The Transformers

Published on 19 July 2016

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Meet the masters of costume, makeup and hair design, who help turn mere mortals into creatures and characters on stage.

BY JO TAN


While actors are often the toast of theatre, it’s certain unsung heroes who help performers, quite literally, put on their colourful characters. “We help create the whole picture,” grins hair/wig designer Ashley Lim, who, with Singapore’s various makeup artists and costume designers, have transformed skilful actors into Gods, demons and everything in between.

It certainly helps that many among this elite group of designers began as performers themselves.

“Phisit Jongnarangsin, the other half of our design partnership, was a professional ballet dancer, while I graduated in theatre directing,” says Saksit Pisalasupongs, expounding on the roots of his multi-award-winning Thai design duo, Tube Gallery. Other than being a celebrated fashion label, Tube Gallery has also been involved in costuming various international performance projects, including the recent Southeast Asian Games ceremonies and the upcoming National Day Parade. “We understand what ‘dramatic’ means from our performing-arts background. Knowing how to stand out on stage helps us design clothes that will stand out in real life — whether for the stage or for our prêt-à-porter collections — even though neither of us went through a formal fashion course.”

Lim, meanwhile, first began experimenting with wigs as a member of a Chinese opera troupe, and makeup guru Zennie Casann got hooked on playing with makeup while painting faces in drag revues.

Says acclaimed costume designer, Moe Kasim, “I was interested in fabrics and sewing since the age of 12, but it was only when I did Malay dance in secondary school that I started making costumes. In the army, I joined the Music & Drama Company (MDC) as an artist, but I continued being involved in costumes and learned a lot about making them from reading books and watching videos, as well as from other designers. I learnt about feathers, diamanté, even how to make headdresses using papier-mâché from Demas Chan. Everything was very Vegas-influenced back then,” he laughs.

“My friends and I would sometimes perform in commercial shows as well, and I started making costumes for those using what I learnt both off and onstage. As a performer, you are able to figure out how movements flow with the costume, if the attire will help or hinder actions, and you can ask yourself, ‘What can be done to bring out the character more?’ By the time I left the MDC in 2004, I had so many costumes that people told me I should start a costume business. So I did,” says the owner of Moephosis.

TUBE TWOSOME Saksit Pisalasupongs and Phisit Jongnarangsin created Tube Gallery as a fashion house, but it has also become the place to go for theatrical costume designs. PHOTO Saksit Pisalasupongs and Phisit Jongnarangsin

BY OUR POWERS COMBINED Zennie Casann (extreme right) designed the wayang-influenced makeup for the production Titoudao, while wig designer Ashley Lim (top) used spray and pins to get the actors’ hair into a wig-ready state. PHOTO Zennie Casann, Titoudao and Ashley Lim

ATTITUDE COUNTS

Indeed, many of Singapore’s stage stylists seem to concur that theatrical experience and attitude are more important to crafting character images than formal study in costume, makeup or hair design. Says costume designer Theresa Chan, “With wardrobe-management knowledge, you already know, even during the pre-design period and the discussions with directors, that certain costumes need to be quick-change friendly — meaning you may need to balance historical accuracy with hidden Velcro strips — or that there are certain big movements, so wearability is paramount. Having studied costume design or fashion design is definitely a plus, but I don’t think it’s a necessity. What is, is plenty of initiative, plus always being curious enough to want to learn and know more.”

It probably helped that before Chan became an award-nominee for costume design, she was an actress and wardrobe manager, responsible for dressing cast members and fixing costumes.

Says Lim, “There are so many musicals next year that need hair design, and I don’t know if I can do everything! I would be happy if more people come and work on hair for theatre. I do feel that as long as they are creative, they can get into it. But of course, they cannot just want to come in to showcase their ‘art’. They must be willing to come in for meetings to work with the creatives on coming up with designs that are suitable for the show. There are lots of things that need to be prepared, impromptu problems to be solved, last-minute changes… it’s a long commitment, not just one-off, like hairdressing. I think there is talent out there, but the right attitude is rare.”

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS For Liao Zhai Rocks!, Ashley Lim and Bobbie Ng worked together to create the intricate hair and makeup that would turn actor Darius Tan into the King of Hell, and Liu Xiaoyi into the Father Fox Spirit. PHOTO Darius Tan and Liu Xiaoyi

PERFECT FIT

Lim also highlights one major feature of designing for the stage: it’s an extensive process because it’s not just one person’s couture genius on show, but many people striving to create a single product, with each person really having to pull his/her weight.

Says Moe, “A few months before the show, we will have production meetings to determine the look directors want, the number of costumes, and the budget. Then I go away to do a character study to determine the individual looks for each character so I can discuss those with the director. Four to six weeks before the show, we take measurements and get designs approved. Then we’ll start to fit the artist and ideally, if there are no changes, we’ll do final fittings and alterations two weeks before opening. But directors do often change their minds, or circumstances change, which means I could be working up to, or even past, opening night.”

Chan adds, “You also have to do a lot of research for your designs, especially for plays like Hotel, which I just did the costumes for. Hotel spans 100 years in Singapore. Every decade, looks change, and then certain characters of a certain class or personality would wear variants of those looks. For one of the designs, I had to constantly tell the tailors, don’t worry, the cut I specified is correct, it’s supposed to look like a sack,” she laughs.

Says Bobbie Ng, makeup artist and founder of the Makeup Room, who’s created looks ranging from Avatar-style alienettes to demons of the Chinese underworld, “We always do lots of experimentation, sometimes on ourselves. For the Sun Wukong-inspired pantomime Monkey Goes West, the director’s instructions were to create the classic characters, like the Monkey God or Pigsy, while still maintaining the ‘humanity’. Add that to the fact that the makeup changes are very quick — Frances Lee was the regal Queen of Heaven just shortly before having to transform into Pigsy with a glue-on nose! We did quite a lot of work to figure out the fastest way to transform the characters.”

MATERIAL WHIRL For getai-centric 881 The Musical, Tube Gallery designed all sorts of incredible outfits, including milkmaid costumes that actually squirted liquid. 

ADDRESSING THE ISSUE Costume designer Theresa Chan painstakingly researched dress styles in Singapore and beyond for the multi-award-winning, century-spanning play Hotel.

ONE STItCH AT A TIME Moe Kasim (above) has created all kinds of stage outfits, including those for Singapore’s definitive wuxia play, Legends of the Southern Arch. PHOTO Moe Kasim

THEATRE TRUMPS ALL

For many of these experts, a day’s work in the commercial world — doing hair and makeup for a bride on her wedding day, or creating a bespoke outfit for a client — can mean thousands of dollars in income. However, their theatrical work, which can stretch over weeks and months, hardly justifies the amount of time involved, often chalking up several months of their time.

“Seriously, theatre doesn’t really pay much, because rents and other costs, added to a limited audience size, mean there is only so much money it can make in Singapore. Sometimes I get offered $4,000 or $5,000 to create costumes for an entire musical production, and I have to find ways just to cover costs,” reveals Moe.

However, these stage stylists have reasons other than monetary rewards for sticking with the stage. “I want to do theatre shows because the stories they tell often connect with me,” says Casann. “The first theatre project I worked on was Purple, about the life story and struggles of transsexual Maggie Lai. I didn’t know I would be so affected, but having been involved with the transgender and transsexual community, Maggie’s story hit very close to home.” Casann was so inspired, she has since become one of the few stylists other than Lim to provide wig-design services, and has, to date, collected and styled about 1,000 wigs for performance use.

PRETTY GOOD Zennie Casann (right) has worked on makeup and hair for various celebrities, including international star Jane Seymour, who headlined The Vortex. PHOTO Zennie Casann and Jane Seymour

The costume designers are gratified when their craft is recognised in the form of the Straits Times Life Theatre Awards — Singapore’s only awards for theatre practitioners. Moe has won several and been nominated no fewer than nine times, while Tube Gallery have also been repeatedly nominated, with several wins. Says Pisalasupongs, “Both 881 The Musical and Monkey Goes West won Best Costume Design Awards at the Life Theatre Awards. As foreign designers, we didn’t expect to win, and we were glad to see how open-minded the Singapore theatre industry is.”

Of course, this begs the question of why there are no similar award categories for makeup and/or hair design. Says Casann, “If you have been doing this job for a while, these awards are, of course, very good. It comforts you that you are appreciated for doing so much.”

Adds Lim, “I think hair and makeup stylists should definitely be more recognised. A costume can be very beautiful and extraordinary, but without makeup and hair, it’s just an outfit that you put on.”

Still, not everybody feels awards are that important. Says Ng, “The recognition that matters is from the people we work with. Theatre companies recognise our abilities and are constantly engaging us for shows, and in a small industry like Singapore, recognition in the form of word-of-mouth — as well as the play and imagination that comes with working on creative character looks — are perhaps the most important and rewarding of all.”

Hotel, part of the Singapore Theatre Festival 2016, is on till 24 July at LASALLE College of the Arts. Monkey Goes West will be restaged from 18 November-17 December at the Drama Centre Theatre.

Styling of A Stage Spectacular

TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS STAGED KUMARAJIVA, THE TALE OF AN ANCIENT MINK, EARLIER THIS YEAR. SEE HOW COSTUMES, DESIGN AND HAIR ARE CREATED BEHIND THE SCENES.

The creatives behind a show meet long before rehearsals even commence to discuss the aesthetics of the production. Designs should complement each other such that colours and structure of the set influence the design of hair, makeup and costumes, and vice versa.

The costume designers will send their designs to the director for approval.

The hair designer and makeup designer work on the characters’ respective looks, taking into account any quick changes that might be necessary if an actor is playing more than one character.

Before designing hairstyles or wigs, the hair designer may need to prep the actors’ actual locks. A considerable amount of prep work was needed for Kumarajiva.

the Final Product!

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