Splitting hairs

Beverly Neeland

Photo By Larry Dalton

When you schedule a hair appointment with Beverly Neeland, you get more than just a trim and color. At her station at the Blue Door Salon on J Street is the quiet and unassuming chair of a nationally accomplished former wig master who created more than 300 wigs in 15 years for theater companies all over the nation. Before retiring in May last year, Neeland, whose grandmother also was a hairdresser, created and styled more than 60 wigs total for the B Street Theatre’s production of Lobster Alice and the Sierra Repertory Theatre in Sonora’s productions of Beehive and Cats. From fake heads to real heads, Neeland is capable of an illusion that at once transforms actors into characters. Now, at 37, the recent beauty-school graduate has opened her chair to the public.

How did you choose this profession?

When I was younger, I was involved in a children’s junior theater in San Diego, and I knew I would go into the theater industry when I would get to the theater and I wasn’t interested in performing onstage but couldn’t wait to help the actresses and actors with their hair and makeup. So, I knew before I went to college that I had to do something with hair, makeup or costume design.

What did you enjoy about being a theatrical wig master?

I have a knack for it. I did it to build my experience, and the theater always provided a different challenge, because you would always work on a different style or period, and you would have to come up with a new method of how it was done and emulate the style with the materials that you had. Sometimes, you’re working with a cheap synthetic wig or a wig made of yak. I would always think how to fake it to look a certain way.

What inspired your interest in wig design?

When you put someone in a different costume. It completely transforms someone, especially for a period piece.

What was the greatest response you received from the audience about an actor or actress’s appearance?

My greatest accomplishment is when no one knows it’s a wig. I made a long black wig for an actress with naturally long blond hair, so she could cover the role of an Italian woman. When she took the stage, her best friend, who was sitting in the front row, just gasped. She then watched the performance in shock. Afterward, she went backstage, where she saw her friend’s blond hair and then screamed, “I can’t believe that was a wig!” When the theater does backstage tours, many people say, “I didn’t realize the theater used wigs,” and I would say, “Why, thank you. That means I am doing my job.”

How do you make a wig?

When I was making wigs, it would take me anywhere from 48 to 60 hours. That’s from fitting to styling to building it and delivering it. If you’ve ever hooked a rug, it’s the same knot. You take the hair and have a very tiny needle that you pull through a very fine and sturdy netting called lace, one hair at a time. You can do multiple in the back, but in the front, it is single hairs. Like a fingerprint, everyone has a distinct hairline, and you must fit the wig to their hairline in order for the wig to look right. It’s that added touch.

What is your talent?

I’m always looking at hair. I can spot a toupee from 100 yards away.

Can you watch theatrical period pieces without scrutinizing the wig maker for that performance?

There are some times when I go to a movie, and you can see the lace on the actor. It looks like a wrinkle, and I gasp and say, “They didn’t cut that away.”

How did you get started?

When I started, I was working in Irvine. I had a wig mentor to teach me the mechanics. I began as a wig maintainer there until I landed my first professional job for the Sacramento Theatre Company on their production of The Mystery of Irma Vep in 1989. I made six wigs for that production and taught myself how to build a little goatee.

Why did you decide to leave the wig industry?

Money. I had to travel a lot, and there were times when I was gone for 10 months at a time. And as I got older and had more responsibilities, it wasn’t fun to work for nothing and not get as much compensation.

Any missed opportunities?

I was once given the opportunity to be the wig designer for a small comedy-troupe television program in the early ‘90s. But I had to move to Los Angeles, so I passed up the opportunity, rationalizing that the show would never take off. That show was In Living Color. I think back on what I may have missed, but I don’t worry about it too much.