After 10 years as a dancer, Sarah Luscombe is carving out a career as a make-up artist. She tells Liz Hoggard about experimenting with Marmite and salad cream to turn an actor into a beetle, how film make-up differs from theatre and how painting someone’s face is an intimate act
It’s not often the make-up artist gets lead billing on a theatre production. But Sarah Luscombe’s designs for Beyond the Horizon’s modern-day adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella , The Metamorphosis – the tale of a man who inexplicably finds himself transformed into a beetle – are pretty special.
To turn lead actor (and co-director) Adam Lloyd-James into Kafka’s “monstrous vermin”, she uses state-of-the-art make-up and prosthetics, crepe hair, greasepaints and fake blood as well as more unusual ingredients such as Marmite and salad cream.
“This job has been really good for me because it’s out of my comfort zone,” Luscombe smiles. “We started by discussing what the metamorphosis would look like in an ideal world with unlimited time and budget. Adam didn’t want any of it to be done with wardrobe, which is quite a challenge.”
For Lloyd-James, who has conceived the piece as a modern exploration of mental health issues, “Sarah’s make-up just adds a whole new dimension to it all. The make-up is terrifying.
The speed at which she works is amazing, it’s some of the weirdest quick-changes I’ve even seen.”
Each night Luscombe transforms Lloyd-James’ body, inch by inch. “Adam’s body changes every time he leaves the stage. I start by pre-painting his torso because his character Gregor is always in a T-shirt. Then midway through the first act, Gregor begins to go a bit insectey and animalistic. He wakes up with just a few bits on his face. We add skin colour to make his skin tone green, so it’s strange rather than horrific.
“And then he goes darker green as he begins to rot, and then a browny-red colour. And then by Act II, he’s fully changed. There’s a lot of spraying and quick powdering and body art. I stick a few prosthetics on but not too many because the role is quite physical, so I don’t want Adam to start shedding.”
For inspiration, Luscombe watched David Cronenberg film The Fly, and pored over images of the Royal Ballet’s 2013 production of The Metamorphosis. As for the unconventional materials, her mother was staying with her, and they started playing around with Marmite and salad cream in the kitchen. “You could spend a lot of money on materials but with theatre, where the gaze isn’t as close as film, you can really play around with it. So the big warty protuberances that we put on Adam at the beginning are Latex moulded over walnuts to get that bumpy effect. We tried porridge, but what was more successful was body oil and Marmite. And salad cream for pus,” she adds cheerfully. “Food colouring for blood. We can use fake blood but food colouring comes in these little tubes that are so easy to squeeze. So by the end of the night Adam ends up smelling like someone’s dinner.”
Luscombe has worked in hair and make-up for television and film, including promos for Reebok and Unilever, and assisting on feature films Mary Poppins Returns and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
She also knows what it’s like to be on stage having trained as a dancer. “Aged 16, I went to Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance and spent four years there. Then I spent 10 years performing in all sorts of things, from ballet companies to pantomime and cruise ships.” She was one of the dancers taking part in the London 2012 Opening Ceremony.
Along the way, she learned to do her own hair and make-up. “I was never with a company that would pay for it. But I always loved experimenting with make-up and wigs, especially when preparing for shows, which has put me in good stead today.”
Q&A: Sarah Luscombe
What was your first non-theatre job?
Waitress at the local pub.
What was your first professional theatre job?
As a make-up artist it was an amateur production of Wyrd Sisters, based on the Terry Pratchett novel, at the Rondo, Bath. As a dancer it was a tour of Cinderella with European Ballet Company.
What’s your next job?
The third series of CelebAbility in April, as an assistant.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
How last-minute things can be and not to worry too much if your diary doesn’t look full at the beginning of the month.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My family and friends, especially those I see going out and doing positive and proactive things. If I’m looking for an influence for a specific job then I look in places such as Instagram, Pinterest
If you hadn’t been a make-up artist, what would you have been?
I am a trained Pilates instructor so I would probably have continued with that.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
After 10 years of touring, she wanted to be based in the UK, so she got a job in the box office at London’s Dominion Theatre. She retrained as a Pilates teacher and moved to Bath six years ago, where she started volunteering with Theatre Bath on workshops and networking. “The idea was to bring arts and communities together. I realised I missed having that creative outlet that I’d had working in theatre. And I began thinking of changing tack.”
Through her theatre contacts she heard about the make-up workshops run by Bath Academy of Media Makeup. After attending one of the academy’s open days and a one-day taster course for film and TV make-up, she decided to sign up for the intensive three-month vocational Peter Swords King TV and Film Hair and Makeup Course in 2016. “It covered theatrical make-up, general make-up for TV, where you learn more natural looks – prosthetics, make-up for black skin and Afro hair, as well as period and vintage make-up.”
The artistic director of the course, Peter Swords King, is an Oscar-winning make-up artist. “He’s just done Spiderman and he won the Oscar for best make-up in 2003 for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. All of his students get a day or two of work experience on one of his films. I got to work on Mary Poppins Returns for him. I was in the crowd room doing all the extras, and it was a great experience doing period make-up.”
After that, she wrote to companies asking for work experience. “One of the first jobs I did was on Tipping Point, ITV’s afternoon quiz show. Suddenly you’re doing four shows a day with four contestants a show. There might be a tattoo or a black eye to cover up. And through that, I met three fantastic make-up artists who asked me to assist them on some jobs.”
Luscombe connects well with artists because of her years as a performer. “It is quite an intimate thing, getting in someone’s face and touching them. A lot of it is people skills and reading people because you might get someone in the chair who is nervous or doesn’t want to talk. You need to gauge how the artist is feeling.”
She hasn’t witnessed any diva behaviour. “You do hear stories but, touch wood, I haven’t seen any of that yet.” The hours are long – often starting at 5.30am. “Then we have to be there at the end of filming as they’re de-wigged and the make-up is taken off. Then the wigs and facial hair need to be cleaned.”
She follows make-up artists on Instagram such as Vanessa Davis (aka The Skultress), who is manager of wigs and make-up at English National Opera. “People are just insanely creative. There are sculptors and artists who make these incredible pieces from Latex. Instagram is a really useful tool for promoting yourself as a make-up artist because you can tag photographers that you’ve worked with. It’s funny because my feed is half people looking beautiful and half with their heads blown off.”
But theatre is her first love. On film and TV she tends to work as one of a team. So Metamorphosis was a chance to design the make-up herself. “It was lovely to have that freedom.”
She first met Lloyd-James when she was volunteering at Theatre Royal Bath. “I had a front-of-house job there and we became friends,” and they stayed in touch when Lloyd-James set up his own company, Beyond the Horizon, in 2015.
“As early as 2017 Adam mentioned he wanted to do Metamorphosis. He said: ‘This is the story, this is what I’m thinking of doing. Do you think it’s possible?’ He knew I’d done the make-up course, so he asked me to be involved. I went away and worked on how to get as close to that as possible while considering the parameters of live theatre.” She experimented for three months and then they did make-up tests. “A couple of things I tried were too slow or the effects didn’t last.”
Metamorphosis is touring to theatres around the country, so the make-up has to work in huge and small spaces. “In Frome, the seats were literally on the stage,’ Luscombe recalls, laughing. “But the more grossed out audiences are, the better I feel.”
CV Sarah Luscombe
Born: 1982, Camberley, Surrey
Training: Rambert School of Ballet, 1998-2002; Bath Academy of Media Make-up, 2016
• La Boheme, Dorset Opera Festival (2018)
• Le Cid, Dorset Opera Festival (2018)
• Tipping Point
• Naked Attraction
• Bloomberg Television
• Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
• The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)
• Namaste England (2018)
Metamorphosis, produced in association with Birmingham’s Old Rep Theatre, is on tour until May 9. Go to beyondthehorizontheatre.co.uk  for more information