Make-up artist for theatre

 1 April 2011

Sara Tyndall is a make-up artist and wigs mistress in London's West End. She has worked for Mamma Mia, Beauty and the Beast, and is now Head of Wigs and Make-Up for The Lion King.

The same make-up can look quite different, according to the actor’s face shape.
The same make-up can look quite different, according to the actor’s face shape.

Disney’s The Lion King, at the Lyceum Theatre London is produced by the Disney Theatrical Group. The stage show is based on the original 1994 Disney movie and has won a string of prestigious awards, including a Tony Award for Best Musical and Visit London Awards Best Theatre Show.

The show features 25 species of animals, plants, birds, fish and insects. Puppets and puppet mechanisms worn by the actors are incorporated into the production. A range of stunning masks are also used, worn on top of the actor’s head to keep their face visible.

This is where Sara and her team come in. They are responsible for producing the visually striking make-up that complements the costumes, masks and puppets. Sara qualified with a BTEC HND in Theatre Studies, Specialist Make-up for Film, TV and Theatre at the London College of Fashion.

She has been in her present role since The Lion King first came to London in 1999. This followed her successful career in numerous West End productions as a make-up artist and wigs mistress.

Managing a team of make-up artists

"The same make-up can look quite different, according to the actor’s face shape.”

As head of wigs and make-up Sara has a team of five make-up artists to manage and motivate. The Lion King is performed eight times a week, with three matinees and five evening performances. It is down to Sara to ensure that meticulously high standards are maintained for every show.

Sara carries responsibility for the overall look of the show in terms of make-up and wigs. The original make-up design was created by Michael Ward for the original Broadway production. He based his designs on the traditional make-ups of various African Tribes, including the Masai Mara, to create the right look for each character.

“We have 14 unique characters to create for each show. There are several different looks amongst the cast. Mufasa has a distinctly tribal appearance, Nala has a more traditionally glamorous and feminine appearance, whereas Pumba has more of a fantasy appearance.

"Various different techniques are used, including shading, blending, highlighting and contouring. During the performances we are on-hand to apply powder or repair smudges where necessary.”

The make-up in the Lion King is clearly much more complex and detailed than for most shows. Sara and her team generally spend about 30-40 minutes on each character. This must never be rushed.

“We need to be very sensitive to the actors’ moods. If they want to talk then we love to chat with them. Equally they may want peace and quiet before a show and we have to respect that.”

Looking after wigs for theatre

The Lion King cast also don exciting and colourful wigs to bring their characters to life. Sara is also responsible for this aspect of the show.

“Our cast changes once a year, and each time someone new joins the company I arrange for their wigs to be made. I take measurements and work closely with our wig-maker. When the new wigs arrive I cut, paint and style them.

"The wigs are constructed from many different materials including horse hair, real hair and acrylic and must be coloured or painted in different ways."

Some of the wigs fit on top of complicated puppet mechanics and Sara has to ensure that everything fits together properly. She works closely with the show’s associate designers and the rest of the creative team including puppetry and costumes.

Teaching make-up artists

"I am looking for people with a very creative artistic bent, who understand how theatre works and are willing to work regular evenings and weekends."

Part of Sara’s job involves teaching the make-up artists the work involved in each character. They generally focus on two or three characters at any one time. Some have been with Sara for several years, although she has just recruited someone new straight from college.

“I refer to our book of make-up designs, known as the ‘Bible’. This is a collection of photos of each individual character, and is invaluable when training new members of staff.

"An important part of the training involves understanding that the same make-up can look quite different, according to the actor’s face shape.”

Sara also looks after the recruitment of new make-up artists to her team. She receives about a dozen CVs a week, each of which receives a personal reply.

“I never need to advertise for new staff. London theatres are quite a small community, and I recruit people from those who have sent me a CV or via word-of-mouth.

"When I do recruit I tend to interview about six people, and then make a shortlist of three. They are then thrown in at the deep end and given a brief to create the make-up for a character such as our baboon, Shaman Rafiki.

"I am looking for people with a very creative artistic bent, who understand how theatre works and are willing to work regular evenings and weekends. Most of all they need to be good with people and fairly thick-skinned – without this you could never survive."

Running the administrative aspects of the make-up department also falls on Sara’s shoulders. This involves managing the budget, ordering stock and dealing with HR issues such as time sheets and annual leave.

“It is vital I attend our weekly meeting with key people from the show, which helps to keep everyone informed. Planning and attending promotions is another aspect of my job. This sometimes involves overseas travel - a real perk of the job!”

The working hours of a make-up artist

Sara works a total of 40 hours a week over 6 day days to cover performances from Tuesday to Sunday. Occasional working weeks of more than 40 hours are balanced out over the year.

“I usually start work between 3.30 and 5.00 pm on the days with evening performances only and finish at around 10 pm. On a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday we have our matinees, when I start at 12 noon. There are no performances on a Sunday evening, or a Monday, so I can plan social activities then. In addition I always finish at 8 pm during one other evening each week.”

Sarah is really happy with her working hours and wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love the fact that I can travel to work when the tube trains are less crowded. And this job leaves me plenty of time off to enjoy my social life.”

Six tips for make-up artists

  • Make-up artists need good artistic skills and an understanding of how colour can be used to create moods and feelings
  • They also need to be able to interpret designs and to create ideas of their own
  • Always take photos of the work you have done, and then look at these with a critical eye. The photos can become part of your portfolio
  • Get involved with amateur dramatics – this is a great way to gain experience applying make-up, and will help you decide if the career is for you
  • Attend part-time day or evening life-drawing and portraiture classes
  • Once you are working move around different theatres to gain varied experience.

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