Theatergoers may think they’ve gone back in time at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, where Twelfth Night and Richard III are playing concurrently.
“What makes these Shakespeare productions unique is that we are employing original practices,” said the shows’ make-up supervisor, Christina Grant, a nine-year veteran of Broadway, film and TV. “Basically, every aspect of these two productions is being done with techniques and materials that people from Shakespeare’s time would have used.”
The all-male cast wears hand-sewn costumes (without a single snap, zipper or Velcro) and wigs made from silk thread and horsehair stiffened with starch and rabbit-skin glue.
And Grant handcrafts most of the make-up from olive oil, ground chalk, essential oils and pigment.
“It’s been a little bit of a learning curve with these materials, as they don’t quite behave the same way a commercial make-up product would,” she said. “When the designer [of the make-up, Jenny Tiramani] came over from England, she did give me little recipes—like for a white face, it was two parts pigment to one part chalk, mixed with olive oil. That’s as specific as it got.”
Both productions were originally mounted in London at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre before heading to the Great White Way.
“A lot of the Globe shows do what they call original practices to give modern audiences the chance to see what it was like in Shakespeare’s time,” Grant said. “In London, you’re in a replica of the actual theater, so you probably feel a lot more like you are in that time, but even here, it’s a great experience and a fun history lesson for the audience.”
Having worked as assistant make-up supervisor for The Lion King the past few years, Grant considered this opportunity too good to pass up.
“I was contacted by the hair supervisor, Wanda Gregory, about a month before the show was going to come to New York. Then, a week before tech rehearsal, they asked me to take the job,” Grant said. “I quickly found someone to cover for me at Lion King and I jumped in.”
To prepare, Grant began experimenting with items in her kitchen until it was time to meet the actors. She also scoured the Internet for ideas. One failed experiment involved egg yolks. “Egg tempera is mainly made out of egg yolk, pigment and water,” she said. “We experimented with it on one of the actors, but it was relatively difficult to work with. It dries very fast, so getting a beautiful blended look was very hard to do. Plus after it had dried it kind of cracked and had a strange texture on the skin. It was fun to experiment with it, but it was not practical for the aesthetic or the running of the show.
“I never, ever had to make my own make-up before, and to be around this atmosphere was totally new to me,” she added. “It’s nice to try something new, stretch the skills and keep learning.”
While attending the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Grant learned that if you are on set and need make-up you don’t have in your kit, you can pick up items from the craft services table that could work.
“We were taught how to think on your feet, which is a really important skill as a make-up artist, especially if you want to do film and TV,” she said. “I worked for Saturday Night Live for a season, and half the time I didn’t know what I would be doing and had to improvise.”
Make-up creation for these shows is one thing—durability is another. The make-up needs to last for three hours while the actors do the show.
“I do have to do more touchups during the show because the powder I use is crushed chalk and I cannot get it to be as fine as I wanted it, so I mix it with root starch, and that helps absorb some of the oil,” Grant said. “The oil stays oily and can get stuck in the creases, so you just brush over it and it’s good again. I can kind of just spread what’s already there.”
Twelfth Night, she said, is the more difficult of the two shows, as two of the male actors are playing twins—a brother and sister, and Grant must make them look as identical as possible without doing any contouring. She’s also working with six actors, as opposed to four in Richard III.
Grant admits that she does cheat a little, using a couple of modern products because several actors had a reaction to the olive-oil make-up, which she replaced with Kryolan Aquacolor.
“The biggest challenge is we are doing this in modern timing, so I only have 15 minutes to get people in their make-up,” she said. “I have no idea how long it took in Shakespeare’s time, but they probably had all day if they wanted to.”
Thirty minutes before each production, Grant is onstage putting make-up on the actors as theatergoers are walking to their seats.
“That’s challenging, because there is soft light and it might look completely smooth to me, but then I go offstage and it’s like, ‘Whoops,’” she said. “It’s hard to make it absolutely perfect when I am onstage, but I have learned the best ways around that.”
Another challenge is that the plays are mostly lit by beeswax candles.
“We do have some supplemental lighting, but most of it is done with candles,” she said. “It’s actually kind of helpful because the whole look we are going for is a very porcelain, smooth base and this soft candlelight makes it look absolutely beautiful onstage. I think that works in my favor.”
Grant doesn’t know if she will use these techniques when she returns to The Lion King this spring, but she’s more than happy to ponder the question “To make my own make-up or not to make my own make-up?” as she takes on future productions.
The plays will run until Feb. 16 at the Belasco Theatre. For details, go to shakespearebroadway.com.