Life After Beauty School: Interview With a Professional Wigmaker
Part Three in a series of interviews with people who have found hands-on, creative work through doing an apprenticeship.
Wig making, dressing, and styling, are integral parts of any theatre, film, or TV production. Wigs used for performance are often more delicate than those made for everyday use, and require extensive modeling and styling. As the demand for elaborate wigs for royalty, in courtrooms, and for style purposes has waned in the past century, so too has the number of practicing wigmakers in Europe and North America.
Jordan Silva lives in Toronto and is trained as a wig maker/wig dresser, makeup artist, currently working at the Canadian Opera Company (COC). He talked to me about strange head shapes, the opera, and the time he painted 20 people green.
How do you make a wig?
Traditionally you use a wooden block to start. You also find Styrofoam blocks and cork blocks, but cork is used for styling and Styrofoam is used for storage. But many modern wig makers will use Styrofoam for making a wig. You can order them in different sizes, based on the circumference of the person’s head. Then you have other measurements, like the distance between the nape and the hairline, temple to temple around the back, over the top. You create a mold of someone’s head using tape and saran wrap, which creates a mold to make the block. Once that mold fits perfectly, you know it was the right shape. You use tissue paper to create all the little spaces to fill in, because all of the blocks are standard sizes. Then you make the foundation, which is made of hand-sewn pieces of lace that fit together to fit a head perfectly. That would take a day or a day and a half. If you have time, you can have a second fitting, but that’s rare. And then you start knotting every single hair into the lace. On average, it’s about 80 hours of work, but sometimes you can do it a bit faster.
When did you make your first wigs for a production?
That was in England, and the company was called Campbell Young Associates. It took about a week per wig, and usually you only work on one aspect at once. I mostly worked on the backs of the wigs, and someone else would do the front. I was only there for six months so for that time, we were making new wigs for productions that were already running, like Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ghost: The Musical, and some others.
So you got that job after you finished school?
Yes, I got that job after going to a wig school in England. It was the only one I could find, and it was a private college. You could go for anywhere from a week to six months. I decided to go for it and take the full six months, and I took two courses: Wig Making and Wig Styling. Towards the end of the program, the owner called up Campbell Young and we set up a work experience. I went to the studio for a week and worked and learned from them to learn different styles of making wigs. So I learned from that studio, and at the end of the week Campbell offered me a position to come back in the new year.
How did you decide that this was what you were interested in?
When I finished high school, I went to college to do a three-year course in Child and Youth work. Most of the programs I ended up doing with youth had a lot to do with makeup and self-esteem. One of my supervisors at a youth shelter I worked at, who was also a makeup artist, forced me to take a tour of a makeup school with her. It was a real eye-opening experience, realizing that I could actually do it as a career. I was doing child and youth work for probably four years, and was realizing that it wasn’t really for me. I was starting to get overworked, so I decided to switch fields into makeup.
During makeup school, they teach you a little about wigs, but mostly about how to make sideburns and facial hair for film. It piqued my interest and I did my own research and asked around for where I could go to learn more. There were lots of two-day workshops and things, and you can’t learn how to make a wig in two days. Those were more for everyday wigs, using wefts and caps, which are more robust for everyday use. I wanted something more specialized, so I jumped on a plane to England!
When you got back home, how did you find work?
I knew it was mostly going to be contract and freelance work, so when I came back from England I contacted bigger theatre companies like the Stratford Festival and the COC. The company I worked with in England knew the people at Stratford, so I could make a connection there. I found the contact information for the COC’s Head of Wigs and Makeup and set up a meeting to tour the company. I picked her brain about what other places I needed to contact, and what unions I would need to get into. I kept reaching out and networking with people, and then about a month later I got a call from the union saying there was a potential job opening at the COC. It was a short contract, as it always is, but I’m back a year later. I also work part-time at Sephora to keep up with makeup application, and you get to play with lots of products. Whenever I get film or theatre or TV jobs, I take them. I also went back to school to get my hair license. I’ll be done that in the next month, and then I have to find a salon for my apprenticeship for my hair license, because it’s a skill trade.
Wig making isn’t a skill trade?
As its own entity it’s not really recognized in Canada, because most wig makers have hairdressing backgrounds. It’s a bit of a dying art for the majority of the population. It used to be in England; there used to be a wig guild, but I don’t know if it exists anymore.
What’s a typical day at the opera like?
Usually about a week before each production, we’ll get a running sheet: everyone’s hairstyles, who we’re styling, what time, where exactly they’ll be. It’ll also a rundown of the show, so if there are any quick changes you know where you have to be for those, if there are specific makeup styles we need to know. There are about five rehearsals per show and then a final dress rehearsal with an audience. If we’ve finished everything, we can go into the auditorium and watch the production and see how our makeup looks so we can make adjustments.
Depending on the show and the curtain call, we usually show up an hour and a half to an hour before curtain. Depending on the production, you have anywhere from five to twenty minutes to do makeup and hair. After the show, or when actors are done onstage, we take off their wigs and put them in storage for the next show. We make notes for restyling and redressing, which the Heads of Wigs and Makeup will do during the day. Once we’ve taken off everyone’s wigs, we’re free to go.
What’s been one of the more challenging productions you’ve been involved with?
Probably back in England, when I worked with an opera company. During one production, we had about 11 minutes to do a quick change with 20 chorus members who were painted white and were wearing white paper costumes and wigs. We had to get them out of their costumes really carefully because there was no way to clean them. Then they had to put on a whole outfit that was green, green wigs, and we had to paint their faces and hands green. We ran the show for about a month, and the last week of the show, they did an HD broadcast in cinemas across the UK so everything had to be impeccable.
You get a real rush of energy when you have to do something that quickly. There was one day where I was really nauseous and shouldn’t have gone to work, but the minute I had to do that quick change, I wasn’t sick anymore. Your body knows it can’t do anything else, because the show must go on!
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite writes and edits in Toronto.
Photo via _theo_