Sandy Moser: mask-maker to the stars

Sandy Moser, theatre-goer and mask-maker extraordinaire. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls,

Live theatre gave Sandy Moser the big-M Moment that turned everything around for her. And she’s returning the favour, though she’d never put it that way in a million years.

“What would I be doing otherwise?” she says, an ‘amused shrug in her voice’ (as the stage directions would say, if Sandy were a play instead of a droll 78-year-old). “It was either make masks or wash my walls or clean my base boards.”

actor Mathew Hulshof in his paisley Moser mask.

Since the opening night of the pandemic a couple of months ago, Moser has been a one-person volunteer props department: she’s made some 850 masks, a lot of them for theatre people and all of them free. If the recipients insist on paying, she directs them to donate to a small theatre instead. Moser is on the phone from the Sherwood Park acreage where she’s lived alone since the death of her husband nine years (and 970 plays) ago; “it’s the perfect place if you have to self-isolate!” she laughs. And she’s reflecting on the life-changer that happened in a theatre. 

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 True, Moser is the matriarch of a showbiz line. Her daughter is Calgary-based star actor/ improviser Karen Johnson Diamond; her actor/producer grandson Griffin Cork graduated last spring from U of A theatre school. But her late husband wasn’t a theatre-goer. “After he died, it was ‘what do I do with my life now?’”

Three weeks into her widowhood, a friend, a fellow retired nurse, dragged Moser to Les Miz at Strathcona High School. “O, that could be crappy,” she remembers thinking. “But I’d have gone to a chicken-plucking contest…. And it was magnificent!”

“It hit me: hey, I’m not thinking about me. And that turned everything around,” she says (stage direction: ‘with gusto’). “I want a bed-time story and I want to get out of my life. And then I want to go home and go to bed…. I highly recommend it to any widow.”

“So I just kept going!” says Moser. “I sit in the front row and pretend nobody’s there but me and it’s all for me!”

Actor/ playwright/ director/ musical director Darrin Hagen with Sandy Moser. Photo supplied.

Since that fateful moment, Moser has been out in theatres three or four nights a week, and is beloved by E-town’s theatre crowd for her enthusiasm and loyalty. She’s seen and loved big-budget extravaganzas; she’s seen and loved solo shows in draft-y basements where the actor has shelled out a princely 50 bucks, and she’s shared the house seats with 10 other people. 

Her daughter Karen took her to see War Horse in New York, and Moser adored it (“OK, I can die now!”). She saw Hadestown at the Citadel and loved it. Twice. She saw Daniel MacIvor’s solo show House in a “tiny church basement in Calgary, 12 chairs, the whole room painted black, the actor had one chair and one flashlight. And I was totally blown away!”

She saw 10 shows at Calgary’s Festival of Animated Objects (“I LOVE puppetry!”). One was a “tiny puppet show in a cardboard box in the lobby, for free. One lady and she had a teeny bird puppet, and her fingers were the feet. And it lasted maybe 15 minutes, and she probably spent 10 bucks. And I’ll never forget it!”     

Big budget alone does not in itself great theatre make, a life lesson that isn’t lost on Moser. “And it doesn’t even matter if it’s good: they’ve told you a story. They’ve given you a perspective about what you enjoy and what you don’t….” It’s a view that makes Moser the ideal Fringe audience. “All of it is a learning experience.

Moser loves talking about plays. “Did you see The Zoo Story, the one with Collin Doyle, a couple of Fringes ago? Wonderful! And For Science! (Small Matters Theatre clown science experiment). “Yup, I don’t even need words!”

Big theatre, regularly, is financially prohibitive for her (her daughter-in-law takes her to the Citadel). But she has subscriptions to nearly every little theatre in town. “A seniors subscription to preview night, and you can go for eight bucks. You can’t have a better night out; you can’t get a hot dog out for that,” says Moser, an ambassador for the theatre industry if ever there was one. And she worries about the future of an art form that depends on social proximity for its vital juices.

The last plays she saw before the shutdown, mid-March, were Shadow Theatre’s Heisenberg and Wild Side’s The Children. Then, suddenly, the curtain came crashing down. No more theatre: “That’s what killing me!” she says. “I miss theatre!”

Which brings us to the masks. Not that she’s promoting her skills. By no means. It was Griffin Cork who contacted me about his grandmother’s gift to the theatre community (and others) to my attention. “I’m trying to just be under the radar here, this quiet little old lady in the bush. But you don’t get to be quiet when Griffin’s your grandson,” she sighs.

“I don’t have a lot of money. But I can do this!” Her model was the masks she remembered wearing as a surgical nurse at the U of A Hospital in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Her re-creations have two layers, three pleats, jewellery wire for the nose to get a better seal. “I’m no seamstress,” she says cheerfully. “My first six attempts ended up in the garbage.”

Shadow Theatre’s John Hudson in his new Rocky and Bullwinkle mask. Photo supplied.

Since then, output (and quality) has escalated. And so has the involvement of the family. After one 75-hour week of mask-making her old sewing machine “said No, and said it really loudly.” She’s using her daughter-in-law’s. Her granddaughter Ella, now in grade 11, cuts the wire and elastic; she’d been the official sewer before “lockdown,” while Moser did the cutting. A Calgary costume designer, mailed her 100 yards of of bias tape for the sides of the masks, and big bags of left-over material. Johnson Diamond, who found a supply of skinny elastic in Calgary, has dropped off sacks of extra thread. Nursing classmates of yore have donated postage money.

“If you’re going to have to wear a mask it might as well be fun!” says Moser, of such creations as the Shrek or the Rocky and Bullwinkle mask. Some of her favourite artists, Luc Tellier, Rachel Bowron, Mathew Hulshof among them, sport Moser masks when they go out. Says Tellier “I have a paisley mask for when I want to look fashionable, and a Shrek mask for when I want to look fun!” 

And not just theatre artists, but healthcare, construction, and emergency workers, teachers, seniors… are wearing her masks. Picture this exchange from an abandoned parking lot, a scene that’s a bit Neil Simon, if he’d collaborated with Samuel Beckett: Moser social-distance giving a bag of masks to a friend for distribution. “I’m using my husband’s cane; she’s using a hose extension…. Two old gray-hairs doing a drug deal. It’s hilarious!”

“It gives me a great reason to get up,” she says modestly of her labours. “I’m my own boss; nobody can get mad at me if I’m late.” 

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