Meet Melissa Veal, wig maker at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Melissa Veal lends a hand, and many strands, to Chicago Shakespeare

Maloo wears a purple shawl and granny glasses. Her hair, very important in the context of this story, is short, white, cute and swoops backward. She's 52, a native of Canada and warm. She keeps a coon hound curled at her feet and is prone to saying things such as "I didn't rescue this dog, this dog rescued me." Her office at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier does not have a window: It is a small, white-painted cinder-block cell, made all the more claustrophobic by the human hair and eyeless faces that surround her. Indeed, a few shelves above her desk, the frazzled, hippie tresses of Stevie Nicks rested on a Styrofoam head.

"No," she corrected me. "That's not Stevie. That's Mistress Quigley. From 'Henry IV.'"

Oh, but above it, there, that's Jesus hair.

"No, that's for 'Romeo and Juliet.'"

So I guess that one there's not Don Draper?

"That's for 'Othello.'"

Maloo scrunched her nose. "Do you know anything about wigs?" she asked.

Nothing, I said.

She sighed.

"OK," she began, "what we are doing here, and making here, is basically what theater people did as far back as the 1600s, and using a lot of the same methods that they used." When she started working with Chicago Shakespeare more than 14 years ago, she explained, the company didn't have a wig department. She thought this was a gross oversight for a Shakespeare theater. But then, in-house wig-making was a rare thing for Chicago theater companies. And still is. Unless you count the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Maloo, whose name is Melissa Veal (but everyone calls her Maloo), is the only on-staff wig-maker in Chicago theater — though the local Jeff Awards has only given two awards for best wigs, she has won both. Other companies, Goodman, Steppenwolf, etc., hire freelance makers or buy wigs from Broadway.

"When I first came here, this place didn't have the deep stock it has—"

The phone rang.

"Wigs and makeup, Maloo," she said while handing me a thick, tattered stack of papers. I flipped through. It was a remarkable artifact: a wig registry, a hundred or so spreadsheets bound with metal clasps. These pages contained information on the 573 wigs in stock: the color, the length, the last actor to wear them. The stock can be found either sitting on shelves that circle the room or resting neatly in baggies stacked inside nearby plastic tubs. Maloo made many of these wigs — slowly, in a Zen-like state, hand-tying each individual strand of yak or human hair — but not all. Chicago Shakespeare relies, too, on purchased wigs, but what Maloo didn't make she likely bought and adapted to a production's needs. And Maloo has done this for more than 75 of the theater's shows in the past decade.

The past season was particularly manic: Maloo handled 45 wigs for "Cyrano de Bergerac," 45 for "Gypsy," 15 for "Road Show" and 15 for "The Merry Wives of Windsor." She's currently on a relative respite, between having worked on the six or so low-key wigs that went into the company's current "Henry V" (running until June 15) and preparing the dozens required for its upcoming outdoor performances of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Maloo is so busy that much of the actual showtime wig-fitting for actors falls to Katie Cordts, another member of the theater's four-person wig department.

Maloo hung up the phone.

I asked her what was the best wig she had. It seemed like a tough question. I gestured around the room, at her gallery of disembodied follicles strapped to smooth, Styrofoam, body-snatcher heads — lowlife hair, fancy hair, receding hair, elegant hair, unkempt hair, braided hair, mullets. "You asked the golden question!" she said, reaching up and pulling down a head fitted with a stringy, somewhat rangy mass of longish dark locks.

"The Wig," she said.

It looked unremarkable. And yet, when Maloo is doing her job, her work is invisible, as natural as a head of hair. "The Wig has front lace underneath (that glues to a scalp), it's hand-tied, and it's probably been in 12 shows. We recycle a lot here. The Wig probably cost about $1,500, which is average. Your whole article could be about The Wig! When I first started here I made this wig from scratch for 'The Taming of the Shrew,' and in the next show it was made shorter and colored. You don't usually want to use the same wig in different shows, but The Wig has it all! We were doing this one show and the director wanted hair the color of the actor's real hair, so I said, 'Give me two hours.' I modified The Wig and the actor suddenly looked kind of like Art Garfunkel! The next show? The Wig needed extensions. And on and on. It's been in 'Comedy of Errors,' 'Richard III,' 'Cymbeline,' 'Twelfth Night,' 'Road Show.' The Wig looks great on people. It's magical!"

As she placed it back, I pointed out the head itself had pins stuck in its eyes. "Let's not talk about that!" she said. Why, I asked, and Maloo said: "Because it's weird! And I asked people not to do that. It's like voodoo!"

She shivered.

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