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London’s West End Wig World -The Do’s & Don’ts To Get The Experience

London's West End
By Mel Brothwell

London’s West End is right up there as one of the most famous and prestigious theatre districts in the world. It’s the place that everyone from actors, wigs and makeup people want to work, but with more and more colleges and training academies now offering wigs and hair courses – how do you get one of those sought after jobs?

I’ve been working now in wig departments in the West End for nearly 12 years and in that time I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some amazing and very successful productions such as Hairspray, Billy Elliot, Jersey Boys, Motown and Rock of Ages and I’ve worked with some very talented wig designers and fellow wigs people. Although when you are starting out in the industry, getting that first job with no credit to your name can be tricky. It takes a lot of determination, hard work and a bit of luck (there’s a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time!)

That hard work begins at work experience. It’s the best chance and sometimes the only way to make those oh-so-important contacts.

Quite often we will use work experience to test you out if we have a position or holiday cover coming up. However, it’s a minefield out there and one wrong move can have your carefully written CV heading straight for the bin never to be seen again. Here’s how to avoid the recycling and get yourself in the right place at the right time and into that job you’ve been longing for.

1: The Name of the Game

Dropping your CV and cover letter into a stage door can be the easiest way to get your stuff seen. Doing a mass CV drop across the West End can seem like the best idea but if you’ve not addressed each one by name to the Head of Department, you may as well have stayed at home. When a CV arrives addressed to “ The Head of Wigs” stamped on the front it’s probably not even going to get opened. If you’ve not taken the time to find out someone’s name, then why should they be bothered to read your CV? A quick phone call to a stage door and they will be happy to supply you with the information you need.

2: Think it Through

Everyone wants to get a job on that brand new show. It’s on every TV show, tube poster and radio show going – how exciting you think? Yes, you’re right it absolutely is, but for the wig department on the show, it also requires long hours and extra work. The Head of Department will be so busy overseeing setting up the show, publicity and help make the vision of the wig designer a reality that the last thing on their mind will be taking on a work experience person. You may wonder, could they not do with the extra help? Wig rooms are often small with the show department plus the wig designer, their assistant and what seems like million brand new wigs, things are going to get pretty cosy in. The mere thought of one more extra person in the room can send even the calmest Head of Wigs running to lock themselves in the nearest toilet (believe me I’ve been there!) Give them six months to get the understudy runs, press photos and promotional videos out the way and you’ll have a much better chance of getting in.

3: To call or not to call – that is the question.

Many people will tell you to do a follow-up phone call about a week or so after you left your CV. This is a tricky one, I know some people that hate this but for me sometimes with everything going on I may just forget, so being there on the other end of the phone can make me just book someone in there and then. If you feel comfortable give it a go, but never ever call after 5:30, by this point things have got pretty busy, with the cast starting to arrive, you just about manage to grab a bite of a sandwich before running off to preset the wigs. These last couple of hours before show time fly. Call during the day when everyone is wig dressing and things are a bit more relaxed.

4: Leave the storytelling to the stage

Resisting that temptation to exaggerate the truth is a must, even if your CV is looking a little bare. If you’ve only done work experience for one day on a show then say that – don’t make it appear like you’ve worked on. Most Heads of Department know each other and it’s very easy to get caught out. Also as obvious as it may seem, don’t be tempted to lie. I once received a CV from someone I had never met claiming to have worked on a show I was Head of Wigs on at the time they stated they worked there and needless to say I have never employed them!

5: Be prepared

So, you’ve got yourself some work experience, now is the time to leave that favourite multi-coloured top at home, not all shows require you to wear black but play it safe and do it anyway. Always wear closed-toe shoes and bring a notepad and pen. If you have a tool belt bring it, if not get one. Dress for the job and we’ll think of you in the job.

6: Keep the focus

If it’s one of your first times backstage it can be easy to get distracted. During the show, there will be lots of stuff going on around you. Tempting it may be, but keep your eyes off the stage and on your wig person, that’s what you’re there for and it’s important to remember that.

Ask questions and offer to help wherever you can, this is your time to show off your skills.

Keep your eyes on the show person or the wig assistants, these are the positions you should be aiming for so watch what their particular role involves.

7: Keep Going!

Don’t be put off if you leave and don’t hear from them, it may well be they don’t have any work for you at that moment or maybe that particular show is too busy for a person with less experience. As I said earlier, most Heads of Department know each other and believe me we talk! If I’ve had someone great in but I’ve not got any work for them then I’ll pass their details to a friend.

The more shows you can get into the more people you’ll meet and the better your understanding of the role and chances of opportunities.

Remember this is your time also to work out if it’s the job for you and if it is what you expected it would be.

Theatre is an industry like no other and in my opinion, working within a wig department is the best job in the world. Good luck and enjoy where the adventure takes you.

Also by Mel Brothwell:

The Secret Diary Of A West End Wiggy

A Moment With Mel Brothwell

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