Pulling Back the Curtain: Get Your Wig On

Wig Room (L)

The Hair and Make-up Room at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company during “A Christmas Carol” (2014).

When people think of the backstage world, they usually envision a dressing room door with a gold star and “Mrs., Ms., or Mr.” with a celebrity last name. Tell them the words “Hair and Make-up” and the response is filled with fascination at being a personal hairdresser to the stars. While most assume this career would be filled with glamour, the reality is that working in the Hair and Make-up Department isn’t like working as a cosmetologist in a salon. After exclusive interviews with Hair and Make-up Designers and Assistants for theatre and film, I have great respect and a deeper understanding for this department, their artistry, and their craftsmanship at helping an actor develop their character. Want to learn more about this industry? Then travel with me as I go behind the stage curtain to reveal the skills, talents, and reality of those who work in Hair and Make-up.

What are daily tasks Hair and Make-up Artists encounter? Depending on the position and type of entertainment, different jobs can be required of these four Hair and Make-up Artists I interviewed:

  • Trisha Ison-As the Wig Shop Supervisor/Hair and Make-up Designer at Hale Center Theatre in West Valley, Utah, Trisha assists with designing, building/ventilating, and maintaining wigs.
  • Christiana Tise-A former Wig Assistant for the Old Globe Theatre, Christiana has both experience in ventilating and maintenance as well as running shows backstage as Wardrobe Crew.
  • Jocelen Barnett-Currently a Wig Assistant at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, Jocelen helps maintain wigs, clean wigs (by shampooing or using alcohol spray), clean make-up tools, and keep inventory of supplies for the Wig Department backstage.
  • Sheryl Blum-As Key Hair for various films, Sheryl is second to the Department Head Hair. She keeps the Hair trailer clean and well organized.  She is responsible for ordering products, tracking the accounts, and keeping the continuity book updated daily. The bulk of the work is styling the actors for the day’s shoot and overseeing the background crew.

So, all you have to do is buy a wig, right? Not exactly. Trisha explains this process:

  • Measurements of an actor’s head are taken and their hairline is traced by wrapping the actor’s head in plastic wrap and clear tape to form the shape of the actor’s head. Then, their hairline is traced on the plastic with a permanent marker and is labeled for the specific actor.


    Wig for Ophelia in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” American Players Theatre (2013), Designer: Holly Payne, Wig Assistant: Jocelen Barnett.

  • Using the cling wrap and materials for stuffing (usually quilt batting), a canvas wig block is padded to create the mold of the actor’s head and wig lace (a nylon fabric that looks like tulle) is draped over the molded canvas wig block. The wig lace has to lay flat, so darts can be inserted, but you want as little bulk as possible.


    Wig for Ophelia in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” American Players Theatre (2013), Designer: Holly Payne, Wig Assistant: Jocelen Barnett.

  • From this point a wig can be fully ventilated or ventilated only in front. What is ventilating? It’s not relating to air conditioning, but rather to a process of tying hair into knots on wig lace with a ventilating needle that resembles a tiny fish hook with a handle. If the wig is fully ventilated this step can take up to 40 hours. Most of the times, wigs are only ventilated in front (also known as “fronting a wig”) since it only takes 12-16 hours. In order to do this process, a wig of human hair is purchased and ½”-1” of the front of the wig is cut off. With the cling wrap mold attached to a canvas wig block, the wig lace is draped on tightly to fit the block. The wig lace is then hand sewn to the remaining part of human hair wig and ventilating begins on the lace.


    Wefting examples from Christiana’s portfolio.

  • Another technique, explained by Christiana, involves using a weft, or a track of hair that can be sewn into a braid or curl or add more decoration to the wig. This would be useful for a period wig with a huge hairstyle (think a large white Marie Antoinette wig), so that the wig isn’t heavy in the back and hurts an actor. An example from Christiana’s portfolio above illustrates how a weft was used to create a wig with dark roots and lighter hair to avoid bleaching the wig and potentially damaging the wig lace.

    Wig for Ophelia in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” American Players Theatre (2013), Designer: Holly Payne, Wig Assistant: Jocelen Barnett.


    Wig for Ophelia in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” American Players Theatre (2013), Designer: Holly Payne, Wig Assistant: Jocelen Barnett.

  • Once the wig is ready for styling, techniques range beyond using a curling or flat iron. 1920s, for instance, can be made with gel water and pushing or pulling the hair using a comb to create the waves. A 1940s wig, might require rollers to set and style the hair.
  • With this same process facial hair is made, only the cling wrap is wrapped around an actor’s face and a moustache is drawn to illustrate where it needs to be placed on the actor’s face. Then, a canvas wig block is padded out and the tracing is put on top to drape the wig lace over. From here, ventilating is started.

Now that the wigs are made, are they ready for every show? No. Wigs have to be maintained every show and how much time is spent each week depends on the show. While working on Les Miserables at the Hale Center Theatre, Trisha indicates maintenance took four hours a day, but on the company’s production of “She Loves Me,” it only took two hours per day. During the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” Jocelen and Wig Assistant Maria Davis would spend three and a half hours of work before, after, and during the show maintaining the 57 wigs and 10 facial hair pieces. For the company’s production of “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” Jocelen would arrive three hours before running the show backstage to maintain the elaborate drag show wigs.

Les Mis pics 136

Monsieur Thenardier’s wedding wig, Les Miserables, Hale Center Theatre (2014), Wig Designer: Trisha Ison.

What do you mean by “maintenance”? Several things. After a performance is over for the night, Christiana informs me wigs are placed on Styrofoam heads or on the canvas wig block used to shape the performer’s head to prevent the wig lace from stretching out. Some wigs may need spirit gum removed (an adhesive to hold the wig lace onto a performer’s face), re-curling ringlets, smoothing out hairstyles, or re-activating hairspray, lotion or gel with water. Other times wigs have to be completely washed out, re-styled, and set in a wig dryer which is like a drying cabinet. During the Hale Center Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins, Trisha recalls washing and resetting Mary’s wig at least once a week because of the wear from her famous hat. If a synthetic wig is used instead of a human hair wig, Jocelen tells me curling irons cannot be used and the wigs must be steamed to set a style and placed in a wig dryer afterwards. The good news about using synthetic wigs? The style stays and is sweat-resistant. The bad news? The hair follicle is larger which causes the wig to not have the appearance of natural hair.

Wig Caps and Pins (L)

An assortment of wig caps and pins from the Hair and Make-up Room at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company.

So, putting on wigs goes on pretty easily, right?  Every piece of hair has to be arranged and the performer’s comfort also needs to be taken into account.  Depending on how long a performer’s hair is, certain steps must be taken to prepare their hair to ensure that it lies flat either with braids, pin curls, or other preferred methods.  I’ve prepped hair with many different methods and tools including wig pins (large and small), toupee clips, and bobby pins and have learned numerous ways to make sure a wig stays on with someone who has very short hair.  A PDF from United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) explains this process step by step, which you can read by clicking HEREWhat is the best method I’ve learned when it comes to pinning wigs?  Having someone place and pin one on you.  The first time I was trained to pin on wigs, the process was never clear to me until I had someone place and pin a wig on me.  Experiencing the process from the performer’s eyes and having empathy is the best technique for any artistic process.


Jocelen Barnett

When a show closes where do the wigs go? Not back into stock. At least not right away. All of the wigs have to be washed with shampoo and conditioner and brushed out. Jocelen prefers to use Kenra Care Shampoo and skip using normal drugstore shampoos that have wax and create build-up since wigs don’t have oils to break down the wax like natural hair does. Once this step is complete, the wigs are then inventoried for future productions. Trisha states that since human hair wigs can cost between $250-$1,000 each, these wigs are re-used more often for other shows.

Sheryl 2

Actor Ken Jeong from “Furry Vengenance” (2010), Assistant Hair Stylist: Sheryl Blum.

Does this mean that an actor’s own hair is never used in productions? In some cases, a wig isn’t needed.  If an actor or actress isn’t playing multiple characters or the hairstyles aren’t specific to a particular period, there might be an option to use an actor’s own hair.  Sometimes this might require certain extra hair pieces including:

  • Fall-A long hairpiece attached to buckram, a stiff net, or comb to attach to the actor’s head.
  • Wiglets-Small decorative hairpieces.
  • Switches-A braid or ponytail of hair tied together at one end and covered with fabric for attachment.

For a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival I helped braid an elaborate hairstyle for Juliet that required a switch and sets of extensions to add length and thickness to Juliet’s braid.  When her braid was undone, the switch was removed to avoid any unnecessary bulk, and only the extensions remained.

Sounds like there is a great deal involved with Hair, so Make-up must be pretty straight-forward, right?  Actually, there’s even more involved than you might think.  Interested to learn more?  Then stay tuned tomorrow for my next post devoted to the variety of techniques in the Make-up Department.


  1. Sheryl

    I would love to know where Trisha buys her hh wigs for $250-$1000. Seriously, Sheryl B

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