Wig Master is one of those professions that may make you wonder, “Who on earth does that?” But for Jeanna Parham, it’s just another day in the life. Her role as the American Conservatory Theater of San Francisco’s in-house Wig Master involves way more than just locks, though. As their resident wig guru, Jeanna oversees the design, care, and creation of wigs for A.C.T. If wigs are needed, Jeanna’s their go-to! Read on to learn why this third-generation San Franciscan does, indeed, have the the Best Job Ever!
Did you have a fascination with theater work before A.C.T.?
Always! I loved just being part of the experience. I performed when I was younger, and I liked hair, makeup, and costumes. I actually started doing makeup because I’d always painted, then people started paying me to do it. I promised my family I wouldn’t work any more odd jobs if they allowed me to go to school for theater. Then, I started doing costume work and makeup for private functions, and eventually theater.
Where did you gain your makeup experience?
I started volunteering to do theatrical makeup when I was 15. By the time I was 17, I was being paid to do makeup at different community theaters. I liked the immediacy of makeup — you get an instant gratification. By the time I was in college at San José State University, I was able to support myself with a bit of help from my folks by doing costumes and makeup.
I learned to style hair before building wigs. I would do makeup and dress hair for the shows. Not all wig builders style, and not very many stylist can build a wig. There is some crossover, but not a ton. Most stylist don’t like sitting there building wigs for hours — they like the creation of the style.
I found that to understand how a wig is styled, you should learn everything you can about wigs, including building. I love creating the wig from scratch to the finished look.
How long does it take to make a single hair extension?
It would take about 45 minutes to make something like this [above, left]. It was handmade using a wefting tool and loom from the 1940s. Wefting isn’t something a lot of people know how to do it, but I do. In ten years, no one will even be making wigs that way anymore. We’re losing the art of it because you can buy cheaper and it’s quicker. Theater really is an art that’s dying away, and we need to conserve the craft of it. It’s about the craft of real theater in a world where emphasis is placed on television and movies. With the way it’s going, the true craft of wig making — all of that knowledge will be gone soon. It scares me because there’s a lot of history about why you do certain things the way you do. There’s a need to preserve this.
What’s the wildest wig you’ve ever worked with?
For a show I worked at the SF Opera, we had to build wigs ventilated with yarn, cover them with silicone, then paint them to look like statues. They were challenging, but ended up looking amazing. I was glad to be a worker bee on that project and not the designer.
Can you give us an example of a time when you had to improvise quickly backstage?
The other night my crew supervisor got into an accident on the way to a dress rehearsal at Opera San José. I had to step in and do the makeup, designing, and styling while watching what the rest of the crew was doing and making corrections. All the while, I had my six-week old baby strapped to the front of me!
What’s your advice to young folks aspiring to work in theater as industry specialists?
I would say volunteer everywhere and get experience. That way you can learn from your mistakes and appreciate the craft rather than the money. Never stop searching for knowledge!
Tell us about your own on- or off-stage aspirations, and don’t forget to stay tuned for our next Best Job Ever feature!