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Interviews

Hair to the Throne

You may not know the name, but you have seen Paul Huntley’s work. With a career that stretches back to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, the wig designer has worked extensively on both sides of the Atlantic, in film, television, and theatre. Faye Dunaway’s hair in Network? A Paul Huntley wig. Princess Margaret’s ‘60s beehives? Huntley. Patti LuPone’s Evita hair? Huntley. From Mae West to Joan Crawford to Glenn Close to the hair that transformed Santino Fontana into Dorothy Michaels eight times a week in Tootsie, Huntley has been in close counsel with the biggest stars of the last 70 years.

Paul Huntley and Jan Maxwell for Lend Me a Tenor

The erstwhile Brit is still going strong, contributing hair to Broadway’s Diana and in the process recreating the look of a woman who conjures up a thousand different images in our collective memory as soon as her name is uttered. From the royal wedding to her media blitz tour post divorce, The People’s Princess was a master at recreating herself—and in that regard, she’s well-matched by the talents of Huntley.

“The truth is she looked different every time she walked out the front door,” Huntley says. “Sometimes short, spiky hair and sometimes blown out really large. And then her color changed all the time.”

Of course, recreating royal looks for a Broadway musical requires sleight of hand with which something more documentary-like (say, Netflix’s The Crown) doesn’t have to contend. There are microphones to consider, quick changes, and condensing a lifetime into a two-and-a-half evening show. 

Huntley, Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley (Come From Away), and bookwriter Joe DiPietro settled on establishing Diana with just four iconic looks: the style with which she was first introduced to the public as the future Princess of Wales (“We call that the pudding basin look. Because it really wasn’t that becoming to her”); the darker hair from the royal wedding, the must-watch event of 1981; the tousled and “quite big” hair that most people picture from the early ’90s; and the shorter, spikier style from the end of her tragically short life.

Huntley is also responsible for the rest of the royal family, as well—though one imagines Queen Elizabeth II’s hair was a fairly simple feat, changing has it has not a whit for decades at a time—in addition to Diana’s aunt, romance novelist Barbara Cartland, who sported a very specific look during the period. 

Each wig takes an average of five days’ work from Huntley and his team of five to create from human hair (Huntley sources it from “wig merchants” and most of the hair comes from Russia). For a project like Diana, what is particularly interesting is that there are very few natural blondes in the world; most blonde wigs audiences see have been dyed that shade. And throughout the process, Huntley remains in communication with both the creative team and the performers.

“That’s the first thing: You want to make sure that everyone knows what you’re going to do and whether that’s what they want,” he says. “And I prefer always to be the quiet one. People have a different view of me than that, I know!” he laughs.

Though certainly not one to back down from an argument about his work—he tried in vain to convince Faye Dunaway not to restyle the Maria Callas wig he gave her for Master Class—Huntley has a c’est la vie outlook that has kept him sane while working intimately with some of the biggest divas of all time. “We’re not curing cancer here, he says. “It is, after all, a musical. And people are wearing these things on their face, so you have to sort of say, ‘Oh well, what the fuck.’ You really can’t make too much of it, I don’t think.”

Over the course of his long career, Huntley has seen fads come and go, and stars wax and wane. But throughout, the nature of his relationship with the performers has remained steadfast, ever since the day he crawled into Mae West’s bed to set her wig. “Honestly I’ve never gotten over that,” he says. “And all I could think was… ‘My god, how does anyone have teeth that white?’ It was like Walt Disney stars, they were so fucking white!”

“I always felt from my earliest years that they were the stars, and they were the most important people and therefore I was just someone who helped,” he says. Now, of course, his reputation precedes him, but Huntley remains the “strange Englishman who’ll probably do some wonderful stuff,” as he puts it.

Beginning his career in England with Stanley Hall at Hall’s Wig Creations—a major wig creation company for film at the time—Huntley was creating wigs and false eyebrows for director Mike NIchols—who suffered from alopecia—and made the leap to America after Nichols hired him to do the hair on Carnal Knowledge and asked if he’d ever considered moving. 

“He said, ‘Well, you know, why don’t you come and live here?’” Huntley recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly go to America! Good heavens, it’s so loud!’”

“That’s where the ‘grand voice’ comes in,” he adds dryly.

But Nichols pressed on and ultimately sponsored Huntley’s visa. Two years after Carnal Knowledge was released, Huntley made his Broadway debut with the Nichols-directed production of Uncle Vanya, starring—in a very eclectic cast—George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, and 70-year-old Lillian Gish.

“The sweet thing about Lillian was she said, ‘Oh, Paul darling, I’m going to look so young on the stage! You’re going to have to give me a gray wig,” Huntley recalls, laughing. “And she did look young!”

Huntley’s list of devotees reads as a Who’s Who of theatrical and Hollywood history. He worked again with Gish a decade later, when she starred with Bette Davis in The Whales of August; he did Crawford’s wigs on her final film, Trog (a project that produces the equivalent of a good-natured verbal shudder from him); he restyled Marlene Dietrich’s wigs when she toured the world with her concert act, receiving them in plain brown parcels with a note and a next destination to which he’d send the refreshed wig; he works extensively with Glenn Close, on everything from Sunset Boulevard to 101 Dalmations; and Patti LuPone famously has him written into her contract for every project since Evita. In fact, Huntley is the man behind her memorable, flame-colored wigs on Ryan Murphy’s latest Netflix series Hollywood.

Evita – Patti LuPone

But even a man who counts the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls and Cats (the project he’d most want to relive) to the most recent revivals of Anything Goes and Noises Off! has a few projects he wishes had been his. 

“I would have liked to have worked on [the 2019] Kiss Me, Kate,” he says. “I did the 1999 revival. I would have loved to have done that again. But there are good people. David Brian Brown, Charles LaPointe…I can respect people who do good work. I have no qualms about praising people if it’s good work.”

But with more memorable creations on his résumé than even seems possible, it’s safe to say that Huntley’s missed opportunities are few and far between. And with Diana, he proves once again who the royal hair creator is.


Follow Paul Huntley on Instagram at @paul_huntley_wigs

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Cover Story Interviews

All The World’s Her Stage (…and Backstage)

Beverly Jenkins is not afraid of a cut show. That’s a performance where there are more actors calling out than there are understudies or swings to replace them, and it requires a last-minute reconfiguration of everything from blocking to costuming to the placement of props.

For many people, this would be terrifying, but for Jenkins, who’s been a Broadway stage manager since the early 90s, it’s an opportunity.

“It’s a challenge I actually enjoy,” she says. “I know it’s a crazy thing to enjoy. It’s not something you wish for, but if you need to make it happen and you have the right people, you can make it happen.”

Case in point: At one performance of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale The Musical, she only had one Black actress available, even though there was a scene that required two. “I had to decide,” she recalls. “‘Do I have one Black female on stage, or do I have a Black female and a Black male in that other track?’ I’d planned for that, because you have to plan for that, even if it never happens. So I made the decision to have a Black male on stage, because otherwise it would have thrown some things off [to just have one person]. I spoke to some people; we made a few changes, and it worked. No problem.”

That solution indicates what a distinct style of stage management Jenkins has developed over her career, which includes landmark productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk; the original Miss Saigon; and her current gig as the production stage manager for Hadestown.

The cast and crew of Hadestown

Crucially, she sees a cut show as a chance to connect. “It’s a community event,” she says. “You check with wardrobe, and they’ll make adjustments. The music department and the dance captains are involved. I always reach out to the director or the AD to make sure my choices are okay. And I take the personal trip to tell people what’s happening. I get a couple of extra steps in on my FitBit, and I’m good. I want to make sure I’m personally letting people know what’s going on before they step on stage.”

Those steps — up and down stairs, into the green room, into the wings — set Jenkins apart “Beverly runs a building, and she doesn’t have to open her computer to do it,” says Michael Rico Cohen, a fellow stage manager who has worked alongside her on A Bronx Tale The Musical, Amazing Grace, and Fully Committed.

“She is the person-to-person contact. She’s the problem solver. She’s the empathy master.”

Or to borrow a phrase Jenkins uses to describe herself, she’s a mom of many. “I’m fine with the tech,” she says. “It’s all good. I’m very calm, and I can call a cue just as well as the next person, but I believe my speciality is about being hands-on with the people. I put a lot of thought and care into everyone — not just the actors, but everyone — coming into that theatre.”

On every show, then, a big part of her job is figuring out exactly what this particular group of people needs. For instance, on Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, the 1996 dance musical that uses tap to trace Black history in the United States, Jenkins worked with performers who were more familiar with the dance world than with Broadway. “Sorry Equity, but I had to bend the rules for this group of young men,” she says. “I had to assess the rules and see what they needed. Like, ‘I know this is half hour, and if you’re not here at half hour, then I need you to call me and tell me how far away you are. And as Iong as I know you’re coming, you get a five-minute grace period.’ And that’s something I still do, the five-minute grace period.”

On Noise/Funk, she also turned her office into an occasional daycare center, so that parents in the company could bring their children with them when there were no other options. She recalls, “I had Barney tapes. I had a playpen. I was like, ‘You’re not going to be forced to miss work because you’re doing the right thing with your child.’ I have to get my show up, no matter what. I have to figure out how to get the best show on stage today. And on that show, watching kids was part of it.”

For Amazing Grace, the 2015 Broadway musical that explores how the British slave trade inspired the titular hymn, Jenkins knew her job required extra compassion. She says, “Amazing Grace was important to me because of what was happening on stage. How hard is it that the first time you see Black people on stage, they are stuffed in a crate, and then they get pulled out, thrown on the ground, and shot in the back? So when the actors come off stage, how can they not carry that off stage? How do we make sure that these people are not carrying the feelings of trauma off stage with them?

“We had company morale-building events. We had t-shirt day. We made sure the dressing rooms were mixed, and that we weren’t keeping the Puritans over here and the Africans over here. It was good to see everyone put thought into how to make this a harmonious backstage area and still tell that particular story.”

It no doubt helped that Jenkins herself was spearheading the backstage culture. “She is wildly good at creating fellowship and community,” says Rachel Chavkin, the director of Hadestown.

“She exudes exuberance, but also doesn’t beat around the bush when she’s got a problem to work through. And she’s not precious, because she’s focused on problem-solving at every turn.”

Jenkins asserts that small touches help a company avoid bigger problems, particularly when they’re together for a lengthy run. That’s one reasons she runs a “turkey hand” contest for Thanksgiving, getting everyone in the building to trace their hand on construction paper and then turn it into a decorated turkey drawing. “And believe me, there are prizes, honey,” she says.

Cohen confirms, “There’s nobody that loves a turkey hand competition more than Beverly Jenkins. But it’s more than just turkey hands or door decorating contests or the Father’s Day barbecue. She’s a master of the casual-but-meaningful interaction. It creates a camaraderie and an immediate trust. It’s these little things that really make the building a happy place over a period of years. All of those things are just as important — and sometimes more — than announcing what we’re doing in understudy rehearsal on Friday.”


Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.

Categories
Interviews

Giving Props to Broadway’s Secret Hoarders

A lamp, a locket, a fiddle, a pie. To theatre fans, these four items conjure up images of iconic shows, and that’s the secret power of props. Though they often blend into the scenery, each prop has its own story to tell and can become the eternal image of a production. But how do you go about finding that all-important piece?

“My process starts with dramaturgy—reading the play, reading the play, reading the play,” says Kathy Fabian, owner of Propstar. “I read about the play, the playwright, about the playwright’s other plays, listen to the director and the other designers [discuss] their interpretation of the piece and their goals so I can attempt to interpret what’s in their ‘mind’s eye’ when they picture the world we are about to create.”

Kathy Fabian - courtesy American Theatre Wing
Kathy Fabian – courtesy American Theatre Wing

Since 2005, Kathy’s company has designed and managed large-scale prop packages for dozens of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, as well as for TV and film. From All My Sons to Kinky Boots, her keen eye and amazing artistic vision have dressed the sets of some of the biggest productions in New York—and her latest challenge is quite a feat.

Kathy will provide the props for David Mamet’s classic play American Buffalo, which is due to open at Circle In The Square Theatre this summer. Set in a junk shop in the late 70s, it tells the tale of the shop’s owner, Don, who plans to steal back a buffalo nickel he believes is worth more than he sold it for.

“The junk shop definitely has its own presence, and even though it doesn’t have a voice, it’s integral to telling the story,” Kathy explains.

“People who do what I do enjoy the hunt…so I got on a plane to St. Petersburg.”

Like an actor building their character, she digs deep to get to know her subject inside and out ensuring it becomes a real place in the minds’ of the audience. “I ask myself many questions like what’s the history of the shop? How long ago did the junk begin to amass? What are Don’s personal interests that might influence what he collects? Does he curate his goods or did he just happen upon/steal/salvage/buy them? What’s the difference between a pawn shop, a thrift shop, an antique store, and a junk shop?”

Monger’s Flea Market

Just like a missed line or an ill-timed lighting cue, a prop from the wrong decade or even a piece with the wrong texture can pull an audience out of the world presented on stage. But sourcing items takes time, research, and patience, particularly for a set that’s densely layered. “I start looking at advertisements from the era and head to eBay and Etsy to look for hero items first. Once I’ve got my smattering of jaw-dropping 60s and 70s lamps, famous toys, posters, comic books, car parts, and specific items mentioned in the script by name, I move onto vintage fillers. Other than a few iconic gems an audience member might recognize from their past, the merchandise, (if you can call it that), is truly junk – used items you wouldn’t believe anyone would buy.”

Kathy Fabian – courtesy American Theatre Wing

Though filling a junk shop may be a prop master’s dream, each show offers its own opportunity, challenges and excitement, with no two jobs ever being the same. “You probably won’t learn something from one project that you can use as a go-to solution on the following ones. One morning, you may find yourself embarking on a play that’s set on an imaginary planet 100 years in the future, and after you’ve translated the playwright’s words into 3D for the stage, your next endeavour might be to recreate the inside of a military hospital during World War II.”

With a breadth of eras, locations, venues, and environments to create, the number of items needed by such a prolific prop specialist is astounding. “Space is always an issue, especially in Manhattan,” Kathy explains. “I keep two large rooms of small items like houseware, tools, soft goods, and collectibles at my studio on 52nd Street. We offer smaller companies with challenged budgets the option to rent items for $5 to $10 a month. This keeps things moving. I keep larger items in storage units in New Jersey and Yonkers. Shows like American Buffalo provide a great opportunity for spring cleaning as they allow me to lend things from my own stock and make some much-needed space for a while.”

With rows and rows of incredible items that have created their very own time capsule, along with all the equipment any theatre company may need to kit out a rehearsal space, Propstar’s warehouses are treasure troves that would wow anybody lucky enough to explore them. Packed full of vintage telephones and signs, banquets of fake food and old-school accounting calculators, miniature books and handmade textiles, Propstar’s wealth of products are more than a starting point for any production’s needs. However, Kathy’s hunt for the perfect items never stops. “I visit flea markets, Goodwills, salvage yards, Craigslist… the online auction sites these days are so very helpful. When I started my career, all my shopping was on foot, and in some cases, I really had to get lucky!”

Kathy is part of a community of prop specialists that work on Broadway. Between them, they form a network of knowledge and contacts that can find almost anything a director could want or need for a show. “If I hit a wall and can’t find the particular item I’m looking for, I call around to some of my junk dealers and other pals in the business. People who do what I do enjoy the hunt, so often once I put the word out there that I’m after something, folks join in on the search. We trade favors.”

However, there are times when all the favors in the world aren’t enough to find that one special item and you have to go a little further afield to find what you’re looking for: “For Fiddler on the Roof in 2004, no one could come up with the authentic Russian antiques which were required to fulfil the design vision, so I got on a plane to St. Petersburg.”

With tight schedules and a creative team awaiting input, prop masters don’t always have time to fly across the world. Luckily, there are other ways to get your hands on that elusive object. “Sometimes, rather than wasting too much time looking for something, I decide it’s more effective to just start from scratch and build a copy of the item. The wealth of talented craftspeople in this local network affords us that option as well.”

Kathy herself has always had an interest in making and creating, learning crafty hobbies at a young age. “Both my grandmothers taught me to sew, and so my hands were busy with crochet projects, needlepoint, doll-making, etc. from a very young age.”

This creative nature followed Kathy throughout her life and eventually led her to a career in props. “During my time at the University of Vermont, I was very active in theatre, both the performance side and the technical side. I took a special interest in carpentry and finish work. When I first moved to New York, I worked as a furniture maker and began receiving offers for props work. Slowly I took on more and more projects (while keeping my night job, of course), built a small company, and graduated from Off-Broadway to Broadway offers. Finally, one day I realized I didn’t need to wait tables anymore.”

For anyone interested in starting a career in props, Kathy has two pieces of advice: “Number one, call me! And number two, be prepared for a wild ride of multitasking and shedding your fears of trying new things and asking questions. You will never find the words ‘I’m so bored’ floating in your mind again.”