A Creative Coiffure

by Lisa Mulcahy

Heather Fleming has proven herself in the field of wig and makeup design—and her experience and expertise informs not only her work, but the careers of the professionals she teaches. Fleming has designed wigs for over 90 productions, and Fleming has also served as wig and makeup designer or master at theater companies including the Actors Theater of Louisville, Barter Theatre, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. Stage Directions recently spoke with Fleming about her high-quality work, how mentorship influenced her creative course, and how the wisdom from her experience inform the diverse projects she takes on. Read on to get inspired and enlightened.

Fleming holds an MFA in Costume Technology and Shop Management from the University of Illinois-Urbana, and a BS in theater design and production from the Illinois University at Normal. She’s an instructor in the field as well, serving as adjunct instructor at King College, the University of Illinois, Urbana, and Virginia Intermont College. Another key aspect of her career involves teaching professional workshops in stage makeup and wig application for both technicians and actors all across the country. 

In 2010, Fleming established the Custom Wig Company in Louisville, KY (www.customwigcompany.com), which offers high quality bespoke wigs and facial hair. The company’s goal is to provide pieces made by hand, fulfilling the market’s need for products that aren’t machine-made. The technique Fleming uses: hairs are knotted into a hand tailored foundation of sturdy mesh, which is very lightweight and durable, allowing for a lighter, cooler wig or beard. At the hairline of both wig and beard, a light, transparent mesh lace front is used, which lies against an actor’s skin so it’s barely visible. Fleming’s goal in using this technique is to guarantee the individual hairs in each wig look as though they’re completely natural, no matter how close you are to the actor wearing it. The wigs are comfortable, and easy to maintain, as they’re made from durable human hair. 

Fleming instructs each customer about the importance of careful handling very specifically. The company also offers a convenient wig cleaning and maintenance service for customers who would prefer their pieces professionally maintained. 

In terms of the specifics of how her pieces are ordered, processed, and created, Fleming strives to deliver custom products as quickly as possible to each customer. The actual creation time of a custom piece depends on its complexity, as well as company’s current build schedule. As a rule, it takes only six to 12 weeks to receive a custom product. To ensure a correct fit, a head or chin tracing is done; it’s a simple, fast process for getting the shape and size of a client’s head, along with a detailed tracing of their hairline. Customers can do it on their own by using the company’s step-by-step video on its website, then mailing in the tracing; it’s also possible to visit the company’s studio to having a tracing down in person. 

SD: Let’s talk a bit about what drew you to the theater in the first place? Was it a specific performance you saw early in life, or an educational experience?
I’m not sure there was one specific event—I grew up in a very small town, and I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to see live performances as a kid. I just always felt drawn to theatre, even before I had any particular urge to participate or be part of it, or even before I really even understood what theatre was or what sorts of work people did as part of it. The first chance I had to do theater was during my freshman year of high school. I knew I wanted to be part of a play, but I really only knew I didn’t want to be onstage. I ended up as student director, which was basically an ASM, but I also took charge of costumes, as I’d always had a deep interest in those, too.

What were some early professional experiences that you found important in terms of your growth both creatively and technically?
I think that would be my second year of grad school, in 2003 at the University of Illinois, Urbana. I was enrolled as a grad student in Costume Technology, and my assistantship in my first year had been in the Wig Department, which was composed of a 15 hour-a-week grad assistant (myself) and a full-time staff Wig Master. I’d be interested in wigs my whole life, even before lucking into that assistantship, but it was year two when things really solidified for me. That was because the full-time Wig Master, my mentor Lisa Lillig, left at the end of my first year, and the powers that be decided they’d just have me run the wig department the next year, as a grad assistant. While I can’t say trying to do more than one person’s work by myself while being a full-time grad student was a particularly healthy experience, it WAS a deeply informative experience, as I realized that I definitely wanted to pursue a career in wig design. I think it also gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to jump in and figure a project out, which has served me well. 

Who have been some of your most important mentors and/or collaborators?
As mentioned above, Lisa Lillig laid the foundation for my skills as a wig builder and stylist. She was also a tremendous influence on me in regard to the kind of professional I hoped to be—she was always kind, tactful, supportive, and a wonderful teacher, but also not afraid to offer feedback or constructive criticism. I’m also deeply grateful to Jim McGough, who I was able to intern with at American Players Theatre in 2004—he really helped to refine my building and styling skills, and he has always been a great source of advice and support—plus he taught me how to make a good pot of coffee!

 What challenges in your work do you feel have taught you invaluably? 
I think that virtually always having to work with not enough time, and often not enough budget, has probably been the most useful challenge. It forces you to think outside the box, to find creative solutions and to figure out shortcuts that won’t compromise the final product.

 What advice would you give a young professional starting out in your field? 
I would suggest they take any relevant course work available to them, if they are still enrolled as student. But most importantly, I would suggest they seek out mentors who can teach them and help them grow as both people and artisans. This can be done most often and most easily, I think, by finding good internships at reputable companies—that can provide both skill training AND experience in the professional world. Once you have a solid set of foundation skills in wig building/and or styling, just keep finding opportunities to use those skills—practice really does make perfect when it comes to things like wig styling, especially once you start fitting your pieces on actors and working out any bugs once they get onstage and under lights. Also, your people skills can never be too good—being able to communicate pleasantly and professionally, especially in challenging situations, will help you so much!