable always working against her is Virginia’s humidity. If the masks have any exposure to moisture, “they’ll go soft like cooked pasta.”
She credits her love of mask theater to Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theater based in Glover, Vermont. Founded in 1963, Bread & Puppet takes a decidedly populist approach with their performances, addressing serious political themes with puppetcraft and choreography that even young children can appreciate. Audience members also traditionally receive a healthy slice of homemade bread, a practice that serves their overall goal to nourish both the mind and the body. Schadler discovered Schumann when he performed with his troupe at the University of Virginia. “They started this renaissance of mask theatre,” said Schadler. “His major thesis is that art is for the people.”
Schadler, too, wanted to create art for the people, but knew that in order to achieve her vision, she would have to take a do-it-yourself approach. That meant making due with the materials and resources at hand. She uses everything from the plants in her garden to grocery bags from the supermarket, but for her, that resourcefulness seems to add to the charm of her entire process. “I am a folk artist. I’m not trained in art and I like being a folk artist. People think me calling myself a folk artist is demeaning myself, but I’m not at all. It’s just that I’m not technically trained, but the idea of what I wanted to do was so compelling for me that it trumped even me not having the skills to do it.” Though that modesty may have been appropriate when she began her artistic journey, the detail of her contemporary creations leaves little room to doubt her mastery of the medium.
Beyond the creation of the masks, costumes, and props, Schadler also coordinates the show’s performers. The inviting spirit of fellowship behind 1000 Faces has shaped how the company has grown, boasting a roster of almost 30 local dancers and musicians. These volunteers tirelessly choreograph the dances and create original music tailored to each performance. Their current orchestra includes keyboard, bass, guitar, flute, saxophone, drum kit, and other hand drums.
Schadler’s already working on a new play, Lucid Dreaming in the Age of Anxiety, a piece inspired by a lucid dreaming class she took with her daughter in Colorado. It’s clear she’s become enraptured with the idea of human dreamscapes and how they encapsulate a truer identity than the masks we wear in day-to-day life. “I just want to tell people to wake up,” Schadler stated. “Carl Jung says you need a mask, it’s your persona. We have to have a mask, but you shouldn’t be so hooked to it that you don’t understand that there’s an internal self.”
1000 Faces Mask Theater will be performing with Them Thar Hills at the Castleton Festival tent grounds on September 23. Gates open at 4:30 PM, show from 5–9 PM. Suggested donation $10. Learn more at 1000facesmasktheater.com.