The Art of the Hair and Makeup Designer

theatrical Make-up artist working on actress

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When we think of a theatrical show, we often think in the big picture -- of moments, tableaux, and scenarios. But when we think of characters, what most often comes to mind is, of course, the people themselves. That mental image of the face, the hair, the costume, and the way in which the performer uses those elements in performance. Take, for instance, the Phantom and how the makeup created by the production designer perfectly creates a balance of monster and man -- the polished hair, arched brow, and glimpse of a debonair cheekbone, paired against the bone-white mask and the terrible red disfigurement beneath.

Hair and makeup designers each play a crucial and often underappreciated role in any production, designing the hair and makeup for the performers in a way appropriate to the characters and production.

Hair and makeup designers can have a powerful impact on character and production impact -- where would Sweeney be without his white, shadowed face, or the Phantom without his scars, or those famous dancing cats without their feline features?

Hair Styling and Design

Like costume designers, hair designers must analyze the work in question and then create the hairstyles appropriate to the era, setting, and style.

Hair designers will typically work with the director and costume designer to create an appropriate style for each character, as well as working with the performers in question on what they're willing to change. Will they cut or change their style drastically for the part? What hair colors might be most appropriate to the character?

It's hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth, for instance, without her fiery red locks. Or a Nellie Forbush, from South Pacific, without her adorable short, tousled blonde hair.

For some looks, the hair designer may utilize wigs, hairpieces, false mustaches, beards, or sideburns, or hair extensions, which then may be further styled or altered to meet the demands of the show.

Makeup Artistry and Design

Makeup designers face unique challenges in any production, both creative and practical.

The makeup designer must first and foremost create a look that is appropriate to the style of the work being staged, and which meets the vision of the director.

On a more practical level, the makeup designer must also ensure that the look being created will be as effective from the last row as it is from the first (and vice versa) and that if needed, the performers themselves will be able to regularly and accurately recreate the look for each performance.

To create a particular character, makeup designers and artists must not only consider the practical questions of lighting and color (and how the two will interact), but also the age and circumstance of the character. Makeup artists are typically therefore extremely comfortable with the use and application of prosthetics. Prosthetics can enlarge or alter facial characteristics, add the appearance of age, wounds, or scars, and more. Prosthetics are typically created from foam or latex, although more recently, they can also be made out of silicone or gelatin-based materials. Prosthetics are most commonly applied with spirit gum, which is a stubborn and time-honored adhesive that will keep the prosthetic in place.

Makeup artists are typically extremely comfortable with demonstrating makeup application and technique to performers and are also invaluable resources for choosing the appropriate products for the performance at hand. Makeup artists for theater, dance, and other performance typically work with specialized theatrical makeup, once known as greasepaint, which is specially built to last even under the rigors and hot lights of performance, and major brands include such names as Kryolan, Mehron, Ben Nye, and Graftobian.

The Process

The work process for both the hair and makeup designers typically involves analysis of the script, creative discussion with the director and costume designer, and then research, sketching and note-taking on design. The designer will then meet with the performer to create a look for the show that, once approved by the director, will serve as a template for all performances. The designers will often document this template look or style in photos from several angles, as well as step by step through the styling or application process.

Depending on the size of the production, the performers will then recreate the looks themselves before each performance, or their hair and makeup will be taken care of by specialized hairdressers and makeup artists with the production.