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How can I pursue a career in hair and make-up?

Hair and make-up working backstage on Troilus and Cressida in 2018 Hair and make-up working backstage on Troilus and Cressida in 2018
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Artists working on some of the UK’s biggest shows tell Paul Vale how they got into the business and offer advice for people starting out in the industry


Working in theatre as a make-up artist and hairdresser can be one of the most artistically challenging backstage roles. Basic training in hair and make-up is available throughout the country, but there is no specific route into the industry. Reliability and a willingness to work hard are paramount, but what don’t they tell you at college?

Sandra Smith at the RSC
Sandra Smith at the RSC

Sandra Smith: Head of wigs and make-up, Royal Shakespeare Company 

Born: Port Talbot, south Wales
Training: Hairdressing and beauty therapy, Pontypridd Technical College
Previous productions include: Many productions of plays by Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlowe; Matilda the Musical
Recent productions: A Christmas Carol, Troilus and Cressida, Tamburlaine

What vital information weren’t you told about your work while training?
Wig and make-up artists play a crucial role, supporting actors in initial fittings, pre-show calls and during shows. You also need a sophisticated understanding of the personal care that every actor requires to be at their very best from the moment they step on stage.

What advice would you offer somebody looking to get into make-up?
The most important thing is to have as many strings to your bow as possible – especially for theatre: hairdressing skills including barbering, make-up including prosthetics and knowledge of wig-making.

Do you have a support network you can turn to?
Many generous people out there are willing to share their knowledge and experience, but the biggest support for me comes from my team. I came to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on work experience and Brenda Leedham, who was head of department at the time, offered me a job. I went back to finish my course then came to work in Stratford in 1985. We still offer work experience placements, usually for students who have finished their courses – after all, that’s how I started.


Terri Pace
Terri Pace

Terri Pace: Freelance make-up artist 

Born: Benfleet, Essex
Trained: Westminster Adult Education School
Previous productions include: Thriller Live; Aladdin; The Phantom of the Opera
Current production: Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical tour

What vital information weren’t you told about your work while training?
A basic knowledge of business acumen including how to claim unpaid invoices is essential as you will need this for sure.

What advice would you offer somebody looking to get into make-up?
It’s vital to have confidence communicating with people on all levels – not just online but on the phone, as that’s when people can really get to know whether you are suitable for a project. It’s always good to have a strong online presence, but keep it professional.

How do you normally find work?
I have built up a good relationship with many of my contacts and therefore get a lot of repeat work from them. I also have a great website and from my search engine optimisation knowledge gained a lot of business. It helps to join production databases and lots of people get work from social platforms too.

Do you have a support network you can turn to?
Social media sites such as Facebook are a great source of advice from in the industry.


Abby Swain
Abby Swain

Abby Swain: Freelance make-up artist

Born: Swindon, Wiltshire
Training: BTec national diploma in media make-up, Swindon College (2004-06); HND in specialist make-up, West Thames College (2006-08)
Previous productions include: Funny Girl; Beautiful – The Carol King Musical; Kinky Boots
Current production: Disney’s Mulan, a live-action version of the animated movie.

What vital information weren’t you told about your work while training?
Be prepared for long hours. People say they’re ‘unsociable’ but that’s obviously compared with ‘normal’ hours. It’s very sociable in theatre world, so just make sure you surround yourself with a good team as they become your family.

What advice would you offer somebody looking to get into make-up now?
Get a good training that covers a wide range of hair and make-up artistry. Work experience while training is a must: I got a year-long trainee position at the National Theatre from three days’ work experience while I was at university.

How do you normally find work?
Word of mouth, usually. Once you are in the industry, the wig world can be a close-knit network, so you often end up working with lots of different people who know each other. I also use the West End Wiggies Facebook page, which is great for contacting others in the industry.


Katie Marsen
Katie Marsen

Katie Marson: Freelance hair and make-up designer

Born: Bentley, East Yorkshire
Training: Stamford College
Previous productions include: Hairspray, Wicked, Legally Blonde
Current production: Tina: The Tina Turner Musical

What vital information weren’t you told about your work while training?
It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance. When you start out, you need to be prepared to do lots of work experience and work for nothing. It’s about getting yourself out there and becoming known for being reliable and hard-working.

What advice would you offer somebody looking to get into make-up now?
Don’t just specialise in one area: access training in wig-knotting and special effects make-up. It’s definitely important to get your hairdressing qualifications if you want to work in the West End. I started out in beauty therapy and make-up but realised that I should have got my hairdressing training first. I was able to go back and learn all these things but, in retrospect, things would have been better the other way around.

How do you normally find work?
Many jobs are advertised via the West End Wiggies Facebook group. If you can prove that you have trained, you’ll be allowed to join the group. You can also find jobs through The Stage. Word of mouth is very important – even if you are on work experience you will hear about opportunities.

Do you have a support network you can turn to?
I’m a member of BECTU, which is always really helpful if I have a contract query or need general employment advice. It’s quite a tight community and we all try to help one another out if we can.

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