Michelle Hart tugs at a strand of gray hair. She runs a black barber’s comb through the salt-and-pepper wisps and smiles.
“It’s called ventilating,” she says, pointing to the spot where the fine, gray strand knots into the lace. “We use three strands per knot in the front, and one strand per knot in the back.”
This wig, woven entirely from human hair, will transform actor Donald Corren into Cosmé McMoon, the Spanish pianist who accompanies tone-deaf soprano Florence Foster Jenkins in “Souvenir,” the play about a 1920s socialite with an ironically successful singing career, which opens June 5, at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
Next to Corren’s wig sits actress Judy Kaye’s strawberry-blond bob. Hart keeps the hair pinned with fabric strips to maintain the sleek flapper ’do. It’s the same wig the Tony-award-winning Kaye wore during “Souvenir’s” Broadway run in 2005.
Both pieces were woven entirely from human hair, a task that Hart guesses took one Broadway wigmaker 40 to 50 hours each to complete — by hand.
Hart, 37, lucked out with “Souvenir.” The show came with its own wigs, a luxury that doesn’t happen often in her business.
The ready-made hair has provided a much-needed reprieve after working 60 to 80 hours a week preparing for costume-heavy shows such as “Barnum” and “The Imaginary Invalid.”
“‘Barnum,’” says Hart, “was huge! Most of the characters needed two wigs each. The amount of changes that occurred with that show … oh my gosh. It was an undertaking getting everyone in character. I made 50 wigs for that show.”
When the musical wrapped in December, Hart had little time to breathe. She was tasked with weaving wigs for three different shows — William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple” and “Murderers,” a dark comedy set in a Florida retirement community, all of which ran at the same time.
“You really do get into a zone,” Hart says. “It’s like meditating.”
Some people would just call it painstaking.
Akin to crocheting or knitting, wigmaking is a fine and delicate art, sort of like stitching a latch-hook rug using baby fine threads and no pattern.
Seven years ago, Hart was a cosmetology student in Fort Collins, Colo. She was volunteering backstage at a community theater, helping cut and style wigs, when she met actress Devora Millman, daughter of former Asolo Artistic Director Howard Millman. The Asolo was looking for an assistant wig master, and Millman told her father that Hart was a perfect fit.
Inside Hart’s first-floor studio backstage at the Asolo are shelves and shelves of Rubbermaid bins stuffed with wefts of hair, some synthetic and some human. She often reuses wigs in other shows. Much like real hair, wigs can be trimmed, dyed and curled.
Her studio doubles as a salon. There’s a sink; big, bright bulbs; a vanity, of course; and dozens of costume sketches and glossy magazine tear-outs lining the walls.
Last summer she took classes at an Orlando makeup school, where she learned how to sculpt prosthetic noses, apply monster makeup and other Hollywood makeup tricks.
“I love working in a fantasy world,” Hart says. “How often do you get the chance to create period hairstyles from the 1800s? To be able to step outside of modern hairdos and transform someone into a character from another time and place is just incredible.”
DID YOU KNOW?
• Michelle Hart cuts and styles the Sarasota Ballet dancers’ hair. Her studio is down the hall from where the dancers practice. It’s convenient, especially for principal dancer Octavio Martin, who entrusts Hart with his trademark wavy locks.
• “Barnum” actress Renée Brna loved her blond wig so much, that when she was through playing Jenny Lind, she asked Hart to dye her brunette hair blond.
• Hart once dyed chunks of her hair blond in the shape of a headband to frame her face. She says it’s the edgiest hairdo she’s ever had.
• Hart styled Joan Rivers’ hair before her show at the Van Wezel. “She was easy to take care of,” Hart says. “She knew what she wanted.”
• The Asolo donates old wigs to Booker High School’s Visual & Performing Arts Center.
• Wigmakers use sticky spirit gum to affix hair onto bald heads. “It stinks and feels like tree sap, but it does the job,” Hart says.
• Hart’s favorite movie for hair design is “The Duchess,” starring Keira Knightley. “The height of that hair is incredible!”
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