“IF YOU’RE WATCHING a stage show and looking at an actor’s hair, there’s an 85 percent chance that it’s a wig,” says David Brian Brown, celebrated Broadway hair designer and wigmaker whose work is currently showcased in Dear Evan Hansen. Though he originally trained as a hairdresser, Brown is now a prominent member of the theatre world’s wig-making — or “ventilating” — scene. And though his profession resides in one of the lesser-known (or, at least, less frequently recognized) sects of Broadway, it remains among the most essential. The unsung heroes of the wig world craft characters as deftly as they craft coifs, adding dimension and authenticity to the stage, strand by painstaking strand.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before wig-makers like Brown or A Raisin in the Sun’s Mia M. Neal can begin the physical ventilation process, they must ground their vision in context. “It takes a lot of research,” Neal says of designing wigs for Broadway. “You have to consider the characters. For A Raisin in the Sun, for example, I visited different churches on the South Side of Chicago and looked through their archives from the ’50s and ’60s, then looked through Jet magazines from that era as well.”

Las Vegas wig-maker and makeup artist Warren Holz fits a wig onto a student at the 2015 Thespian Festival.

 Las Vegas wig-maker and makeup artist Warren Holz fits a wig onto a student at the 2015 Thespian Festival. Photo by Cori Johnson.

Brown agrees. “It all depends on the time period. Museums and art are great for pre-photograph period pieces, but my favorite research comes from my huge collection of yearbooks, starting with 1903. They give you so much information. Geography can influence hair, so you may have two completely different styles, one from New York in 1960 versus Texas in 1960. That’s where the detailed work comes in.”

And though audiences might not notice such subtlety, for Brown, achieving this level of authenticity forms the most essential — and most fun — portion of his craft. Though sometimes, as he says, truth is stranger than fiction. “There have been some really wacky hairstyles in the past,” he laughs. “If you tried to put them onstage, people would be like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ Even if you have your yearbook and can say, ‘Well, look at Bobby Sue!’”

Of course, the script informs a wig’s conception. When creating wigs for A Raisin in the Sun, Neal studied the characters’ personalities, economic status, and lifestyles. They would do their own hair every day, she guessed, so she needed to realistically reflect that. Would they dye it? What products would they use? How much time would they be able and willing to spend time on it each morning?

Based on their research, wig-makers bring a few options to the actor, director, and costume designer. “It’s a huge collaborative effort,” says Brown. “I work really closely with the costume designer and the actor, especially if it’s the principal. You have to take into account who [the actor] thinks the character is, what they’ll be wearing, what will work with their face, what colors look good with their skin. Meanwhile, some directors want total control, but generally they’ll just say, ‘I don’t know anything about hair,’ and step away until it’s time to look at the final product.”

Then it’s time to realize the vision. Though Brown and Neal describe slightly different approaches in considering the actor’s head shape, their essential process is the same. First, trace the actor’s hairline and other natural features like cowlicks, as well as exact head measurements (circumference, ear-to-ear, temple-to-temple, etc.). From there, place a thin mold over a canvas “block” wig head that most accurately matches the actor’s shape and fill out the precise dimensions by stuffing the block head where needed. Brown uses recyclable granulated cork, but cotton or tissue will do.

That’s the easy part. Next comes the foundation, made using a special lace. And if you’re picturing your grandmother’s doilies, think again. “It’s a certain type of lace made from silk” — or plastic, but Neal prefers silk — “with little honeycomb shapes on them. It comes flat, so you pin it on the canvas head and start to shape it by cutting and adding darts to fit the shape of the head and match the hairline.”

With the foundation set, the real work begins: adding the hair. Both ventilators compare the process to making a latch-hook rug but on an incredibly small scale. Take a hooked needle holding a single strand of hair in its loop and slide it into one of the tiny honeycombs, then hook, pull through the honeycomb, and tie the hair into a knot. One hair at a time. Though Neal and Brown admit to occasionally doing three to five hairs simultaneously for the bottom back of the wig, the majority requires the meticulous single-strand method.

“It’s very time-consuming,” says Brown, who estimates that a single wig requires a full 40-hour week of work. “If you don’t like tedious or repetitive things, then you’ll hate wig-making.” He says that he finds the work therapeutic but also enjoys the more exciting details of the craft: adding highlights into the hair, creating the careful, tiny knots at the crown, and crafting bangs, to name a few. In our digital age, it may seem that there’s an easier way to do this, one that’s less time-consuming or somehow automated. But according to Brown and Neal, the process has changed very little over the years. The manual craftsmanship is necessary to ensure realism, and, as Brown says, if the audience “never knows someone is wearing your wig, that’s the best compliment.”

The handmade approach also allows for customization. Theatre wigs are made with human hair of all textures and colors, sourced everywhere from the New Jersey-based De Meo Brothers to boutique London sellers, but quality and price vary greatly. For the frequently changed wigs of a musical’s chorus, for example, Neal buys more durably textured, reusable wigs rather than the pricey “virgin” hair used to create pieces for high-definition television shows. And while there is no distinct difference in process for African-American hair, she says that she will often add short curly hairs to those wigs to simulate a realistic hairline.

Brown, who has worked on everything from period pieces to modern classics, finds that familiarity breeds critique. “All wigs have to be beautiful, but a modern look is often harder to achieve in terms of styling and color and movement, because the viewer’s eye is so trained to modern culture. If there’s something wonky in the way the hair is moving or looking in a modern show, attention will quickly be drawn to it. Whereas in a period show, the general audience isn’t trained on the styles and won’t call it out as quickly.”

The secret to a beautiful wig, then, is clearly in the (painstaking) details. But after this tireless labor of love, how long will these applied artworks last? “It depends on the show,” says Neal. “I’ve done shows where they kept the same wigs for three years. With others, if you’re pinning on heavy hats or there are a lot of quick changes, there can be a lot of wear and tear. Especially if you’re doing difficult styling — if you’re washing or combing it a lot, the hair doesn’t grow back, so any hair that’s lost will make it look thinner. They’re fragile. The goal is always a year, but that’s a lot of repairs.”

Despite the short stage life, Brown and Neal both find the art form incredibly rewarding. “The longer you build wigs, the more you challenge yourself to be creative,” says Neal. “You trust yourself to think outside the box. And when you put the wig on someone and they love it, that’s definitely the most rewarding part.”

“I just love the creative, collaborative effort of it and putting all the elements together on stage,” adds Brown. “One my favorite shows I did was Elton John’s Aida — it was multicultural and involved a lot of different styling, but there was also a big fantasy fashion show that required some weirder, wonky stuff, and we just had such a great collaborative team. It’s important to have a team like that to motivate and inspire you.”

As for students inspired to become ventilators themselves? Brown’s and Neal’s tactics differ. Neal, who participated in Juilliard’s wig and makeup professional apprenticeship, advocates that aspiring wigmakers attend a similar program. If that’s not a possibility, however, she recommends that students learn from the experts by contacting them for studio visits, a move that Brown also supports.

However, he believes that formal schooling is unnecessary, though he did attend cosmetology school. “I just kind of taught myself. I think with this you learn more on the job than you can in school,” says Brown. “Not to say you don’t need an education — it just takes more effort on your part to seek it. There are plenty of videos on YouTube and stuff where people show you the process. Some of them aren’t so good, but when you’re beginning, knowledge is power.”

Brown continues, “As you go along your journey, you’ll just learn more and more and more. It’s all about being open to it. When people reach out to me, I respond. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but it shows that they have an interest — and if they have an interest, I have time. It’s ultimately a passion. That’s what education is all about. You love to see that passion and that interest.”

If a student is interested in formal education, however, Brown recommends studying hair design, as he did. “It’s really helpful to be a trained hairdresser,” he says. “A lot of wigmakers are not, but it’s helpful because you have a better understanding of hair: If you want to color it, process it in any way, even cut it, it’s much better if you know how to do that.”

Regardless of the route taken, the key component to a successful career in wig-making is passion. “If you don’t have a passion, it’s really going to bore you,” Brown says bluntly. If invested, however, Neal would argue that there’s nothing better. “When I was younger, I wanted to be an actress,” she says. “But I figured out from the first play I auditioned for in high school that I definitely wasn’t supposed to be onstage or in front of the camera. I was so nervous, and it would never go away. Now, when I make a wig or present a new hair design, I’m very nervous, but that energy turns into strength.”

With inspiration like that, who can help getting hooked?

This story appeared in the April 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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