Anne Nesmith often has to split hairs. The skilled wig designer has fashioned hair pieces for opera and theater productions in Washington, D.C. and around the world. Wigs have become an integral part of costume design, topping off, so to speak, what an actor wears to visually create a character. Anne’s wigs have been seen in numerous productions at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, including Sweeney Todd and The Threepenny Opera.
She is currently designing 45 wigs for Signature’s La Cage aux Folles which will run from May 31 through July 10. “This is a pretty big show, even for a musical,” Anne said about La Cage. “It’s not out of the ordinary to have this many wigs or more in an opera, say, but it is unusual to have so many in a straight play or musical.”
Image of the front lace of a wig showing how the hairs are tied in.
Designing a wig is painstaking work. “On average it takes me about 30 hours to build a wig start to finish. And I am pretty fast,” Anne explained. “You build a cap that fits an actor or singer’s head and then you tie knots of hair into it with a ventilating hook. The back of a wig can have three and four hairs but the front is tied with single hairs.” Tying a wig with hair that is very long or very kinky or curly, or with hair that is bad quality, can slow down the process, she said.
Anne’s wigs worn by Sherri L. Edelen and Ed Gero in Signature’s production of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Chris Mueller
What Annee really loves is to have the time to completely build a wig from front to back. “An entirely hand ventilated wig is beautiful,” she said. “There is not always time for that and, truly, it isn’t always the best solution. I also buy wigs from the wig store and cut them up so I have the stretch back and then I ventilate the top and front of the wig so it doesn’t have quite as much hair and has less bulk and is more natural looking.”
Anne said she mostly uses human hair wigs. “But for a show where the wigs really need to hold up (for a heavy dance show, for instance) I will use synthetic hair,” she said.
Bobby Smith is flanked by Donna Migliaccio (left) and Erin Driscoll wearing Anne’s wigs in Signature’s The Threepenny Opera. Photo by Photo by Margo Schulman
Anne has now been working in opera and theatre for more than 15 years. Besides her work for Signature, she has designed for John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Lyric Opera of Baltimore and the Washington Ballet, among others. She has also designed shows for the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan, Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya, Japan, Opera Boston, Wolf Trap Opera, Castleton Music Festival and Opera Delaware. Anne was the Resident Wig and Makeup Designer for the Baltimore Opera Company and has constructed wigs for the Scooby Doo Live! tour and the Asian tour of 42nd Street. Her work has also been seen in numerous Smithsonian National Portraits Gallery’s Cultures in Motion programs, Great Planeson the Military Channel, Ice Cold Killers for Investigation Discovery and the U.S. Army’s tour Spirit of America.
We asked Anne to answer our My Career Choice questions, to tell more about how she got started.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Honestly, I fell into my career. Out of college I started working at a small theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, and met the man who was the wig designer at the opera down the street. I started working with him and for the next number of years worked at opera companies around the country. I learned a lot on my feet and along the way discovered I had an aptitude for wig-making.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I have always appreciated the fluidity of this job. Each production exists for a very limited period of time so I begin my job fresh dozens of times a year. There is always turnover and always a new series of challenges.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
My degree was in design/technical theatre but I never worked with wigs when I was in school. When I got out of college I apprenticed and worked for a couple of very well-known wig designers. Under their mentorship I worked at a number of companies around the country until I began working as a designer myself.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I was very lucky; I was always encouraged.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I feel like I doubt my decision and consider a career change with every new project I undertake! While it is terrific to be continually working on something fresh and new you also restart everything with each new show. There is definitely a lot of pressure involved with continually reinventing and re-proving yourself creatively.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
When I went from being an assistant to designing for myself.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think it is tough for young women coming up in any profession. Through my 20’s and even into my 30’s I’m sure I was not always taken seriously.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I am, for the most part, a very good collaborator. In a profession that often has a lot of strong personalities I am able to put my ego aside. Almost everything about theatre is collaborative and as everyone involved works toward a common goal we all have to be willing to listen to one another.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am very pleased that as a free-lance artist I have been able to make this my full-time profession for my entire career.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
It served me very well to work with and for a lot of other designers. Everyone has a different aesthetic and set of strengths and you can learn something from everyone. It is best not to be too bound by what you think is the “right” way. I also think apprenticeships are lost in many professions and in this one in particular it is a great way to learn, work with a lot of other professionals and see your work immediately on stage.
Anne Nesmith’s top photo courtesy of Signature Theatre
To purchase tickets for Signature Theatre’s La Cage aux Folles, go to the website.