BEHIND THE MAGIC: “there’s a lot of care about the hair”

~ An interview with Hair & Make-up Head of Department, Rick Strickland ~

This week I was fortunate enough to speak with Rick Strickland, Hair and Make-up Head of Department at ‘MAMMA MIA!’, about the world of backstage beauty. We meet at the Novello Theatre, in the small studio which adjoins wardrobe: it is a cosy space where ‘blocks’ (the mannequin heads which wigs sit on) are lined up on shelves and sketches and mirrors cover most of the wall space.

Rick Strickland and Lucinda Moore, Deputy Head of Hair and Make-up, together comprise the whole of the department but Rick says he likes being in a smaller team. In ‘MAMMA MIA!’, “the whole show is people’s own hair” except from the character Tanya who wears a wig throughout the show. In addition in ‘Voulez-vous’/ ‘Super Trooper’ they sometimes add a hair piece or two to several other characters. Nonetheless, there is a whole wig oven full of the things! This is because each wig is especially made to fit the performer: so there is a wig for Kate Graham (Tanya) but also one for each of the three covers (who take the part of Tanya when Kate is away); Tanya’s wigs are made by Campbell Young Associates. Rick tells me that each wig is handmade from real hair by the wigmakers and then it is his job to cut and style them. Graham’s wig is blow-dried daily and all of the wigs and hair pieces must be washed at the start of each week.

Kate Graham as Tanya, Sara Poyzer as Donna and Ricky Butt as Rosie in ‘MAMMA MIA!’ Photo credit: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

The other big backstage rush for the hair and make-up team during the show happens in the run up to ‘Money, Money, Money’, as this is when all of the ensemble must be styled ready for their entrance. “It’s just like a salon, this show”, Rick tells me, “dealing with real hair and colours and cuts.” It certainly sounds like a high adrenaline salon, as the nature of musical theatre means that there is always a time pressure. Although he is always secure in the knowledge that the performers will be ready to go on stage, there is still a constant awareness of speed: “we can’t afford to be too slow.” This is particularly the case when covers or new cast members are performing, as it changes up the routine and adds a more variable element.

I was surprised to hear that covers do not all have the exact same hair as the lead, nor do new cast members have the same styling as their predecessor. “Not everyone’s the same”, Rick asserts, “you get a good variety, you get your hands into it.” Once a new cast member is allocated, he will get photos of them and will go to their wardrobe fitting to see them in person. He will liaise with the Associate Costume Designer, Lucy Gaiger, and works very closely with Wardrobe Mistress Ruth McCorkindale– “if you don’t liaise well with [wardrobe], you don’t have a show really. You need to connect.” Rick recalls his recent work on tour in Germany, Holland, and Helsinki, where he has encountered different cultural hair types; this has given him the opportunity to reimagine styling and create “a different look” specific to individuals’ hair. Whilst talking about this creative and collaborative approach Rick’s eyes light up and his passion for what he does is obvious.

The cast of ‘MAMMA MIA!’ performing ‘Voulez-vous’. Photo credit: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

 

Rick has been working on ‘MAMMA MIA!’ for 15 years now and he is the Hair and Make-up Supervisor for all international productions of the show. I asked him about the touring process and his role. He explained that “I travel to the venue and teach the international team how the production should look [and] how we want it to keep running ongoing.” This process takes about 3 weeks, during which the performers will rehearse during the day and Rick will work on the cast in the evenings. He will show the international team how to style roughly three performers’ hair each night until they have seen every cast member. He recounts traveling to Shanghai, arriving at 9am and being in the theatre working 10amuntil 10pm – and then doing the same for 5 days straight. In comparison, whilst in London he will arrive at the Novello for evening shows between 2 and 4 pm, depending on how much prep there is to get done.

It certainly sounds like a jet-setting lifestyle but it fits with Rick’s international past. He originally hails from Australia and it was theatre that first brought him to the UK. Rick left school at 14 to train to be a hairdresser. He worked on ships for a while, in an onboard spa, which he says was “hard work, really heavy work.” He owned a salon in Melbourne, where he was invited to a 40th birthday party which led to a theatre career, starting with ‘Les Cage aux Folles’. He eventually was asked to go to Sydney where he worked for the Sydney Theatre Company on productions ‘Our Country’s Good’ and ‘The Recruiting Officer’. He also worked at the Sydney Opera House before being asked to join a Royal Court production. When the production transferred to London in 1989, he went with it and has been here ever since. “It was never a planned thing”, he says of both his move to London and his journey into theatre. As for ‘MAMMA MIA!’, “I only came in to help out.” This makes it seem like these opportunities came out of nowhere but it is obvious that hard work does not go unnoticed. As Rick touches on, it is about people and recognition: “As far as going into theatre, that was never the plan. That was purely out of people liking me, I assume, and respect.”

Rick Strickland, Hair and Make-up Head of Department at ‘MAMMA MIA!’

I asked if he had any advice for young people looking to pursue a career in theatrical hair and make-up. He emphasised the importance of good basic training: “it’s not cheap” he acknowledged, but it is necessary. Many theatres will offer work experience but training in hairdressing is essential first – be it through college or an apprenticeship. He also touched on the mistaken idea that hairdressing is easy. “It’s fun but it’s hard work”, he warned, you must “be dedicated [because] it’s a long road.” He tells me a story from his early career, working on an Australian tour of ‘Sugarbabies’. The production had a staggering 60 wigs and he was working in a team of 4. One morning he arrived extremely hungover at 6am and his boss, furious, threw a wig at him – “I was mortified.” But he has nothing but respect for her: “what she was doing, she was teaching me that she saw I had something, like don’t waste my talent.” In fact, on the last night of that tour, each presented the other with a gift, only to find that they had bought exactly the same present from exactly the same store – “thank you Lee.” “We’re still the best friends now – I only went on holiday with her last year”, he tells me with a grin.

Rick is very sociable and I am sure that he and Lucinda must hear all the best gossip whilst styling the cast each night, but he won’t be persuaded to divulge: “you don’t kiss and tell.” There are two things which he said that really ring true when talking to him and hearing about his journey into this career. The first is about seizing opportunities: “If you want to do something, just do it.” It’s evidently a motto he has lived by and which has landed him where he is today. The second is about happiness, and it is on this note that I would like to end: “You’ve got to enjoy your life. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, don’t do it. Don’t make other people unhappy.”

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Claudia Graham

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