HOUSTON'S CREATIVE WORKFORCE: HAIR + MAKEUP DESIGN
Kristen Turner, Communications Intern
It is safe to assume that we all have had some sort of mentor in our lives. Whether that be your Mom, first grade teacher, or basketball coach, we all have had someone who has greatly shaped our existence. For Dottie Staker, the Wig and Makeup department head at the Houston Grand Opera (HGO), it just so happened to be her high school Theater teacher. As we settled into her cozy office, laden with renderings, wigs currently being repaired, and framed opera posters, she began to answer my first question of what her beginnings were by saying, “it’s a really corny story, but it’s a good one!” Her eyes lit up with the mention of her high school Theater teacher, whom she says instilled an essential piece of wisdom in her “do what makes you happiest and that’s what you’ll do your best at.” Similar to most teenagers, Dottie wasn’t quite sure of what she wanted to pursue a college degree in, however this statement struck a chord in her. Throughout high school she was heavily involved in technical theater, so why not make a career out of that, it did make her happy after all? She settled on a degree within the Technical Theater program at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music. Within the program, there was a professional stage makeup artist, with whom Dottie had the opportunity to study. After finishing her degree at the Conservatory, Dottie headed to the prestigious Santa Fe Opera Apprenticeship Program, where she worked in the wig and makeup department. Lucky enough, this program would lead to the opera company she still works at today, the Houston Grand Opera. Following her work with the Santa Fe Opera in the summer of 1983, she headed to Houston to begin her career with HGO. Initially her role consisted of her being a liaison between the opera house and Theatrical Hair Goods, the company from whom HGO was renting their wigs. However, by the end of the 1990-1991 season, Dottie had built up such a large stock of handmaid wigs that the company decided to stop relying on rented wigs and trust in the talent they had backstage with Dottie. She has been the department head ever since.
After sitting in her office for a while and discussing her background, I was ready to get down to the nitty gritty. Specifically, I was curious as to what exactly goes into the process of making a wig. The first thing she informed me of was the main reason behind why there are so few trained wig-makers in the US, “it takes years of training combined with a natural skill that not all may possess, it is not a career for the faint of heart” she said. However, as wigs are becoming more and more popular throughout the world of theater and opera in the US, the need for professional wig makers has increased. In the midst of this discussion, I also learned that many, but not all of HGO’s wigs are completely made from scratch. Interestingly, many are often constructed by altering a pre-made wig, essentially creating a new look all together. Yet, I was interested to know more about the made-from-scratch wigs. The production of a wig begins with a rendering or drawing of what the final product should look like. While the costume designer usually completes the rendering, the production designer is the one who usually decides what the final look should be.
After the rendering is made, those working in the wig department create a head wrap, wrapping the singer’s head with saran wrap and scotch tape, and tracing a pattern of the hairline. Following this step, the pre-molded head wrap is put on a block that is padded out to his or her head shape. At this point the wig makers are ready to begin the construction of the actual wig. They begin by choosing the type of netting they will use as the base of the wig (who knew there were many different kinds!) After this, they begin the knotting process of the hair, which Dottie describes as “very similar to rug hooking.” Once the wig is finished being knotted, they style it and prepare it to be used within a show – cut, color, and style. Although the process of wig-making sounds simple, the average wig can take anywhere from 32-40 hours to make and a complicated wig can take 60 or more hours to make.
Following our chat I got to take a look at some of the wigs Dottie is currently working on. Houston Grand Opera presented It’s a Wonderful Life this past Christmas season, which required several men’s wigs. I got a glimpse of the wig the main character, George Bailey, wears throughout the show. As I watched Dottie work with the numerous pins and strands of hair I got a good sense of how this wig itself is a masterpiece of her making. Currently, within the wig and makeup department, Dottie is training and supervising a few women who are interested in following similar footsteps as hers. While the education behind wig-making is long and often arduous, these women are being trained by the best of the best. As I left Dottie’s office and began to reflect on our conversation, I thought, perhaps, this is her way of continuing the tradition of mentorship. All can agree that such a mentorship can help to ensure that there is a future for this creative field within our society. So Dottie, although this may be a “corny story,” it really is such a “good one.” Thanks for sharing.