When Tessa Crews was 15 years old, she was tasked with playing one of the most memorable roles in the 1000 Faces Mask Theater production, and one of the few roles that was played partially without a mask.
Most people can remember the awkward years of being a teenager and having to deal with insecurities and body-image issues. This experience was no different for Crews, but she was chosen to be the “virgin sacrifice” in that year’s production, giving her a spotlight role with extravagant costumes.
“1000 Faces for me was normalizing and embracing the body, and more free expression of the body,” Crews said. “So even though on a cerebral level, there was definitely hesitance and nervousness, it was always like, ‘go’ because it was such a safe space.”
Peggy Schadler has been writing and producing the 1000 Faces Mask Theater production in Rappahannock County for more than 30 years, making the iconic performance and their signature papier-mache masks a fixture of the community. Crews, along with others in her generation, grew up either performing in the theater or helping out behind the scenes, making way for a like-minded community of people who still faithfully gather together each year.
Many women who helped the production from its inception have since had children who participated in the theater, making the performance older than many of those performing.
Crews, now 28, still lives near Rappahannock County, but has made a point to come home during her years in college and traveling around the world to participate in the production.
“In these formative years, where so many young women are taught to hate their bodies, 1000 Faces was a place where they taught me at least to celebrate what you can express with your body on an artistic level, which I absolutely love,” Crews said.
Schadler was inspired to create 1000 Faces after seeing the “Bread and Puppet” masked theater in Vermont. She said she’s the “poster child for starting at 40,” because that’s when she first started directing her own plays.
Schadler’s plays typically incorporate themes relating to the environment, politics or other social issues and draws inspiration from works of poetry and literature. The production itself is a work of dance, music, narration and storytelling through props and costuming. At the end of a performance, members of the audience are invited to get up and dance with the cast members.
“I don't really think of myself as a theater person,” Schadler said. “I really think of myself as someone who's creating celebrations that everybody participates in, like a birthday party. I always say, we're rough around the edges, but it's like going to a birthday party. If everybody sings ‘Happy Birthday,’ you don't step back and go, ‘Oh, you're singing off key.’”
The first performance was done around a bonfire in a friend’s backyard with three other women, where they portrayed different feminine archetypes. Last year, the performance was held at Pen Druid Brewing, where hundreds of people showed up and some were even denied access because of parking constraints.
“I think a huge reason why it has grown is because Peggy has stayed true to the essence of it,” Crews said. “...People of our community are invested in the ones performing …which people outside of the community can feel. And it doesn't feel like you're an outsider looking in.”
A year-round production
Schadler begins conceptualizing a play just weeks after finishing a production. Sitting in an armchair in her living room surrounded by piles of books and notebooks, she said she’ll try to find ideas for a play using stories and themes from other pieces of work.
In another room of Schadler’s single-story home is a studio where she constructs the massive papier-mache masks. She usually begins creating costumes in November, and the band will receive a setlist in January. Volunteers will then begin choreographing dances and the band will begin rehearsing in March before a fall performance, meeting once a month until it gets closer to the day of the show.
The volunteers are not professional dancers or artists. But, people don’t often know that after watching a performance. Schadler said this year, there are about 30 volunteers, and the number of community members wanting to be involved has grown over the years.
“I'm not an artist,” Schadler said. “That's the interesting thing, people think I'm criticizing myself for something, which I’m not at all. I'm a classic folk artist, in the sense that I'm not technically trained or formally trained at all. I can't draw to save my soul.”
Wendi Sirat, a musician in Rappahannock County, was invited to that first bonfire performance after Schadler told her there would be “a dragon and some wild women” and Sirat should bring her drums. After that night, Sirat said she was “immediately taken by the masks and by Peggy’s energy.”
Sirat now directs the band at each performance and helps the band prepare throughout the year. The band will carry a performance, setting the tone for each scene and assisting a narrator, making the band “the actual speaking voices of the characters.”
“I love being a part of the music, and I love the story,” Sirat said. “I love presenting something that is really from the heart and has a message that's either social, or environmental or deeply touching in a spiritual way, and I would do it for the rest of my life for no money at all.”
Most years, the troupe will perform the play once — one shot to get the correct lines, dance moves and staging. Schadler said she’ll sometimes spend up to $2,000 out-of-pocket to finance a production, and does not ask for anything in return other than an encouraged donation from audience members. This year, she received a grant from the Claudia Mitchell Arts Fund to help fund the production.
So, what keeps Schadler laboring away nearly year-round to create a performance, only for it to be done once?
“Oh, complete joy,” Schadler said.
This year, Schadler will present “Marco Polo Travels The Electronic Super Highway,” on Sept. 17 at Pen Druid Brewing, 3863 Sperryville Pike. The 1000 Faces Band starts at 5:30 p.m. and the performance will begin at 6:30 p.m.