Life of a Wigmaker

ARTICLE BY LAURA ADAMS

I had heard the name of the legendary wigmaster Laura Adams shortly before I started working regularly at the Jungle, but I did not (to my knowledge) ever see her until many years later. I had heard many people—colleagues, mentors, friends—speak of her in the equivalent of hushed, reverent tones. But we only ever really crossed paths as I left the building and she entered. I’m very sad that happened. I’ve since had the honor of speaking with her a few times about wigs, theater, and education and economics, and I knew immediately that I wanted her to write for us. I’m so grateful that she has agreed, and I’m going to get out of the way now. —Wu Chen

I never intended to land here. I’ve never met anyone who thought, “I wanna be a wig maker when I grow up!” Yet here I am.

My fascination with wigs began as a child. My mother, being a fashionable woman in the ’60s, wore wigs, as many women did. It’s a very transformative fashion accessory and it transformed her so much that I wouldn’t let her near me when I was very little, because I didn’t believe she was my mom. I didn’t like the wigs at all, but later grew to be curious about them.

The first time I had to wear a wig in a professional theater, I was a teenager. The production was Alice in Wonderland at the Children’s Theatre and the wig was hand-tied, which means it wasn’t store-bought. I was intrigued by the amount of detail put into the construction of it. After being in a few shows and wearing wigs, I became more and more enthralled and wanted to learn how to make them. The wig master, Victor, was happy to teach me and thus my journey as a wig maker began at the ripe old age of 15.

Wig making is a beautiful craft… and painstaking… and tedious… and incredibly rewarding. It is truly satisfying to make, set and style a wig for an actor and, after putting it on, the actor gasps, “This is amazing! I found my character!” I believe the reason it is so transformative is because it is the thing that frames the face, which is one of the actor’s most important tools. When you watch actors perform, you look mostly at their faces, paying close attention to where the words are coming from. When a wig is good, it can make a character because it helps to suspend your disbelief and allows you to get lost in the story. When it’s bad, a wig can be very distracting and actually detract from the storytelling (which is why I think many directors don’t like them). Wigs are very hard to do well and require a skilled hand to do them right.

Most theaters don’t put resources towards wigs, in part because there are so few of us trained to do it well. When theaters do use wigs, they often don’t put enough resources towards them and the wigs end up looking bad. At the Guthrie, we have an incredible shop that does such good work and has an incredibly talented group of people doing them; most people are unaware that they are looking at a wig on an actor. In fact, when tours come through and see that we have a wig shop, they are truly shocked. “I’ve been coming to the Guthrie for 20 years and I never even considered that the actors were wearing wigs!” I hear comments like this, and it makes me smile. But it also makes me a little sad. Not because my work isn’t noticed—if done properly it shouldn’t be noticed and there is a strange satisfaction in that. It’s because I know that there are so few of us doing this work. If people don’t know we are here and how important hair is to the look of a character, the craft won’t have the support it needs to thrive in the theater world.

It takes a special kind of person to be a good wigmaker for theater. You need to be good with your hands. The work is very detailed and the scale is small. I use a magnifying glass when I’m building wigs. “You must have the patience of a saint” is often heard when tours come through and see us at work. Honestly, it does require patience, but once you know how to do the technique, it’s much like any other handcraft, like knitting or needlework. It can actually be sort of relaxing at times.

Once you have a wig built, you need to turn it into a style, which is basically sculpting with an organic material. We use human hair almost exclusively at the Guthrie because it allows for more control. You can use irons on it to manipulate the hair. Synthetic wigs melt if you do that. You also need an eye for being able to take a two-dimensional research image—such as a sketch, painting or photograph—and turn it into a three-dimensional object that can be worn on the head and stay looking the way you want whether or not the actor is dancing or lying down on a couch or, in some cases, getting drenched with water onstage. When mounting a show, I will either get research or sketches from a costume designer or I have to find my own, and I use that as a guide to create the styles that help facilitate the vision for the period of the play. I always laugh at those epic historical films of the 1960s, like Cleopatra, with all those beautiful period costumes and ’60s hairstyles. Again, hair is just as important—if not more so—than a costume because of the fact that it frames the actor’s faces, the thing we are looking at the most.

Having a good understanding of theater is important to wig making and design. If someone is interested in making wigs but doesn’t have theater experience, I tell them to start seeing plays. Lots of plays. Cosmetology school is really helpful, but not necessary. I didn’t go to cosmetology school; I learned while doing. I know of only three places in the country where you can get a degree in wig and makeup design. Because of this, I feel that intern programs in the field are especially important. It's imperative to the longevity of the field for those of us doing the craft to pass these skills on. It takes years to become proficient at it and even longer to truly master because of the nature of the medium we are working with. Hair reacts differently on any given day, and working with it is tricky business to begin with. I can teach basic skills relatively fast, but the development of the skill set takes years.

One thing that is difficult to teach is how to deal with actors—and it's a huge part of what we do. If you're not good with people or admire the craft of acting, I'd hesitate to go into the field of theatrical wig making. What we do is all about making actors look right for the parts they are playing, and sometimes that means making them look horrible. Actors by nature tend to have strong personalities. The actor’s job is to delve into the emotions of a character and bring it to life, and the people who do that craft tend to have passionate personalities. Most people care deeply about what their hair looks like. They identify deeply with their hair, which is one of the reasons it is so traumatic for some people when they lose it. Actors are no different. It is because of this that the job of the wigmaker/designer is so complicated. Actors’ opinions about their hair are stronger than most and they need to feel good about their look and own it completely or it can affect performances. It is our job to help them own the look.

So not only do you need to be good with your hands, have a sense of fashion through history, the ability to make a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional object and sometimes defy gravity, you need to work with a medium that has a mind of its own as well as have a small enough ego to not mind that people don't even know your work exists, let alone recognize the amount of time it took you to make it look that way. You also need to be a bit of a psychologist, understanding the characters you are helping bring to life while handling the complicated personalities of the people who will be wearing your work. If you are up for the challenge of all of that, a career in wig making might just be the right fit for you.

Plus, it's pretty fun to wear the wigs around the shop for no reason at all.