For 15 years, I lived a double life. I was a writer by day and a Broadway wig master by night. Writing was my avocation, theater my job. At first, I didn’t see the connection between the two. I struggled with the relative invisibility that comes with working backstage. There were moments I wondered what it meant to be a cog in the wheel of one of the largest storytelling machines in the world. If I did my job right, I’d fade into the background.
I don’t remember if it was a single a-ha moment or a series of smaller realizations, but over time I came to understand that I was an integral part of the whole. Cast, crew, and stage management showed up every night to tell a single collective story. Each of us brought our life experiences to our work. We each took responsibility of our small corners of the show. Combined, we created a cohesive whole.
A really good theatrical wig is handmade, each strand of hair knotted into a fine mesh. Styling requires not only a knowledge of character and historical styles, but also a delicacy so as not to tear the wig’s foundation. Wig masters style and maintain the hair and wigs in theatrical productions. Working closely with hair, make-up and costume designers, dressers, actors, sound technicians, stage managers, and directors; they work backstage throughout the show, facilitating quick changes and fixing up wigs. Despite the incredible craft and skill that go into building and working with wigs, for the most part wigs should never call attention to themselves on stage.
Much like words on a page, wigs are there to serve the story, not the other way around. Even the fanciest and most complicated styles should complete a look, not stand out on their own, unless the story calls for it. Hair has its own subtle language and opportunities to expand the story. A wig master might ask herself questions like: How does this character see herself? Where does she live? Is she stuck in the past or on the cutting edge of fashion? And what does all that say about her character?
By and by, I came to understand that working with theatrical wigs was a study in character and storytelling and that wigs had a lot of lessons that translate to the craft of storytelling.
Here are three things that wigs can teach a storyteller:
1. Show the tension between person and persona
Hair offers opportunities for the reader or audience member to get inside a character’s head with concrete imagery. Sometimes characters wear their hair with pride or vanity. Sometimes their hair is a hassle. Wig masters consider the inner life of a character, her outward persona, and how she wants to be perceived, whether or not that’s in alignment with how she perceives herself. In a really good character, all is not what it seems and the outward persona contradicts the character’s true north. How does the inherent contradiction between selfhood and self-perception affect how they prepare to meet their day? What cracks exist between the character’s outward persona and her True North?
As storytellers, we have the tools to consider tension between outward appearance and inner life. Hair is one of the most malleable aspects of a human form. If a very neat and tidy character suddenly shows up with a falling down bun and fly-aways, readers know that something interesting has happened between scenes.
2. Build a base
With wigs and writing, there’s a lot going on under the hood. Both require a strong base. Without a strong base, a wig will look strange and will be at risk of shifting on an actor’s head, or in the worst case, falling off on stage in the middle of a number!
The structures don’t get the glory, but a bad prep can ruin a beautiful wig, just as an unsound structure and a lack of foundational research can ruin beautiful ideas.
What you don’t see in a good wig prep: pin curls strategically placed so that the front of the wig lays flat and stays put. Bobby pins secure hair wrapped in pin curls. A wig cap keeps everything in place. A wireless microphone nestles in there somewhere, arranged in a way that doesn’t disturb the wig style. Hair pins secure the wig flush to the head so that the front lace seems to disappear.
Similarly, beneath the words on the page, there should be a sound structure, one that is strong enough to support the story, yet able to slip by unnoticed because of its strength and solidity.
3. Work from back to front
A handmade theatrical wig is built from an outline. First a mold is made of the actor’s head and hairline. The mold is placed on a wig block, supported by batting to mimic the actor’s unique head shape. Then a base is built from fine mesh and stitched together with invisible thread. Hair is knotted into the wig, starting at the back. At this stage, the wigmaker might put in too much hair, with an understanding that much of it will be cut away. The work becomes finer as the wig maker moves to the top of the wig. At the front, hair is knotted in strand by strand, with a very light hand.
Words, like hair, might be piled onto a structure as the story is trying to find its initial expression. Those words will change as the story makes itself known. Closer to completion, a writer must be prepared to lose the bulk of the story and that which is no longer needed. As the story becomes more refined, the words that tell the story also become more refined, until, one magical moment, words and story become a cohesive whole—a single, collective story.
Knowing the shape of a story before you begin gives a sense of shape to the story.