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Paul Huntley’s wigs make the man

The following article was published on The Washington Post, May 1, 2014.

Wig Designer Paul Huntley poses for a portrait at his at-home work studio in Manhattan, NY. Photo by Yana Paskova, TWP.

When floozy Doll Tearsheet, played by Maggie Kettering, enters a tavern scene in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Henry IV, Part 2, your gaze is drawn to her crowning glory. Ringlets in extraordinary hues from rust to ruby cascade down her shoulders to perfectly cap her bawdy, worn attire.

This fantastical wig, one of the more than 60 human hair wigs and facial pieces in the productions of Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, is the handiwork of designer Paul Huntley. He and director Michael Kahn settled on a contemporary vibe for the wigs, including a Rastafarian motif for high strung Hotspur (John Keabler).

“There’s a slightly modern approach, incorporating what you see in everyday life. It’s a contrast with Shakespeare’s words,” Huntley said by telephone from his base in New York. “I made the wigs a little wild in some ways, as the characters are all a rough and tumble lot.”

Huntley, in his 80s and a native of England, began his life in theater as an actor. He created wigs for the likes of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh before moving to the United States in 1972. His workshop has four staff members, with others added as needed. Huntley designed wigs for the original Broadway productions of “Les Miserables,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Hairspray,” among others; his current Broadway shows are “Bullets Over Broadway,” “All the Way” and “Cinderella.” In 2003, he was honored with a lifetime achievement Tony Award.

Not all of Huntley’s wigs have been for actors. In the mid 1970s he made a dozen or so wigs of varying colors, lengths and styles for a man who was not forthcoming about their use. He did say that they were not for a play or movie, and that they should be of the finest craftsmanship and not detectable as wigs. Huntley worked with the man for five or six years, teaching him how to put on the wigs and their accompanying eyebrows and other facial hair. The man, who was middle-aged and graying, was made to look younger with some wigs, in a crew-cut style and a tousled, long-hair hippie look. He transported the wigs in a special suitcase and eventually divulged that he was involved in undercover government work and traveled to other countries. Then, without a farewell, he never returned to Huntley’s studio.

Wig design, as with other design elements in a production, entails familiarity with the script and research into the time period and types of characters. Focused work with the director and costume designer follows, along with input from the actors who will wear the wigs.

Stacy Keach, who plays Falstaff in the Shakespeare Theatre production, last performed the role of the jolly, dissolute knight 47 years ago, when he was 27. He wanted to recapture that look, so Huntley worked from photos to create a wig of silvery white waves with bushy muttonchops. For Ted van Griethuysen’s feisty Welsh warrior Owen Glendower, Huntley contributed to an almost show-stopping entrance with a wig that perfectly compliments the character developed by the actor.

“He adored it,” Huntley chuckled. “It is sort of magnificent, isn’t it? Ted suddenly felt like this grand character; we all thought he should be in ‘Lord of the Rings.’ We went for an untamed look that would also give him majesty with his costume.“

With van Griethuysen and the other actors, Huntley said that wigs give them a complete picture physically of what they have created during rehearsal.

“It’s the last thing they see before they go on stage — themselves in the mirror from the neck up,” he said. “Suddenly they see the character, and it gives them an enormous amount of confidence, it really makes them feel the part.”

Greer is a freelance writer.

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