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A Day In The Life: Backstage With Make-up Artist and Wig Mistress Liv Burton


In the first of our new series, we chat with Liv Burton about her backstage life

A Day In The Life: Backstage With Make-up Artist and Wig Mistress Liv Burton
Liv Burton and Tosh Wanogho-Maud
as Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls

These days, it's more important than ever to recognise the talents of those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to bring shows to life. So, we're highlighting some incredible creatives in our new series!

Liv Burton is a wig mistress and make-up artist. Having trained with some top beauty brands such as MAC and L'Oréal and at the Delamar Academy, Liv went on to work on a wide variety of West End and touring shows such as Dreamgirls, Jersey Boys, Wicked, Aladdin, Bend it Like Beckham and Les Misérables.

Until the end of 2019, she was acting Head of the Wig Department on The Book Of Mormon, then moving to The Big Wig Co. in Berkshire, who produce wigs for film, theatre and television. Liv told us about her working day backstage in the theatre.

Wicked always has two people in early on a 'day set' - getting all the wigs ready for the show, as they require a lot of maintenance. Then you typically have four more people coming in at around 3pm to help finish the dressing of the wigs. We then start what we call a pre-set (getting ready for the show) - which means putting all the wigs in their opening places either stage left or right, ready for the show to start.

Each show varies as to how many 'plots' the show is split into - which simply means who is looking after which people and at what point in the show. That can often include many quick changes/different make-up changes etc. This is especially true on Wicked, which I would consider the most challenging of all the West End shows I've worked on!

In contrast, The Book of Mormon has just one person on a day set, maintaining the wigs ready for the show and dressing some that were set the night before. The show itself then requires three people to come in and complete the pre-set and get ready for the show. Every show has a half-hour curtain call, which is typically the trigger for pandemonium! Each person will have their set characters to get ready for the show and we then take our places backstage at wherever the designated starting point is, ready for curtain up.

There is little respite. We really don't stop running throughout the show. From side to side, through the orchestra and sometimes below the stage to catch our performers. This keeps us very active and there is no need for the gym - which I was absolutely thrilled about!

A Day In The Life: Backstage With Make-up Artist and Wig Mistress Liv Burton
Liv with some of the cast of Dreamgirls

Once you're in the groove, then the only real challenges are when the performers get sick or injured partway through the show. We must make sure all cover wigs are up to scratch and able to be applied at any given time.

Likewise, when we get injured or sick, we must make sure that someone else within our department can be there to do the quick changes. On Dreamgirls, we were all struck down with a horrific case of norovirus. This resulted in buckets of sick in the wings and a sweepstake on who was going to puke when the high notes were attempted...

It's fair to say that the old adage that 'the show must go on' is carried right through the cast and crew, and each show has the potential to get manic. The art is to not get too stressed and to deal with the problems as they arise. Don't panic!

The worst part of the job is probably difficult actors. In the main, I've been incredibly lucky to work with some true pros who have been nothing but pleasant - some I now call close friends. However, every now and again you come across that one performer who's not long out of college and has yet to have their diva tendencies ironed out. It doesn't take long to get worked out, as they need the crew as much as we need them.

You also need to be able to handle the heat. Most of these old theatres are not blessed with air conditioning backstage, so coping with a hot wig oven that's on most of the day while you're sitting next to it is not much fun. There was a time at Wicked when all of us strapped ice packs to ourselves.

Going on tour adds another dimension. Finding your own digs is one of the biggest challenges. Being at a different theatre every week, having to find it and your digs, whilst lugging your wardrobe-size suitcase onto a train alone is also a huge strain.

That said, you are all in the same boat and it's a wonderful bonding experience. During the tour you become a family. This really contrasts with the West End experience, which is more like a regular job - albeit with fabulous music and buddies to play with backstage.

Since lockdown, I've been keeping my hand in making wigs and I've provided make-up tutorials for people looking to update their look or get an education on how to improve their make-up routines.

I did find myself doing a temporary gig at Tesco as a picker, which started at 3:30am. I got this job after trawling through thousands of others, and, like my fellow theatre mates, not getting anywhere.

Luckily, I received an email the week I finished at Tesco from a local pub asking if I could pop in for a quick informal chat about what hours I need. By the end of the meeting I had got the job. If you think some theatre people are primadonnas, they've got nothing on chefs!

Lastly, I've started an autumnal and Christmas wreath company. I am loving the creative process involved in producing one-of-a-kind creations, and it's helping to maintain an income and keep my creative mind sane.

I did not go to university. I was desperate to be in the arts and set my sights on working in theatre and film. After 13 years of hard graft, I am so proud that I stuck with it. I love what I do. This industry is what I know, and Rishi Sunak's view that we in the arts are unviable is a huge kick in the teeth.

We are seeing green shoots with some shows coming back to the West End, however I'm fearful that we will yo-yo between lockdown and freedom for a good few years yet. This leaves cast, crew and production companies in total limbo and keeps us from what we do best, which is to create joy and happiness for people.

You can get in touch with Liv via her website and you can find her wreath creations on ETSY

Photo Credits: Liv Burton

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