Sunday, 10 November 2013

Wigs and Make-up

ROH Insight Evening: Wigs and Make-up, Linbury Studio Theatre - reviewed on 6th November

Wigs and make-up have a long history. As early as 5000 years ago, the Egyptians wore wigs, and the first use of theatrical make-up was recorded more than 2000 years in the past (it was a toxic white lead-based paint). In Shakespearian times, actors wore chalk and soot but as lighting developed, better products were needed, and in the 1870s a greasepaint stick was invented. Stage wigs and make-up have continued to improve and their creation and application are now a real art form, as demonstrated at the Royal Opera House insight evening last week.
Sarah Lamb in The Nutcracker
Photo: Johan Persson
The opera house has 16 full-time members of wig and make-up staff - eight in opera and eight in ballet. The word 'technician' is used in their job titles to represent the technical aspects of the work, with a master/mistress as head of department. Everyone has a different area of expertise from hairdressing to prosthetics, but all have to work across the board, from sourcing make-up products to measuring and preparing wigs.
As far as possible, each member of staff works with the same performers in different productions. Caroline O'Connor, who works in the Royal Opera team, describes: "You're part therapist and confidante, just like a hairdresser. But it all stays within the dressing room." Principals always have their make-up and hair done by the team, but the corps de ballet and chorus tend to do their own. When there are large number of performers needing wigs or make-up, a couple of extra freelance technicians are hired, and cast members line up and get seen in turn. For a production like The Nutcracker (pictured), there are 200 wigs and so 10 wig and make-up staff are needed for each performance.
The team stay around for the whole show, in case any touch-ups or adjustments are needed. They also help the performers to remove their make-up and wigs post-performance.
Ballet and opera require slightly different approaches. For ballet, the designs are reproduced accurately, but with opera, hair and make-up styles tend to be adapted to suit individual singers. Ballet dancers also require their wigs to be very tightly secured so that they don't move when they are dancing.
Bennet Gartside in Don Quixote
Photo: Johan Persson
For wigs, the Royal Opera House team predominantly use human hair, which is sourced from Asia and is very expensive. (Interestingly, the cost increases as the hair colour gets lighter, with white hair the most costly.) They do, however, occasionally use yak hair as it shines differently onstage. Yak hair works especially well for theatrical beards and moustaches.
Each wig is made to measure for each individual performer. The head size and shape is modelled using cling film and cellotape and from that, a wig can be created to match the person's unique features. It takes 40 hours (or five days work) to create an average wig as one hair is attached at a time. Machine-created wigs are getting better in quality, but with hand-made ones, the measurements are more exact and there is much greater choice in how colour and length is varied across the wig.
What else does the team get up to when not making-up performers or creating wigs? They liaise with other staff in order to perfect wig and make-up designs for new productions. There is also a huge amount of work in the maintenance of wigs (including washing, conditioning, setting in rollers and styling) and the need to plan for and order products for upcoming performances.
Thank you to the Royal Opera House for another interesting evening and a great insight into the hard and detailed work of the wig and make-up team.

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