Ghosts have to look the part. And an actor sometimes needs that final flourish to fully realize a character. So many layers build a character onstage. There’s voice and movement. Then we build a costume from the ground up. Hair crowns the look. And then there’s makeup. Stage makeup is both a technical science and a visionary art. Master Mystery Productions makeup artistry is some of the best out there with magical effects produced show after show from spooky burn scars from a long ago studio fire to a marble statue literally coming to life onstage. In this special beyond-the-veil feature, we’ll be talking to Olivia Holm, Diamond Mask Award-winning actress (Honey Boudin, Close Encounters of the Hairy Kind) and Skeleton Key Award winning makeup artist (SFX makeup, What Happens at Sundown), whose brilliant work on everything from faded movie stars to Bigfoot to living statues has helped establish a definitive look in MMP’s stagecraft. Olivia will give us some insight in designing makeup for the stage as well as information on some spirited designs she did for our latest production.
HAUNTING FACES: The Making of Woman in the Walls (Part 4)
Master Mystery Productions: Thank you for joining us on the MMP blog today, Olivia. Now you started at MMP in September 2018, but you worked in theatre long before that. When did you start?
Olivia: The first show I ever did was Inyokern Elementary School’s production of Snow White when I was in third grade. But once I got into high school, that’s when theatre became my life.
MMP: What sort of work did you do in theatre in those first few shows?
O: For those first few shows, I was acting in ensemble parts up until the second semester of my sophomore year of high school. I helped out with tech needs here and there, but never specialized in any one aspect.
MMP: How did you get into makeup?
O: I have such a strange answer, at least to other people’s answers. I never planned to do makeup, in any sense, but one day in sixth grade, I just wanted to learn how to make a fake cut. My whole theatre career was sparked, because I was bored one weekend. So I looked up some videos on how to make a fake cut, all of which needed latex (which I didn’t have) so I used a washable glue stick, some pens, and an old eye shadow palette. From there, I started watching more videos, trying different things. Eventually, my parents got me a Ben Nye beginners kit, and everything just evolved from there.
MMP: What sort of study or training do you have in stage and special effects (SFX) makeup?
O: Most of my training came from watching SFX makeup videos on YouTube and just testing things out on my own. But I did take two SFX Summer camps in the June of 2015 and 2016 at the Cinema Makeup School.
MMP: What was the first makeup you worked on?
O: I’ve done so many makeup looks, but one of the very first that I remember was a simple cut on the back of my hand.
MMP: What did you learn from the first design?
O: I learned that if you’re going to start anywhere, start small. Get your feet wet, then once you get a handle on it, run with it. I also learned that getting glue off your hand and out of the small hairs isn’t that fun.
MMP: What work have you done in theatre prior to joining MMP?
O: Before joining MMP, I had done one show in third grade that I mentioned previously, and I was in a production of La Boheme. But the bulk of my theatre experience comes in during high school. Freshman year, I was in the ensemble for The Wizard of Oz as a flying monkey and a poppy/snowman. Sophomore year, I was in the ensemble for Galaxies Collide, and I played the Grand Dutchess Olga Katrina for You Can’t Take It With You. Junior year, I played one of five Hamlets in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I was the ensemble in Fuselage, then I took a break from acting and became the Costume Designer for Big River. And finally, in my Senior year, I was the Rockstar Soloist for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, I was Ensemble in Trojan Women, I played Prentiss in Peter and the Star Catcher, and finally I played some of the various townspeople in The Laramie Project.
MMP: We know you also did makeup work for CLOTA’s Spookhouse (a walkthrough haunted house experience done every Halloween season) over the years. That’s how we met you. Tell us more about looks you did for them and what you learned.
O: Many of my more notable looks for CLOTA’s Spookhouse were my own, because I had the time to do such complex makeup, and I could tolerate it more. Some of those would include Regan from the Exorcist for Hollywood Horrors 2: The Terrifying Sequel, The Spider Queen for Night Terrors, and The Saloon Girl from The Haunting of Indian Wells. Although there are a few looks that I’ve done on the veterans of Spookhouse that were really beautiful and fun to do–such as The Blacksmith for The Haunting of Indian Wells, The Boogeyman from Night Terrors, Trypohobia from Phobophobia, and of course your various undead and infected haunt actors that didn’t have specific characters. From doing about fifteen people’s makeup, which varied from person to person, in a two hour time span definitely taught me how to do makeup fast but also with accuracy. Because, unfortunately, I couldn’t take 30-45 minutes for every single actor and give them all detailed makeup, so I took 10-15 for each and just really emphasized some dead features. I also learned how to do two people’s makeup at one time, a very valuable skill in any field.
MMP: What was your first MMP show, and what did you do for it?
O: My first MMP show was What Happens at Sundown, and I was the Special Effect Makeup Designer. I created and applied the twenty-year-old burn scars and the noose bruises, along with aging one of the characters and giving him a makeup mustache.
MMP: How did you design the makeup for What Happens at Sundown?
O: Specifically, for Leslie Blake’s (who played Kim Hyatt) burn scars, I knew I had to make it stay and to show up on stage without being too much. I always start out by testing out and playing with color and products on myself first–I have this philosophy for SFX in general. If I’m uncomfortable in this makeup, the actor is going to hate it. So I always test it on myself first, using the notes Daniel, writer/director of the show, gave me to give myself a starting place. Knowing that Leslie needed to take gloves on and off throughout the show, I used alcohol-activated paints because they are smudge, sweat, and waterproof paints. It just came down to coloring her hands, emphasizing the knuckles and scab areas.
MMP: What did you learn from the experience?
O: I learned that your first design is not going to be what is shown on stage. I had a very complicated and in-depth makeup idea, but as we got closer to opening night and as I watched Leslie work, I realized that the makeup would have to be simpler and easier to wear. Communication is key. Especially between the Director, Makeup Artist, and the Actor.
MMP: Your second show with us was Close Encounters of the Hairy Kind. Tell us about the experience of working under our first outside director, Monica Dwyer.
O: Monica Dwyer was an amazing director. She had such fresh and fun ideas for this show and working with her was always a joy. She always had notes and new ideas every rehearsal and helped each and every one of us with our characters and tech assignments.
MMP: How did you design the Bigfoot makeup, and what did you learn from it?
O: The design for Bigfoot was very simple and relied mainly on body paint. Since the makeup didn’t need to be on stage for very long, it didn’t need details or anything super fancy. So I matched the base to the costume, then stimulated hair with a thin detail brush and a darker paint to also add texture and contour. I learned that the environment where you’re applying the makeup isn’t always ideal and distractions are normal. I also learned that one should always be prepared to fix a look at a moment’s notice.
MMP: And now your masterpiece: the full body paint for Beth Sparks-Jacques as the living marble bust of Pallas Athena in Lenore Nevermore. How did you design it? What challenges did you face?
O: Well, a lot had to go into it, but I started with Daniel’s design idea of white marble and a big crack down the center of her face. For a good time, my search history was of nothing but marble statues of Athena. I needed to test how I was going to make the marbling effect and still have it show up on stage. I found that using a base of white and then using a stippling sponge with black water-based paint worked the best, thanks to watching a makeup video that used that technique. I also used the marbling to make a natural “contour” to the marble that will help her features show on the stage. I added some small veining details as seen in normal white marbling. The biggest challenges I faced was getting all of her painted in time for the show and making sure that she didn’t sweat all the makeup off. But thankfully I got an amazing makeup crew to help me get Beth, who played Pallas Athena, ready. And to keep the makeup in place, I found that baby powder worked wonders.
MMP: What has been the most challenging makeup you’ve done?
O: Definitely Pallas Athena’s full body paint.
MMP: Which is your favorite makeup so far?
O: That’s a hard one, but I really enjoyed doing my own makeup for the Spider Queen during the Night Terrors Spookhouse. Although for MMP, Pallas Athena takes the cake.
MMP: What sort of makeups would you love to do in the future?
O: As difficult as it was, I would love to do more full body makeups. It was so much fun and doing more would be amazing.
MMP: Describe the experience of working with Master Mystery Productions. Why do you return show after show?
O: MMP is a family. We always look out for one another, and we make each and every show fun and special. And the cool thing is, this friendship and familial-like ties extend even after the show is done. We always have fun, but also make it apparent to keep the rehearsal professional and well-organized, and that’s what I really like about it.
MMP: So for Woman in the Walls, you’re returning for your fourth MMP show, what makeup designs are in your mind for the production that you can share with us?
O: For Woman in the Walls, a character has to have a big bite scar on their arm, which has to withstand the actors movements and clothing being moved. So I first started by looking up human bite scars, which was a very interesting time. I found one that I felt looked like what I was envisioning for the scar. I also decided what products to use to achieve said look, alcohol-activated paints and Rigid Collodion, which are paints that are activated by rubbing alcohol and cannot be smudged or removed with sweat and a product that puckers the skin and creates the realistic look of scar tissue. Now Rigid Collodion is uncomfortable to most, so I tested it out on myself then on the actor to make sure that they won’t have a bad reaction to the makeup. Luckily nothing happened. My first makeup test on myself has actually become the final design for the makeup, which is something that I never really expected, but it was a happy surprise.
As for the other big makeup, a decayed look for one actor, Daniel (writer/director of Woman in the Walls) suggested I look at American Horror Story’s season 6 ghosts, specifically the second half with all the decrepit and decaying ghosts. I was immediately drawn to the design of Lady Gaga’s character from season six, Scacath. I then adapted that design to our needs, essentially not as crazy or dirty, so the actor will be able to remove it easily afterwards. I also had the idea to do some very cracked and dehydrated lips for the character, just to add that little touch of creepiness. Daniel and I really like how it looked on the actor and kept it for the final design. I used a lot of cream and water-activated paints for this look: one to make it easy to remove, and two, to get the decaying look. As well as using Lady Gaga’s character as a stepping off point, I wanted to look at some decaying and dirty houses to reflect that on the character.
MMP: What sort of considerations do you have to put in these designs?
O: My main goal for these designs is to make sure the actor is comfortable but its also visible on stage. I needed to make sure the makeup can withstand the actor’s movements and any clothing interference.
MMP: What are you most looking forward to doing for Woman in the Walls?
O: I am SO excited to see the audience’s reaction to the SFX makeup and all the terrifying haunt effects that we’re doing, because they scare me. But that’s the fun of it.
MMP: What advice you would give people interested in becoming makeup artists?
O: My advice would be to just go for it. Take what you have and see what you can create. You don’t need all the best tools or brushes or palettes, and you especially don’t need to be perfect the first time you try. It’s taken me six to seven years to get to where I am now, and there are still tons of things that I haven’t even tired. So, don’t rush and just go for it. I like to keep this Samuel Beckett quote in mind whenever I do anything: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
MMP: A lovely sentiment that is so important to any creative endeavor. Thank you so much, Olivia, for speaking with us! We can’t wait to see your spooky and stylish makeup designs for Woman in the Walls!
While Woman in the Walls has been canceled due to the current health crisis, we still wanted to share this awesome interview with an amazing MMP artist who will have such a bright future. Thank you, Olivia!
Stay safe, everyone!
–Master Mystery Productions