Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Laura Adams making wigs at the Guthrie
Wig master Laura Adams at work in her shop at the Guthrie.
Patrick Stewart’s head rests in a box at the Guthrie. Angela Bassett’s, too. Not the heads the actors are currently using for day-to-day activities, of course, but captures of their heads, made of clear plastic and packing tape and marked with their very own hairlines. These clear heads live in a cabinet in a windowless but very mirrored and very lit-up room deep in the costume shop of the Guthrie alongside captures of all the Guthrie actors’ heads, waiting for the day Stewart or Bassett decide to take on a fresh role at the theater. Should that blessed moment occur, Laura Adams, the Guthrie’s wig master, would meet with the play’s designer about his or her vision, pull out one of the celebrity heads, set it on a head block (like a dress dummy, but from the neck up), and delve into her stash of hair.
Yes, Adams keeps drawers full of human hair in her wig shop at the Guthrie. She buys it from hair distributors with her annual hair budget. Gray hair, black hair, bleached hair, permed hair, African hair, Asian hair, European hair, all of it in a set of plastic drawers that look very boring—until you read the labels. One label reads “sideburns and small beards,” and through the plastic a wavy goatee winks out. Another reads “moustaches,” and when I laugh at the idea of a drawer of moustaches, Adams, who is tall and regal and looks a bit like a stronger-jawed, ebony-haired Julia Roberts, whips open the drawer and pulls out a gallon-size Hefty bag of moustaches. They dance in the bag as they’re jostled about, and look a little like writhing caterpillars, creepy and, yes, hairy. “Mustaches don’t last,” Adams says, with resignation. The Spirit Gum used to adhere them is mainly why moustaches decay, and then you have to make more. Wigs, on the other hand—wigs last.
Wigs really last. Visit the British Museum in London and you can get an eyeful of a 3,500-year-old piece once worn in Egypt. The wigs in Adams’s utility cabinets haven’t quite been around that long, but some are pretty old. There are plain brown wigs that live in other gallon Hefty bags, on which their history is inscribed. One lists My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Sense and Sensibility, The Pirates of Penzance, half a dozen different years of A Christmas Carol, and other shows.
Some wigs were created for a particular show, but do much more than mere hair can, doubling as a sort of special effect. A wig for John Proctor in The Crucible is inset with scabs, blood, and gore—to instantly express the mistreatment Proctor received in prison. Adams has also made wigs that are practically sets. Titania, for instance, in Joe Dowling’s 2008 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wore a wig of seemingly infinite blonde dreadlocks that looked like climbing vines, showing her character as something that grew wild from the forest. And Adams has made wigs that allow theater to compete for verisimilitude with an audience used to television. In South Pacific under Joseph Haj last summer, the actress zipped through a series of specialized wigs—one that could be shampooed (worn during the “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” number), one that looked correctly hair-like when wet, and, of course, one where her hair looked sparkly and terrific. Adams also makes wigs that are essentially period costumes: For The Bluest Eye, for instance, opening next month, she has to create a series of historically accurate African-American hairstyles from the 1940s, each fit perfectly to the individual actors and their roles.
The wig-making process begins with Adams sitting down with an actor in a hairstylist’s chair in the Guthrie wig shop, where she will make the aforementioned plastic head. Then, with her assistants, Adams will make a second head form using a strong, thin net with holes so close together they’re not easy to see with the naked eye. Then, hair by hair, using a tiny tool and a motion not unlike hooking the fibers on a hook rug, hairs are tied until the whole head of hair is in place. Then it can be washed, set, styled, and finally fitted on the star.
“We have the best wig shop in the country, I’m told,” says Adams. She says the only comparable spot in the country is that run by Broadway wig-maker Paul Huntley, who has made wigs for Laurence Olivier. But as Huntley makes wigs for particular shows and not for companies, Adams says there’s less incentive to make really good ones that last. At the Guthrie, they buy the best hair and hand-make every detail.
Why work that hard? “They look better. They look real,” explains Adams of her creations. “And hair is a funny thing, particularly for an actress. The audience is focusing all their attention on the face, on the emotion, on what’s coming out of your mouth—the closest thing out from that is the hair. We want the actor to feel comfortable on stage, and good hair can make an enormous difference.”
Adams learned wig-making by apprenticing with Victor Walter, a local wig-maker. She joined the Guthrie as an assistant wig-maker in 2007 and became its wig master in 2014. She has a feel for why the craft is important because she’s been a lifelong actor in the Twin Cities, starting as a kid at the Children’s Theatre Company and appearing in the upcoming Little Wars at Mixed Blood Theatre in May. “I love theater because you’re in the moment—every performance is different, every audience, every day everything is about the moment,” she says. “But then I love wigs because they’re so tangible—you put a lot of hard work into something, and then you see the result, and you can be proud of it and hold on to it.”
The Guthrie does hold on to them—not just to Patrick Stewart’s head in a box, but to nearly all the wigs they’ve ever made (a few beyond hope got used for the dead bodies in the last run of Arsenic and Old Lace). The 35-odd wigs used for A Christmas Carol may well be seen by our grandchildren. A few of the biggest wigs, the ones that don’t squish easily into drawers, are on display in a Guthrie dressing room. That’s where you can see an M. Butterfly geisha-style wig, and a mohawk worn by a punk-rock version of Puck.
Asked if she thinks the average Guthrie-goer would be happier knowing how much was happening above the hairline, Adams says she’s not sure. Some people like the magic to wash over them, while others like the detail. If you’re in the latter group, look up the next time you’re heading into the Guthrie. Beneath the thing that looks like a skyway (which is actually for the delivery of sets) sits a rectangular window. Right past that window, an actor might be sitting very still while Adams and her crew attach something that was painstakingly made to be invisible—in order to make everything you experience in the dark more real.