Meet Melissa Veal, wig maker at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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.

On the shelves beneath The Wig were even creepier objects, canvas heads filled with cotton and cork, resembling punching bags. Maloo explained they were blocks, used for shaping a wig to an actor's head. Each block is a mold (first step, wrap the actor's head in plastic), and most of her blocks are the molds of Chicago actors' heads.

Who has a bad head, I asked.

"Every head is good," she said.

But, really, whose head stinks?

"Nobody! But there are people, I shake their hand and the whole time I am sizing up their head. Taylor Travis, who was Lord Farquaad (in "Shrek The Musical") and Beast (in "Beauty and the Beast") here, has a big head. Michael Shannon: Never worked with him, but I will see him and think 'My God, that man is size 26!'"

On the other side of the room was Miguel Perez, Maloo's apprentice for the theater season. He was carefully threading hair through a block. "How's it going, Miguel?" Maloo asked, and Miguel said: "I'm really … excited about it?"

Maloo smiled broadly. Good enough. She is very polite and Canadian and patient. She sat behind her desk and gestured for me to drag over the barber's chair that sat in front of a theatrical mirror studded with makeup-friendly lighting (Maloo does makeup too). "My story is this," she said, "I grew up in Ontario. In the white bean capital of Canada. A small town. I didn't know anything about wigs, didn't know anything about theater. But I have always been a hair person and I had an aunt who was a hairdresser." Also, a close relative (she asked that I not say who), has alopecia, "which subconsciously probably has something to do with what I do."

At the National Arts Center in Ottawa (where she acquired her nickname from an actor, though she has never entirely understood what it meant), she met a wig-maker who later left for the vast and acclaimed Stratford Festival, where she offered Maloo an apprenticeship. Maloo spent the next 10 years at Stratford, coming to Chicago when a Stratford production of "School for Scoundrels" played at Chicago Shakespeare.

She returned for another show. Then another.

In 2003, after years of commuting between Stratford and Chicago, she became Navy Pier's go-to theatrical wig-maker. "My first show was 'Julius Caesar,' so mostly male wigs, and a lot of blood. There was blood everywhere. The wigs would be a mess. And that was the idea! Did you see our (2009 production of) 'Twelfth Night,' which used a swimming pool for the set? As everyone fell in love, they would fall in, and people asked me if this made me sad, but no, the wigs were made for water. In fact, the show originally wanted this actor to fall in and have his wig come off and float around. They were like, 'At some point, we want him to be able to put the (wet) wig back on too.' So, yea … But, yea! You can't buy a floating wig. I love the MacGyvery part of this job! I got this foam that kids play with and made a toupee using it, and the toupee was light but would not show any secrets if it flipped in the pool. Next time we met about the play, they didn't want it, but I had done it: I floated a toupee for five hours. Just to be safe! Nobody needs a toupee to float for five hours."

The point being, wig-making, like life, is about learning.

And cataloging.

"Do you want to see the big book of mustaches?" she asked.

Above plastic containers holding many of the company's wigs were a handful of black photo albums. She pulled one down and flipped pages: Held beneath sheets of plastic were so many clumps of hair, in so many varieties — red, blond, black, thin, thick, curly, burly, drooping — the book could provide nightmares.

"We have a good facial hair stock," she said, replacing the book with an even thicker volume holding beards, goatees and sideburns: "I love this piece. We used this in 'Aladdin.' Here are 'Shrek's' eyebrows. We don't get to do eyebrows too often. Some pieces of hair in here, by the end of a show's run, look truly disgusting."

She put the book away.

She had to get back to work. The next morning, a few members of the cast of "Midsummer Night" would be shooting a theater-in-the-park promo commercial with Mayor Rahm Emanuel; she would put the wigs on the actors herself, imploring Puck (Steve Lee Johnson) to go easy on eyeliner ("Nobody wants to look like a two-bit whore"), promising Titania she would improvise something out of "feathers, bits and bobs" since the actress (Lanise Antoine Shelley) had changed her hair and the Titania wig would be a tricky fit for a one-off. Indeed, the day before — the morning I visited — Maloo anticipated that Shelley had changed her hair. She ran about her wig shop gathering up strands of white hair, black frilly puffs and a crown ornamented with a fake bird skull, anything that could be hastily arranged into a fanciful, elaborate headdress.

"Miguel," she said.

"Yes," he said.

She held the array of hair pieces like a demented bouquet in her hand, considering its quality. Perez was threading hair. She crouched down and held long white strands beneath his ears. As if a modeling gene had kicked in, Perez stopped what he was doing and looked in the mirror ahead of him. The new hair gave him the vague look of a guitarist from a 1980s hair band.

"I've seen people who look like this," he said.

"In my hometown, it's called hockey hair," she said, looking at him, quickly removing the strands and shivering again. "It feels sacrilegious to put these on someone else! OK? Enough of that, Miguel! Moving on!"

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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