When absorbed in a good theatre production, most people forget that it is a production—and the finished product is a result of much more than what the audience sees on stage. Professionals such as hair and makeup artists and choreographers make the shows possible, yet are rarely given the spotlight. Take a peek behind the curtain to learn what goes into their distinctive arts.

Making Up a Character

Who better to make actors look good—or purposely ghastly, as the case may be—than a hair and makeup artist who runs her own salon? Manjit Jutla, owner of Shear Country Salon, has been a cosmetologist for eight years and assumed ownership of the salon a year and a half ago.

Jutla, who has lived all over the world, is in the enviable position of being familiar with many different cultures and looks, all of which adds to her expertise when volunteering for stage productions. She was born in Tanzania, raised in England, emigrated to Canada, and ended up in Peoria in 1995 after a stint in Columbus, Ohio.

Another key to why she’s so in demand in the theatre world is the additional instruction she sought out. “I learned the basic makeup techniques at beauty school, but I took extra training at the Conservatory of Esthetics in Chicago and also attended classes with popular makeup artists to learn their tips and secrets,” she said.

Jutla became involved with central Illinois theatres through her salon, and though she had prior theatre experience, it was of a different sort. “I participated in my local community theatre during my teenage years; I used to act in school plays and had enjoyed it very much. This was my opportunity to get involved with theatre again—but behind the scenes this time. As a stylist and owner, my time is limited, and I couldn’t commit the time required to be an actor,” she said.

In the eight years she’s been in Peoria, Jutla has worked with Peoria Players and Dunlap High School, though she dedicates most of her time to Corn Stock Theatre. “Usually, a director will approach me and see if I’m available to work with them,” she explained.

Once she’s committed to a project, she discusses the production with the director and stage manager and discovers what’s required for a particular piece. “Both the director and myself decide what the hair and makeup will be, and usually the actors are very good and experienced and give their input, too. Then I decide what products, wigs, etc., the production will need, and in collaboration with the costumer and director, buy whatever I need. The theatre is very good with reimbursing the monies, but I also donate products to the theatre because I feel it’s better to use good, professional products, as they usually work better.”

Period pieces provide a challenge for Jutla, and she typically has to put in some research time to ensure she’s providing authentic styles. “The Internet and books are very useful. Everything from hair and makeup to facial hair is very important. Hair and makeup for the production of Amadeus was very fun. The hair consisted of a lot of white wigs, which had to be curled every day, and the makeup was very ghostly looking. Camelot, with the expertise of another makeup person, was also a lot of fun—very creative,” she said.

Jutla said both men and women appreciate having their hair and makeup done for productions, and she offers to give them an education while they’re in her chair. “I try to show them how to do their own hair and makeup by performance night, so I can concentrate on the styles that need more detail or effort. They’re usually very helpful and willing, and they offer their own ideas. Their input is very valuable.”

Volunteering her time and expertise to local theatre companies is her way of contributing, Jutla said, but she also gets a return on her investment. “Most of the actors have become a family; we all know each other well and are very good friends. This is my way of having fun, meeting wonderful people, making lots of new friends, and becoming involved in the community. This also enables me to give back to Peoria, which has been very good to me.”

Walk This Way

Mary Dexter is founder and artistic director of the TazWood Dance Company, an organization she created 20 years ago. Dexter, who has been teaching dance since she was a high school sophomore, found choreography changed her focus in life. “I originally thought I wanted to perform, but teaching and choreography became my passion.”

She said a combination of special training, experience in watching others instruct, and being a dancer all contribute to successful choreographing. “Classes can be taken at the college level in choreography, dancers work with choreographers and gain experience, and dancers can try to choreograph themselves. Choreography is an art that can be learned to some degree, but, as in any art, the gift of talent is what makes a great choreographer.”

Dexter said when she’s choreographing, it’s a solo act. “I make the decision on the music, type of dance, etc. TazWood Dance Company now has two assistant directors who are also choreographing for the company. The final decision as to what they choreograph is mine, but sometimes they choose their own music, etc. I hope to see more of their involvement in the future.”

Though she can’t describe exactly how the creative process takes place, Dexter said it begins with research to understand her subject as well as possible. “Once I have ideas flowing, I pick my music. Then it just happens. I have some days when I’m more creative than others. I do know I can’t be creative if I have any other projects that need to be done. I need to tackle my choreography with a clean slate; if there are things on my mind, I know I shouldn’t even bother trying.”

Even when she’s creating with a clean slate, Dexter said she sometimes suffers from a choreographer’s version of writer’s block. “I think all creative people get stuck from time to time. If I find I’m not making any progress, I stop working and find something else to do. Sometimes I do more research. Usually when I go back to the piece, things go well. If they don’t, I may question myself on the choice of music. I definitely choreograph from the music; I listen, and it tells me what to do. Some choreographers make their steps and then look for the music, but I don’t like to work this way.”

She said knowing the dancer for whom she’s choreographing makes the process easier, as well. “In that case, you tend to choreograph to the dancer’s strong points or give the dancer challenges. I think, in the long run, the piece will be better and the dancer will look better if the choreographer knows the dancer’s ability ahead of time. Also, if you’re choreographing for a group, it’s better to know the number of people who will be dancing. Then the piece can be choreographed using that number in the best way possible—setting patterns that will be effective.”

Dexter said she’s a “planned choreographer,” going to a rehearsal with her steps elaborately written down. “Then I work from my plan. This is a beginning point, and I may change the plan as I go. I find working this way wastes less time and is more productive, especially when working with a group. Some choreographers may go in to a rehearsal and experiment when working with a group. Others go to rehearsal with a few ideas but no specific steps. Neither works well for me.”

The entire process of bringing a production to the stage is appealing to Dexter. “The best aspect of my job is being able to choose my music and my dancers, teaching the choreography to the dancers, rehearsing them, and then seeing it all come together in a production. This is extremely satisfying if it turns out well. Generally, I’m rather hard on myself and I very seldom like every aspect of every piece I choreograph. Some of these pieces are in repertoire, and I almost never repeat them exactly as they once were—I call them relatives of the former piece.”

She said the most challenging part is making each dancer feel special. “Dance is such a personal art. The choreographer feels the emotion, but must then instill this feeling in the dancer. I get to know my dancers very well, and to me, each is a separate, important individual who’s special to me. If they feel good about what they’re doing, they’ll feel good about themselves, dance better, and make my choreography look better.” AA!