Erica Hoelscher, Lehigh University

Designer Erica Hoelscher teamed recently with the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC) theatre to develop costumes and scenery for a production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. 

The Philadelphia-based IRC specializes in absurdism, where the main theme is the inadequacy of language to communicate. In Rhinoceros, inhabitants of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses over the course of three acts. Ultimately, the only human who does not succumb to this mass metamorphosis is the central character, Bérenger. The rhinoceros suggests competition between people; characters refuse to be bettered even if it means becoming a rhinoceros. They chase after ways to distinguish themselves, the ultimate conformation and unifying factor.

Hoelscher costumed 15 characters and wanted rhinoceros masks because she believed that a contemporary audience would want real and tangible three-dimensional experiences. She researched previous productions that had approached the idea of the rhinoceros in different ways. Some were creative, almost a found object-type rhinoceros, while others were more realistic in the approach. Throughout the course of the play, more and more characters turn into rhinoceroses until the end of the play when only one character is left not transformed. At first they believe it is a disease, but it increasingly becomes clear that it is a choice people are making. As more people become rhinoceroses, becoming part of the crowd becomes hard to resist.  

“I was trying to figure out what to do with these rhinoceros masks, because I wanted there to be a physical, tangible way the actor turns into a rhinoceros,” she says. “Over the course of the play, rhinoceros heads start appearing around Bérenger and they get increasingly elaborate until they are incredibly ornate. I wanted something real that would make a connection for the audience between themselves and the rhinoceroses.” 

Hoelscher wanted a mask that would aid the actors in their transformations and add shock value to the show. She consulted with Brian Slocum, manager of the design shop in Lehigh’s Wilbur Powerhouse, as to how best to fabricate molds. Slocum suggested that Hoelscher speak with Lisa Glover ’13 ’14G, a student in Lehigh’s technical entrepreneurship master’s program. Glover, who received her bachelor’s degree in architecture, recently launched an online crowd-funding effort, a 3-D paper velociraptor built by folding a high-quality paper board. As Glover’s dinosaur entrepreneurial efforts were catching the attention of national media, Hoelscher spoke with her about collaborating on a rhinoceros mask. 

Several revisions were needed before the pair found the right prototype. The mask is similar to origami. The computerized CAD program and the laser cutter create the shapes in cardboard, then it takes two hours to fold, manipulate and glue together. The cost is in developing the pattern and perfecting the prototype, she says, which is essential as each actor needs several masks to accommodate for damage during rehearsals and performances. Hoelscher says Glover’s design has potential beyond velociraptors.

“Lisa’s process has a lot of applications to the theatre. It’s a matter of materials and how they become kinetic. I’ve seen her wear her large dinosaur, and there’s tremendous opportunities for her to collaborate with costume designers in the theatre or in other businesses.”