Meet James (“Jim”) McGough: Wig Master and Make-Up Designer for Virginia Opera! This is Jim’s 15th season with the Company and he’s here today to reveal the magic that happens in his shop before any artist ever steps foot on stage. During Virginia Opera's off season, Jim is a designer and make-up artist for Fort Worth Opera Festival. Throughout his 25-year career, Jim’s work has been seen in theatres across the U.S. from Broadway to Regional productions.
Before we get to the interview, check out these behind-the-scenes videos featuring two wigs in our current production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.
What is your typical design process when preparing for a production?
The first step is always meeting with the costume designer. Sometimes they have detailed costume sketches—and even wig sketches—and sometimes we have the freedom to collaborate and bring ideas to the table for everyone on the creative team to consider. With Leila in The Pearl Fishers we were struck by the idea of a braid, which was my idea. We considered using flowers to decorate the braid, but the production’s Director, Tazewell Thompson, wanted Leila to be a holy woman of the people and not overly done. This is a perfect example of where directorial design meets wig design. Our work must dovetail into the world created by the creative team—in this case: Tazewell, Merrily Murray-Walsh as the costume designer and Donald Eastman as the set designer. Our job is to figure out the HOW. HOW are we going to create this world, to make it come alive? HOW do we build the designs to get the effect the creative team wants?
Once that has been decided, it’s time to build the actual wigs. It typically takes my team 3-4 days to build each wig. Each actor has their head measured and wrapped—a process the British call “taking a shape”—where we wrap their head in plastic wrap and cover with tape. Afterwards, we mark their hairlines on the tape so we have a mold of their heads at all time, which eliminates the need to constantly call them in for fittings. We hand tie each wig using what’s called the “ventilating technique,” where we use a special needle to pull strands of hair through a foundation net over and over again and knotting them. For the most part, we use human hair which stands the test of time. Between the human hair and the ventilating technique, our wigs look more natural and have less volume than synthetic ones.
Jim demonstrating the ventilating technique
What is your most memorable production at Virginia Opera?
I’ve been with Virginia Opera for 15 years now and the most memorable production I’ve worked on has to be Giordano’s Andrea Chénier in 2003. The production took place with one act BEFORE the French Revolution and another act AFTER the Revolution, so we were dealing with two very distinct looks. From large, white powder wigs to the mullet-esque looks of the Incroyables and Merveilleuses. My team and I cranked out over 100 wigs in a week and a half! It was happy madness.
Jim and the wigs from Andrea Chénier. Elizabeth Hogue as Contessa de Coigny. Production images by Anne Peterson.
What are some of the craziest wigs you’ve created?
I once made a wig entirely out of mini-slinkies, but one of the largest, most demanding wigs I’ve created was for a production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline at the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin. For the Soothsayer (oracle), the director wanted very long hair that would drag on the ground behind her. We bought six-foot strands of synthetic hair to create a four- to five-foot drop from her neck. We worked from 8:30am to 6:30pm one day and only produced about four inches of the wig! It was a huge project!
To see Jim's wigs in person, reserve your seat to see The Pearl Fishers, playing now in Norfolk! Click here for tickets and more information, including performance dates for Fairfax and Richmond.