Wigged Out

By Ilona Kauremszky

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ON -- On her off days, you’re most likely to catch Sherry Nasmith-Jones crouched in her garden, digging up weeds and tending to her beloved daffodils. “I like gardening because it’s earthy,” says the 51-year-old local resident.

But catch Sherry when she’s working and you’ll find Shaw Festival’s Head Wig Mistress is up and at ‘em this time knotting locks of hair onto a fitted veil of nylon. Sherry scowls when you mention those old-fashioned tight rubber wigs that can pull your hair out and insists the tool to her trade lies in the subtlety of her art form.

“The best way to tell a wig is not knowing you have one on,” she quips about the thousands of wigs she’s created over the years at The Shaw.

Now in her 27th season, Sherry is one of a handful of people in the country to hold the title “Head Wig Mistress” or “Head of Wigs.” The theatre veteran is one of Canada’s early wig mistresses whose presence has been felt in virtually every one of The Shaw’s productions. With her ample supply of hairpins, combs, spirit gum (she says, “it acts as an adhesive glue and pats down the lace to the face”), and trusty flashlight, Sherry looms in the wings behind the scenes. Her hands tucked inside her prized trusty black canvas fanny pack, she waits for the end of the act so she can reapply her mastery to the precious coiffure. Her wizardry with curls, French braids, buns and stylish waves reminiscent of Hollywood screen vixens has crowned the heads of great thespians like Heath Lamberts, Fiona Reid, Goldie Semple, Mary Haney and scads of others.

So what’s a Head Wig Mistress? “They’re somebody who deals with anything to do with hair or makeup. It can be styling wigs. We have an amazing stock of wigs that we reuse. So really a head wig mistress works on everything from the neck up,” replies Sheila from her studio office.

Sherry works closely with designers who often drop off character sketches sporting the ideal hair color or they rhyme off eras like “Edwardian” or name drop starlets like Louise Brooks or Rita Hayworth after which Sherry takes her queue collaborating with the actors and her staff. She reviews the actors’ personal needs, studies the shape of the head then creates the perfect veil that will ultimately hold the hairpiece. In most cases before you even know it the wig diva says she usually manages to complete two wigs a week.

For the 2005 Shaw Festival season, the wig mistress has created 35 wigs for the newly opened “Gypsy” production alone. The play based on the book by Arthur Laurents with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and directed by Jackie Maxwell casts 12 women in the bedazzling vaudevillian musical with each having up to four additional roles. In between chorus line numbers and pop tunes like “Some People,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” backstage there’s a flurry of activity.

Then there’s the production of Rashomon in 1996 starring Robert Benson as the fiery haired Kubiki king. The stage adaptation of the famous film by Akira Kurosawa chronicled a violent incident in ancient Japan, using samurais, bandits and a young wife. “I wanted a different texture here, something thick, wiry so we used yak hair imported from a company in England.” Was she thrilled about the results? “Oh yes,” replies Sherry and adds, “He was a huge king figurine so it was very dramatic.”

As a young girl growing up in St. Catharines, Sherry played with dolls where she developed an interest in cutting off the hair of her dolls. “I gave them short haircuts,” she says and adds that over the years she has kept one of the dolls “Sweet Pea” who is “as bald as a billiard cube.” After Sherry graduated from Sir Winston Churchill high school, like many young adults she was trying to suss out a career path and became a hairdresser at the now closed “Petite House of Beauty” on Queen Street “right down from Church St.” It was at this time that her stepsister Carol Forte who lived in Ottawa rang her one day and suggested she visit the National Arts Centre where there was someone making wigs for the ensemble.

“I knew I wanted to do something creative so I decided to visit Carol and she put the two of us together,” reminisces Sherry about the first time meeting with her mentor, the great Donna Gliddon, Head Wig Mistress of the National Arts Centre whose own portfolio includes working on such productions as "Arms and the Man," “Cabaret des mots," "The Glass Menagerie" starring Shirley Douglas and Kieffer Douglas including all the Shakespeare productions directed by Marti Maraden.

Of their first time encounter, Sherry laughs how Donna did not care for a stylist but she noted, “I’m (Donna) willing to teach wig making.” Ten days later Sherry moved to Ottawa where she learned the tools of the trade that Sherry says, “haven’t changed much over the years.”

The ancient technique of wig making has plied through the centuries and became avant-garde during Cleopatra’s time who Sherry says, “Cleopatra wasn’t the black haired beauty we acquaint ourselves with but she really was fair haired.” Then there were other periods where the wig reigned. The Elizabethans, the times of Marie Antoinette, and the Gilded Age all have been popularized by Hollywood. Films such as “Age of Innocence,” “Amadeus,” and “Immortal Beloved” are a few.

And in the world of theatre, a good wig has become a girl’s best friend. Since most actresses are rifling through scenes and quick clothes changes which often means drastic hairstyle changes, sporting a wig has cut down on time and saved a girl’s locks from over processing.

During her stint at the National Arts Centre under the tutelage of Donna Gliddon, Sherry worked on the secondary characters for such productions as Tartuffe, Moliere, Troilus and Cressida and had her first Shaw encounter in 1978. The production was Man And Superman. Unknowingly to the young wig stylist, Sherry’s destiny was set out for her the following year when a young company hired a new director Christopher Newton to manage its productions.

Taking her chances and returning home, Sherry remembers when she walked through the Shaw Festival’s main stage, “I knew there was a feeling that came over me. It was something right,” she recollects of her Shaw debut 26 years ago.

With a vibrant new company, the plays were edgy, adding more productions along with a bigger stage ensemble, giving Sherry a natural push for the girls to don handmade wigs custom made on the premise. In those days, one wig averaged about $1200 and had to be shipped from England. “I told Christopher I could build it for cheaper,” said Sherry who has been known to ply through the hand knotting using beautifully perfect length hair strands imported from England in every hue on some days 12-14 hours straight. “I don’t do that anymore,” she says and adds she knows when to quit and also has other assistants on hand.

But in the early days of the Shaw Festival, everyone was known for flying by the seat of their pants including one sprite strawberry blonde wig maker. In the early 80s during an evening performance of Feydeau's “A Flea In Her Ear,” Martha Burns was spinning around uncontrollably on Michael Fawkes’ shoulders when her wig suddenly appeared to lose itself atop the starlet’s head. Before you knew it, Sherry receives a page. It’s red alert time. The wig maestro ran across the backstage not knowing the doors were open in the back. So all you got was a glimpse of an unidentified woman running across the backstage.

Anymore repeat episodes like that? “Never,” replies Sherry, not even one. While the falling wig episodes are over, Sherry encountered her own personal near miss tragedy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly two years ago. A routine mammogram thankfully detected an early form of breast cancer, which was treated through rigorous radiation treatments at the Hamilton General Hospital. “I remember being driven home after by my husband just feeling awful,” she looks back. Now cancer-free, the strong willed impassioned artisan feels blessed and is grateful about surviving the ordeal.

She’s been known to frequent schoolrooms, address school groups, teach wig making and offers advice to other cancer patients. “There are many excellent companies in the market that are designing wigs so I refer them,” she says. “I don’t make wigs for others.”

The ensemble is plenty. You won’t spot Sherry on stage but you might catch a glimpse of her if you take a Backstage Tour offered by The Shaw. You’ll most likely spot her behind a beehive of wigs lining the shelves with the likes of the fiery Rashomon. I did.


New this year is the audience enriching Backstage Tours for a sneak peek behind the curtains of The Shaw. Saturday mornings 9:30 – 11:00 am from June 11 to October 29. $5 per person. Book in advance through the Box Office. If available, tickets will also be sold at the Box Office on the day of the tour. For more info, call 1-800-511-SHAW or visit www.shawfest.com

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