Real Live Theater

To wig or not to wig? That is the question.

In Behind the Scenes on June 24, 2009 at 1:39 am

by Phil Gravitt

Wig Dog photo by Photo Euphoria

Wig Dog photo by Photo Euphoria

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – “This summer is a heavier wig season than in the past, due to the shows selected,” says Pamela Johnson, Hair and Makeup Director for Summer Repertory Theater (SRT) in Santa Rosa and costume, hair and makeup designer in the Bay Area since 1986.

The Wedding Singer has lots of impersonators, including Michael Jackson, Boy George, Cindy Lauper and Tina Turner.”

To create each character each of the wigs is altered or restyled for the individual character.  One young girl female actor plays a bridesmaid in The Wedding Singer, then the same actor reappears as a young Jewish boy at a bar mitzvah, a secretary, a nightclub dancer and finally a Nancy Reagan impersonator.

This summer, Johnson has been charged with the distinct task of translating designs to individual hair and makeup details for each of the nearly-thirty actors playing multiple roles in five plays performing at the three venues of Summer Rep.

For Summer Rep, Johnson chose to direct hair and makeup, rather than design and direct the costume construction, so she could work part time. In addition to the costume drawings and research supplied by the designers, Johnson does research using the Internet and her personal library. For example, Johnson researched male tango dancers with mustaches, and came up with a stereotype to be styled for the actors.  With 20 years experience, Johnson says, “Many styles are second nature to me.”

“As hair and makeup coordinator, I’m the improviser,” explains Johnson.  “From the final designs, I set up the hair and makeup design appointments with each character and actor.   I supervise and train the crew. One student is the hair and makeup crew at the shows. Wardrobe people also assist in changing hair.”

The time periods represented in each of the five plays being produced at Summer Rep this summer span many years.   “Not all characters have a wig; actors may have to style their own hair in different ways so it is right when a wig is not worn, and short enough to accommodate a wig when one is required.   I start with a head shot of everyone in the company, look at the parts they are going to play, then the designers decide on a standard haircut that will work,” says Johnson.

Actors must put their makeup on themselves.  Each actor has to supply their own basic makeup kit, as well as facial cleansers, towels, hairspray, brushes.  At the initial meeting with Johnson, the actors review all their character changes, and receive a handout telling them what hair and makeup will be needed, and examples of how to put on their own makeup and style their hair for each character.

The hair and makeup crew maintains the wigs, cleaning or restyling as needed.  They also help put the wigs on actors, and make sure the wigs are pinned on securely.  Finally, the crew confirms hair and makeup look correct for the character and checks where the actor can’t see, like the back of their head.      Johnson adds, “I make a chart, and a running list, so the crew knows how to keep track of the changes, and in what order the actors appear.”

With hair, facial hair and makeup changing several times during a performance, many changes take place in the wings just offstage.  “The crew goes back and forth to the makeup room, helping people change makeup,” explains Johnson. “The crew also makes sure everything gets back to its assigned spot and is labeled, and cleans up the makeup room when everyone leaves at night.”

The challenges can be wide ranging.  “Movement is the biggest concern.  Also, high humidity makes human hair wigs go flat,” Johnson adds, “So we often use synthetic wigs outdoors.   Overall, I prefer human hair wigs, which look more realistic and are easier to style than synthetic wigs.”

“It is rewarding and fun for me when the audience recognizes and appreciates the characters,” Johnson explains.   “It is also rewarding to pass on skills to the students I have. They remain excited as they put in long hours, and look forward to an entire life ahead to become makeup artists.”

Additional information about Summer Repertory Theater (SRT) is available at

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:


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