Putting on makeup is part of the daily routines of many women in our culture. All you need is a few brushes of foundation, a swipe of mascara here and there, and a dab of lip gloss and you’re ready to go. But what about actors in the theater standing beneath the bright lights of the stage? Assistant Professor of Theatre, Richard Wolf-Spencer, said the basics are just not enough.
This semester, Wolf-Spencer is teaching a new course in the theatre department simply titled Stage Makeup. According to Wolf-Spencer, stage makeup is extremely important in terms of producing a show. It is a valid design element that, in addition to costuming, helps bring an actor’s character to life. He felt that teaching this course was the best thing he could do to enhance Elizabethtown College’s theatre program in the hopes of teaching young designers such an important craft.
Wolf-Spencer’s passion for theater began in his home state of Washington where he was a clarinetist in the eighth grade band. The high school students were putting on a production of “The Music Man,” and the eighth grade band was recruited to help add depth to the band. From then on, Wolf-Spencer was in every musical and play production at his high school.
Although he started off studying history in college and finished as a communications major, Wolf-Spencer still maintained a solid interest in theatre. Some of his favorite classes included hands-on and performance courses such as choir, theatre, basic acting and design. However, his history classes often catered to his creative nature as well. “I had history teachers that would have us reading novels from a certain period and plays from a certain period and integrating these other fields of interest into the history class, which for me and my interests in the arts and playwriting fit my style of learning,” Wolf-Spencer said.
In addition to his undergraduate work, Wolf-Spencer has a master’s degree in theater arts from Washington State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in theatrical design from the University of Idaho. According to the Etown website, Wolf-Spencer gained a great deal of experience in the field before coming to the College in 2010. For four years, he was a theatrical design and technology professor at Emory and Henry College in Virginia. He also spent eight years as the resident technology director and a theater technology instructor at the University of Idaho and the Idaho Repertory Theatre. Wolf-Spencer also has many years of experience working with incoming roadshows at the Beasley Performing Arts Center in Pullman, Wash.
Despite most of Wolf-Spencer’s training and professional experience being in theater design and technology, he has a great knowledge and understanding of how stage makeup plays an important role in an actor’s portrayal of his or her character to the audience. As an undergraduate student, Wolf-Spencer took his first class in basic stage makeup and gained experience doing fundamental stage makeup on himself through his acting roles. “The first job of a stage makeup designer is to enhance the features, which you wouldn’t do in just going out every day,” Wolf-Spencer said “You’re going to apply your foundation and maybe some eyeliner and maybe a little rouge, things like that, but we actually have to enhance the basic features and add contours to the face.” These enhancements to actors’ natural features are necessary because of the stage lighting, which washes out natural shadows, making the actors appear less three-dimensional.
Keller Robinson, a senior theater technology major, is already excited about the course after simply learning the fundamentals of makeup application. “To be honest, I have never worn makeup a day in my life, so I [thought] this would be an opportunity to learn,” Robinson said. After having served in almost every other aspect of technical theater, she hopes to become a more well-rounded technician.
In spite of the importance of basic stage makeup, Wolf-Spencer also hopes to teach his students techniques that go beyond the fundamentals. “The next step in makeup design is actually changing that look so that the actors can look like someone else or something else,” Wolf-Spencer said. While acting in high school and college, Wolf-Spencer considered himself to be a character actor, which required him to drastically change his look for the roles he played. This allowed him to learn techniques for using prosthetics and special effects makeup to transform himself into characters such as a grandfather or odd character types. He fine-tuned these skills through taking a special effects and mask-making course while studying to receive his Master’s degree in fine arts.
First-year fine art major Noelle Hostelley’s theater experience has mostly been through acting, but ever since she worked as an assistant director for a middle school show last year, her interest in backstage work has grown. After having first-hand experience turning middle school students into bird girls for the Dr. Seuss-inspired show “Seussical the Musical,” Hostelley is looking forward to achieving a better understanding of how actor transformations are done using stage makeup. Hostelley said, “Toward the end of the semester we get to do a fantasy project where we get to recreate a person into something else, and I think that’s going to be really fun.”
Through hands-on learning and daily in-class projects, Wolf-Spencer hopes to produce a group of well-trained students to work on future school productions and pass their knowledge on to other students. Although it can be difficult to stand back and allow students to work on their own, he gets excited when he sees students learning through experimenting and by seeing “that light bulb go off.” After all, Wolf-Spencer is most inspired by his students. “When I look around and I see up-and-coming theater artists and designers, it just reminds me every day that this art form is not going to die out,” Wolf-Spencer said. “Yes, we have film, we have television, but this art form is not going to die out.”