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In the Wig Shop with Allison Lowery

Monday, October 31, 2016

“The first time I ever bleached someone’s hair was in a monastery using a French’s Mustard Bottle,” laughed Allison Lowery. Lowery, TPA’s Wig & Makeup Specialist, was getting ready for opening night of Little Women: The Broadway Musical, creating special hairpins in the wig shop. It was clear that for every strand of hair on those wigs — synthetic AND human — Lowery had just as many stories about her adventures in hair and makeup.

Lowery was always super interested in makeup, but her love of wigs began in college at William & Mary. As the school is located next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum, it gave her the chance to see the wigs worn by the reenactors. Her theatre degree further acquainted her with the intricacies of wigs and led her to pursue a Masters in Hair and Makeup at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. While there she studied everything from hair growth patterns to cosmetic ingredients and toxic chemicals.

Despite Mark Twain’s assertion that “clothes make the man,” Lowery has found that a wig can make a character come to life. Lowery speaks of actors who put on their wigs and say, “Now I know who I am.” Lowery sees unique personalities in each wig, and that personality lends to the lifeblood of a character. For example, with Little Women, “Putting those blonde ringlets on Amy makes her a brat; Aunt March has very structured, neat hair whereas Jo looks like she can’t be bothered…[A wig] Tells who these people are just as much as what these people wear [does].”

So what makes a good wig? First, you should know what makes a bad one. “Sometimes it’s everything, sometimes it’s just a few things,” she said. A few of those things include flat color, the wrong texture, or simply too much hair in the wig. It is also much harder to make a really good short wig because there is “nowhere to hide,” it must be exactly the right shape and fit and you can always tell by looking at the back of the wig or just behind the ears. And according to Lowery, “There is nothing worse than a man in a bad wig.”

Lowery was recently involved in Zilker Park’s summer’s production of Shrek: The Musical, not only as Wig and Makeup Designer, but as Assistant Director. The production presented a unique set of challenges being outdoors, in the summer, in Texas. But it also presented Lowery with new learning opportunities. She was able to work with new materials, such as fur, and design crazy over-the-top wigs and makeup for the fantastical characters. But she reminds people that the job isn’t always glamorous: “Sometimes you have your face in someone’s armpit or you’re putting glue in someone’s nostril.”

On top of her busy schedule, Lowery found time to co-author three books on historical hairstyling and wig making. The information comes from Lowery’s own experiences and education as well as the techniques of other wig makers. She hopes to pass this knowledge on to future generations.

When asked if there was something that she wished more people knew about Texas Performing Arts, Lowery said it would be knowing how closely TPA works with students to preserve such “lost arts.” Production elements are fully hand-crafted. She appreciates the people who try new things and take risks, even if the product isn’t perfect. “I love people who get it wrong as much as people who get it right.” After all, even if it’s not a good time — or a good wig — at least it’s a good story.