We hate to ruin the illusion of theatre, but the luxuriant locks sported by the sweet ingénue in that Oscar Wilde production are fake, fake, fake. The reason you can't tell they're as false as George Washington's teeth is the work of the wig master, whose job is to make sure the actors' hair looks good, no matter how large or small the theatre's budget.
Since we're devoted to dramatically (or at least grammatically) revealing the mysteries of the boards and those who work them, Theatre Bay Area talked to American Conservatory Theater's wig master Jeanna Parham, San Jose Rep's wig master Sharon Ridge (who also spent 23 years as wig master for American Musical Theatre of San Jose), and freelance wig designer Merria Dearman, who works with companies like Berkeley Rep, ACT and Cal Shakes.
What does the job entail?
Wig masters work closely with the costume department to help the designer achieve the look of the show, producing the proper wigs as necessary. Handmade wigs are becoming less common, as they're quite pricey, so wig masters often pull from stock built up over the years or go to the store. One of the challenges of the profession is making a $20 wig look like a gorgeous head of (real) hair. Parham recommends finding a good-quality synthetic wig that matches the actor's hair color so you can use their hairline or incorporate their own hair into the wig. Ridge will often chop off the front portion that looks so phony and hand knot the hairline to make it look more natural.
Sometimes a show requires 40 wigs on no budget—and the company wants everything to look amazing each time. "You can't fault the theatre for that," laughs Parham. "So you beg, borrow and steal. You rent the wigs for characters that need better quality."
It was hard for Parham to accept the fact that sometimes you don't have the resources to be great. Sometimes you have to settle for good enough. "But if you can make the performers happy, that will make anything work well," she says. "You keep to the period and you make sure they don't go out with a hard fake-looking wig on their hair line."
Having a sense of period hair is crucial, according to Ridge. "You can create something that looks as it did, but the modern eye might find it ugly. So you have to tweak things to look palatable to a modern audience." But that can be harder than one would expect: "In certain decades fashion changes year by year and very noticeably," notes Parham. "For example, from the 1890s to 1905, the silhouette changed every two years—slightly, but with impact. You have to make sure you hit the hair exactly right and still have it flatter the performer."
Parham and Ridge are both responsible for everything from the neck up at their respective companies, which often includes makeup—maybe aging an actor or simulating a scar. Parham manages the wig shop, schedules midshow haircuts, designs some shows and coordinates others. A wig master's daily schedule includes a lot of washing and setting the wig in curlers and then combing and styling it once it dries. "The true artistry [for the wig master or the crew supervisor] is making it look the same every time, whether it's been reset or not," Parham says. But shows without wigs take up almost as much time, because the wig master coordinates and styles people's own hair.
"You have to please the costume designer, the director and the actor," says Ridge. "If everyone else is happy, we're happy."
If you want to be a wig designer...
"You have to have a creative eye, like any artist," says Ridge. She recommends studying in New York if you can manage it, to network and get experience off-Broadway. There aren't a ton of jobs in the Bay Area, but if you're good, you'll be noticed. "Volunteer at as many places as you can, with the understanding that eventually you'll want to get paid," Parham suggests. "Practice and make mistakes—work under someone who will teach you."
Dearman recommends getting a cosmetology license, because there are a lot of theatre people doing wigs but not many hair people. "You need to understand hair, but you also need to understand theatre," she explains. "Get out and see shows and make yourself part of the community." She also advises educating yourself any way you can. She dedicates a lot of personal time to advancing her skills. "New techniques make the work better—and so does repetition," she says. "Doing it over and over again and trying to make it better every time. I think that makes a good artist, period."
Want to hire a wig designer?
Parham suggests finding someone who knows how to see past the none-too-pristine specimens sitting in storage. "Find someone creative, who can take that dirty wig and know what to do with it to create what you need without too much trouble. Someone able to see past the messy hair."
Why they love it.
Instead of finding the long process of hand-tying or washing and setting a wig tedious, wig masters tend to find it relaxing. Ridge calls it one of her favorite things: "I could sit there with a box of rollers and a spray bottle creating styles all day. It's like sculpture."
"I really love what I do," says Dearman. "It's what makes you good and motivates you." Working in theatre pushes her to expand her hair abilities. "You learn history and the way we perceive people based on their hair color or even the shape of a style. I love the creative part of that." Creating wigs helps the actor become their character in a very physical, definitive way. "When you see the actor feel like a different person, it's really rewarding," Dearman explains.
"A lot of actors have bad wig memories," says Ridge. "There's something very personal about the face and the head and the hair—it's an important part of who we are and who they're trying to portray." Luckily, she's been around long enough that actors trust her to make sure they don't waltz onstage looking like they're wearing a squirrel on their head or, worse, Uncle Hubert's toupee.