Our Wigs and Make-up department work on every RSC production. Their home, the Wigs Room, is active during the day with preparations for forthcoming productions and the evening performances. Photos decorate the walls showing elaborate hairstyles and bloody wounds, all created by this team.
An hour before a show, the room begins to get very busy as the actors come in for their scheduled wig and/or make-up calls. During a performance, a member of the Wigs and Make-up team is often to be found in the wings, in the backstage area or even under the stage, waiting to apply make-up or adjust a hairstyle during a quick change.
Before a play reaches the stage, the Wigs and Make-up team meet with the Designer, Director and actors to discuss the look required for each role. A member of the team will work on the same production from the earliest stages of preparation to the play going on stage at Stratford and then to London and/or Newcastle – and perhaps beyond.
For each production, a folder is made up which contains design notes, reference sheets and photographs that will ensure the actor will have the same hair or make-up for every performance. For example, in productions of The Tempest, the role of Caliban often requires bright body paint - photographs are used so that the make-up artist can recreate the same look every night.
The thrust stage design in our theatres means that the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, sitting very close to where the actors perform. Because the audience is so close, any make-up worn on stage must be designed with this in mind - the style is very different from the bold, heavy make-up once worn by actors.
With modern technology, the lights alone can completely alter the appearance of an actor on stage, lessening the need for make-up to do the job. Sidelights eradicate shadows to fill out a thin face and make it look younger; harsh overhead lights can be used for a ageing effect. For example in Henry V recently, overhead lights were used to make the characters look haggard.
In fact, make-up is now rarely used on stage and most actors wear ordinary natural make-up, or don't wear any at all. In the past, heavy make-up was often worn just to conceal the wig line. A wig worn on stage here during the 1940s would usually be made of heavy cotton, fitted with a visible horizontal line across the forehead. This line had to be concealed with wig paste, and that in turn had to be covered with make-up. Modern wigs take advantage of lightweight materials and there is no longer a visible line, so the heavy 'greasepaint' make-up once worn is now obsolete. Dressing rooms are surprising free from make-up clutter - just the odd jar of cleanser or moisturiser.
Thanks to the nature of our work, the Wigs team have few worries about ever being out of work. Our repertoire regularly calls for blood and gore, fairies and fantastical beasts, and a whole range of other special effects so the department is always busy.
Depending on an actor's natural hairstyle and colour, and the character being played, the Wigs team may have to create elaborate hairstyles using the actor's own hair (or sometimes a combination of the actor's hair with added hair pieces), or instead create a wig that will match the actor's own colouring and look entirely natural on stage.
One wall of the Wig Room is covered in shelves populated by milliner's heads which store wigs for current and forthcoming shows. Each head is labelled with an actor's name, and crowned with a full head of hair.
Most members of the audience will never notice that the actor in front of them is wearing a wig. The wigs made here are beautiful - and spookily realistic. Years ago, we used to buy wigs made in London, but the team realised that they could save money and have more control over the look if they learned wig-making skills themselves. Nowadays all the wigs we use are made on-site using natural hair.
Wig-making is a complicated, highly-skilled and largely dying art, but one that is still in demand for almost every show we produce. Wigs are made one hair at a time and can take weeks to make but once up to speed, the team say it's like knitting. The average wig takes one person a week to make, with moustaches and beards produced more quickly.
Over the years, we have built up a large collection of wigs, and these are boxed according to length and colour. Where possible, old wigs are re-used. For example, a shaggy hairpiece worn by Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (with built-in asses' ears) was created by cutting up old wigs and using them like patchwork to create a new wig. The beard and moustache stock is stored in ordinary-looking ring-binders, mounted on card like a museum's collection of rare butterflies.
Theatrical make-up effects
If a show requires blood, the Wigs team makes up and applies 'blood bags' - these concealed plastic bags are squeezed or hit on stage to provide a sudden gush of blood. Stage blood is available in different consistencies to create different effects: the thin gushing blood of a new knife wound is very different from the congealed mess of a battle wound. (The photo here shows blood for King Lear - including tins of lychees which are made into fake eyeballs!)
Although they are not often used, the Wig Store houses some rather strangely-labelled boxes: one reads 'Rubber Noses' while another promises 'Horns and Severed Fingers'. With shows as diverse as Titus Andronicus, Great Expectations and Days of Significance, the Wigs and Make-up team are prepared for almost anything.
Careers in stage hair and make-up
First and foremost, a job with our Wigs team is about hairdressing. When recruiting new members of the team, hairdressing talent is essential plus the versatility to learn new skills in wig-making and make-up.
Interested in our vacancies and work experience placements?
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