Attention to detail turns hairpieces to centerpieces


If you need a wig for a Halloween costume, you probably go to Party City, buy the cheapest one you can, pull the netting over your scalp, and call it a day. If you need a wig to look realistic enough to be on stage in a Cary-Grove musical, it turns out there’s a lot more to it than that.

Mrs. Whalen is CG’s resident wigmaster (a real title) and jack-of-all-trades. She has been designing the makeup and teaching makeup workshops for the musicals for 18 years and designing the wigs for 11. She also designs and makes props, runs the box office, and assists with productions.

“I graduated from CG and I was in the musicals and plays all four years I was here,” said Mrs. Whalen, who works in the special education department. “I was also on the makeup crew for every show and I really enjoyed it. I studied theatre in college and took stage makeup classes as part of the program. I did some work professionally and then offered to help out with the musicals as a way to give back to a program that gave me such great experiences in high school.”

During her journey through stagecraft, Mrs. Whalen learned the nuances of wig making. For instance, the time spent making each wig varies based on the style and type of wig, due to the different processes used for synthetic and human hair.

“Synthetic wigs hold their style better than human hair, but human hair looks more realistic,” she said. “The first thing I do is decide which type would be best for each wig in the show. For example, in Cinderella, there were a lot of quick changes and elaborate styles so, even though I wanted the wigs to look natural, I went with synthetic so they would hold up during the show.

“In Evita, I used a combination of human hair and synthetic. Eva’s brown 1930’s wig was human hair, but her blonde wigs were synthetic because they needed to hold their shape. For Seussical, I don’t care about the wigs looking natural and I have lots of bright colors and ‘animal’ wigs, so they are all synthetic.

“Styling a synthetic wig is actually faster than human hair. For human hair, I start with wet hair and either set it on rollers or in pin curls and then bake it at a very low heat in the oven for a vintage or ‘set’ style, or you style it with a blow dryer and hot tools like a curling iron for a more natural style.

“Then, once it’s dry, I have to brush it out, style it into place and spray it. I also have to be very careful because human hair is much more delicate than synthetic. Also, if it gets wet, it loses the style. For an elaborately curled style, it might take two hours, not including the four to five hours cooking in the oven. For a simple natural style, it might take 30 minutes.

“Sometimes I also ‘front’ a wig for a lead, which means adding a fine lace front to the wig that is custom fit for them. Then I create a natural hairline by ventilating it (hand-tying individual strands of hair with a small hook), which can take up to eight hours per wig. Eva’s brown human hair wig in Evita was a wig I fronted specifically for Haley. This style of wig is the most natural and real-looking. It is the same technique they use for TV and movies.

“For synthetic, I start with a dry wig and use steam and heat to style it. Synthetic wigs are essentially plastic, so the steam and heat “melt” the hair into the shape I want (curly, crimped, straight) and once it is cool, it will hold that shape until I heat it again. It is harder to re-style, but holds up really well through a performance. For Seussical, the animals wigs are very textured, so rather than using curlers, I braided them in various sized braids and soaked them in hot water to set the texture. Once the wig is cool, I still have to brush it out and style it. A very elaborate style with lots of curls might take two hours from start to finish, but a simple style can take 15 minutes.”
Mrs. Whalen’s favorite compliment is when someone from the audience says they had no idea an actor was wearing a wig.

“If I am doing my job well, the wigs and makeup should add to the audience’s experience without being obtrusive. We all work in the service of the show and the story we are telling. If you, as an audience member, are spending your time looking at the wigs and not being engaged by the story, I haven’t done my job. Even for Seussical, where the wigs and makeup will be more fantasy-inspired, I want you to see the character, not the individual pieces of the wig, makeup, costume, etc.

“The wigs and makeup (and costumes, and props, and set, etc) are not just important for the audience. They are very important for the actors, as well. When we did Fiddler on the Roof, we were asking kids who were 16, 17, 18 to believably portray 50- or 60-year-old people from 19th-century Russia. They can only do so much as themselves, but once they had the makeup, beards, wigs, and costumes, they felt like their characters. It helped them commit so the audience would believe, too.”

Mrs. Whalen’s attention to detail is one reason the production quality of CG musicals is so high. This quality comes at a cost, however. Good wigs and makeup aren’t cheap, so she has to be creative about reusing them.

“The students purchase their own stage makeup for hygiene reasons and the kits are usually large enough to last for a few years. I purchase any wigs I need, but I have a stock of wigs that I have purchased over the years, so some shows cost less than others. For example, I purchased pastel colored wigs for Cinderella and I am reusing those for this show. I bought very few for Evita since I have lots of natural colored wigs that I just needed to style. For Seussical, I have purchased more because the animal wigs are specialty wigs that I didn’t have in stock, but I am reusing two of the Wickersham wigs and the mayor’s mustache from the last time we did Seussical in 2006. One of Mr. Boncosky’s favorite things to do is to try to guess which wigs have been used before and who wore them.”

Suessical will also tax Mrs. Whalen’s creativity because of the outlandish nature of the material.

Seussical has been really different because I’ve had to be imaginative,” she said. “With the animal characters, we didn’t want to be literal and actually have lions, tigers, flamingos, etc., but we wanted to find a way to interpret those animals as people. I didn’t want painted faces. I did a lot of research looking for inspiration for each of the groups in the cast (Whos, jungle creatures, Bird Girls). I settled on a vaguely 80s punk look for the animals, so I put lots of texture and color in the wigs and eyeliner in the makeup looks. For the Bird Girls, who are dressed as showgirls, I chose a late 60s makeup look since the big eyelashes and winged eyeliner suggest a bird. For a show like Evita, where the goal is realism and period-appropriate hairstyles and makeup, it takes less creativity than a show like this.”