With Memphis currently underway, we have been highlighting some of the cool aspects of the show in a short series called “Memphis Monday” every Monday through Sept. 22.
This week, we are looking at a fascinating part of the costumes: the wigs!
Jasmin Richardson, who plays top-notch signer Felicia in Memphis, wears several wigs throughout the play, including this one.
The man behind these masterpieces is 19-year-old Rob Pickens, who recently won an ariZoni award for his wigs for Les Miserables and has created wigs for other Arkansas Rep productions, including Because of Winn Dixie.
We had a chance to talk to the college freshman about his start in wig-making for theatre, his inspiration and design process and what he enjoys most about being a wig designer.
Here is what he had to say:
How did you get into making wigs for theatre? My fascination with theatrical wigs began at a very young age. After becoming involved in the theatre, I soon discovered that the actors I was seeing on Broadway were not wearing their own hair. To me, this was fascinating. Soon after, I began to research into how these wigs were created. I bought a few books on the wig-making process, the tools required and started learning to tie hair.
I started at The Rep after contacting Rafael Castanera with a sampling of my work. he called me in a for a meeting the following day and the rest is history.
While getting fitted for costumes, actresses like Michele May Clark (White Mother/Store Clerk/US Gladys) also get fitted for their wigs.
How do you get inspiration for your creations, particularly for Memphis? When designing, I first began by reading the script and listening to the music. This is the start of my inspiration. With Memphis, I knew from the very beginning, the hair needed to capture the feeling the score invokes. When you listen to these songs, you just can’t help but be inspired!
What is your wig design process from start to finish? The first step in the process is always reading the script. You can’t begin to design a show unless you know what it’s about! The next step is always discussing the show with the costume designer. At this time, we will decide how many different wigs each actor will have; basic styles (curly, straight, long, short, etc…); and decide on hair colors. Following this meeting, the research begins.
I start by pulling as many photos as I can of people from the proper time period. Some of these photos come from the costume designer if they have something specific in mind. Then, I assign the different photos to each character. Some may have more than one reference photo for the same style. If I can’t find a photo of something similar to what I would like, I will often do a quick sketch of the hair just for my reference.
Once I have run all of my styling ideas by the costume designer, I begin the construction process. I start by looking at my stock of wigs to decide what can be used from a past production and what cannot. I will usually always build brand-new wigs for the main characters. For those wigs (and others not in stock), the 10-50 hour process of tying hair into the wig will begin. This is by far the most time-consuming and tedious part of the process (most hairs are knotted a single strand at a time). In order to create a wig with a natural front, individual strands of hair are tied one by one into a fine piece of lace through a process called ventilation. This process is very labor intensive and can take anywhere from 10-50 hours depending on the complexity of the wig.
Ann-Ngaire Martin (Gladys) wears several beautiful wigs throughout Memphis.
After the wig is built, I cut, color, roller-set and style it to my liking. This is when I use the photos as inspiration. The costume designer and I will then have fittings with the actors where we can alter anything if need be. It is also a time when I make sure the actor feels comfortable in their wig. I always want my design to enhance their performance, not hinder it.
What do you enjoy most about being a wig designer? The part of my job I enjoy the most is seeing the transforming power wigs have. Much like a costume, the wig plays an important part in helping the actor feel completely immersed in their character. It’s always such a joy to be a part of that and see them bring their characters to life.
Don’t miss your chance to see this award-winning musical through Sept. 28 with an additional Saturday matinee added on Sept. 27! Purchase tickets online here and get more information about the show–including special events– here.