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Giuseppe Cannas: ‘Make-up artists need people skills – actors are fragile before a show’

Giuseppe Cannas Giuseppe Cannas
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There’s a sense of calm that hangs around Giuseppe Cannas, echoed by the lilting Italian accent that welcomes you to the make-up and wig department of the National Theatre. Don’t be fooled, though, because Cannas is a very busy man, managing the make-up and wig teams for every production emanating from the National Theatre, including touring productions, West End transfers and also adapting the make-up and wigs for NT Live.

“I work a year in advance, budgeting the department and each show, including tours and transfers. My predecessor had a very different way of working, able to retain vast amounts of information in her head, very hierarchical. The department is now structured so that everything is recorded with all schedules and budgets stored on computer. It took me three years to shift the department to modern work practices. We were in danger of being left behind and I think Nick [Hytner, then NT director] knew this.”

Cannas joined the NT in 2011, having spent seven years with Disney Theatrical, setting up productions of The Lion King over three continents. Although born in the sleepy Sardinian town of Cagliani, his training began in London, at Hammersmith and West London College.

“The college was very good at sending us on work placements,” he says. “It was quite hard because there are lots of colleges all vying for placements. I did a lot of work experience plus some work with John Woodbridge [the prosthetic make-up artist and teacher]. That helped me gain an idea of which direction I wanted to head in for a career.

“My relationship with Disney started in 2003. I’d moved from London to Australia and picked up various jobs including my first theatre job – working on Volpone for the Sydney Theatre Company. The producer, Egil Kipste, announced that he was moving to Disney Theatrical and told me that there was a major production coming over called The Lion King, and suggested I give him my CV.

“The Lion King in Singapore was one of several productions I’ve opened around the world. It may have been seven years but it never became boring. One of the reasons I lasted so long was that each opening threw up different challenges – different products, different casts, different designs, different races, so it kept the job fresh.”

Cannas joined the National at the height of Nicholas Hytner’s  tenure. It was the year of London Road and One Man, Two Guvnors. Productions were transferring to the West End and NT Live was becoming a major part of the theatre’s output.

“I am particularly proud of our role in NT Live. The challenge of translating what you see on stage to the screen is the finest work I’ve ever had the chance to do. We’re not doing a movie – it’s a live performance. We don’t have five hours to get an actor ready; we have quick changes. So how are we going to translate that experience? We don’t change the show – we make the show ‘camera-friendly’. It’s about details: refining the work, changing colours, changing the wig laces. Before I arrived here, NT Live used freelancers to adapt the piece for the screen. Now 99% is done by our department. We retrained, working with Sony and with the HD camera. We did a lot of research into products and materials and we’re still learning.”

Rufus Norris took over as artistic director in 2015, presenting new challenges to the department. Cannas says: “Even the most positive person couldn’t claim that it was a smooth transition. The change of artistic director has such an important impact on a theatre company. The ethos has changed, the way of working has changed. Nick Hytner and Nick Starr were at the top of their game and they had done an amazing job, bringing the company into the 21st century, looking after the repertoire, embracing NT Live. Digital output brings amazing productions to a cinema audience for the people who cannot necessarily come to London to see the work. Rufus has a different agenda and it’s been great but I wouldn’t say it was smooth at all. In a pyramid company, when you change the top you can feel the ripple effect in every layer of the organisation – and we did. Not necessarily in a negative way. It has been hugely exciting.”

One change has been in the management of the workforce. Cannas now runs a team of 12 permanent staff including a deputy, four supervisors and six assistants. There is also a regular turnover of freelance workers. Contractually, applicants are required to train to at least NVQ Level 3 in hair and make-up or an equivalent. There is also an apprenticeship scheme in place, of which Cannas is particularly proud.

“We are the first theatre in England to do an apprenticeship in hair and make-up. It began a year and a half ago and has just completed. It’s been extremely successful. One of my main goals is to create a bridge between education and the workplace. There is a massive practical skills gap among graduates. So much time has been dedicated to the academic side of their training that the practical side has been neglected. As an employer, I need to make sure I help the next generation we employ.”


Q&A: Giuseppe Cannas

What was your first non-theatre job? As a financial adviser for a life insurance company. I hated it.

What was your first professional job? Working on a music video for a band called Cat People. The song was called Free Falling.

What is your next job? My next three shows are Les Blancs, The Suicide and the West End transfer of People, Places and Things.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? How to adapt to the antisocial hours of work in theatre.

Who was your biggest influence? The late make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin and the performance artist Leigh Bowery.

What’s your best piece of advice for make-up artists? Don’t screw the crew. Seriously: keep your personal life outside your professional life

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Probably a gardener.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions? None.

Since Cannas has been in the post, the department has expanded to meet the volume of work. There has been a restructuring of the department to become more cost-effective by reducing overtime and creating new positions. When it comes to the future of make-up artists in theatre, Cannas is enthusiastic.

“A lot of people working in film have a background in theatre and the reason is that they work quickly and are precise. People need to realise that make-up isn’t simply a hobby: it’s a career choice with prospects. Pinewood and Shepperton are booked solidly for film production for the next 10 years and I sometimes struggle to find the right people as they are all working.

“This is a job where you need to be formally trained. You are accountable, responsible. An actor can be a fragile individual before stepping on stage and I cannot put just anybody next to them. I have to chose an artist with people skills – I can’t emphasise this enough. And that’s why formal training is important – you never work in isolation, ever. YouTube is a great tool but it’s not training. It keeps you in isolation, which is an unnatural way of working in the business.

“My advice? Be passionate. Learn the basics and be passionate about it. Be mature in the way you approach people. Email me but don’t ask me to look at your website, because I don’t have time. Make me interested enough to look at your website. Book an appointment to see me. Training now tells people to create a CV that tells me how good you are. It’s not really your place to tell me how good you are. Tell me what you do and I’ll make that judgement. You need to be driven. There’s a lot of people in this industry and there’s a lot of demand, but the bar is set pretty high. Keep learning, go to forums and be in touch with the industry leaders. The new generation of heads of department like me, we are welcoming. When we were in the same situation 20 or 30 years ago, the doors were closed in our faces – we don’t want to do that.

“It’s a changing attitude and stage doors are opening. They are finally realising that smoke and mirrors and hiding things just doesn’t work. The multimedia we are exposed to has created a different generation of people, so the way to embrace this new generation is to open it up and say: ‘Come here – I’ll show you how we do it.’ If it excites you, why don’t you learn to be part of it? Instead of saying ‘No, you can’t come backstage because how that person bleeds to death is a secret’. Everyone knows how it works now because the media explains it. The information is out there – online. So as we move forward to create a modern working environment, my motto is: Come in. Learn. Stay with us.”

CV: Giuseppe Cannas

Born: 1971, Cagliani, Sardinia
Training: Hammersmith and West London College, 1997-98; prosthetics and theatrical make-up with John Woodbridge at Ealing Studios
Landmark productions: The Lion King (on three continents), Wonder.land, National Theatre (2015), People, Places and Things, National Theatre (2015), NT Live (various productions)

Les Blancs runs at the Olivier until June 2 and The Suicide at the Lyttelton until June 25 – both at the National Theatre, London. The West End transfer of People, Places and Things runs at Wyndham’s Theatre until June 18

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