Pushing The Boundaries of Stage Makeup Design

Published November 21, 2023

Female student of color appearing in bright green, orange, yellow and black stage makeup.

THD student Sam Meireles as a snake for the "Animal Project."

Some classes are simply more fun than others, though in the post-graduate world of professional theatre, knowing how to do one’s own stage makeup is very important.

“If you get to Broadway or Off-Broadway, you might have a makeup person who does it for you every night,” explained THD Clinical Assistant Professor / Costume Shop Manager Zechariah Saenz, “but in terms of theater around Buffalo, actors each do their own.” In Professor Saenz’s new 200-level Stage Makeup course, students learn exactly that, engaging in research, analysis and design as essential elements in realizing makeup for a stage character.

“When I was an undergrad (at the University of Indianapolis), students were required to have a commercial makeup kit that provided you with the essentials: contour for your face, eyeliner, and things like that. You get washed out from stage lighting, especially in a space like the (UB Center for the Arts) Drama Theatre. It’s a little more intimate in the Black Box, so you can get away with basic makeup in that space. I tell my students, ‘If it looks great close up, that’s fine, but take 10 steps away from the mirror and then look at yourself to determine if you need more.’” Saenz earned his MFA in Theatrical Design from Michigan State University. “My concentration was in Costume, but I also focused on Stage Makeup, Hair, and Props,” he said.

Saenz is also active in Western New York professional theatre. “This semester I designed the costumes, hair and makeup for Rocky Horror at the Kavinoky Theatre and designed Master Harold…and the Boys, opening at Irish Classical Theatre. For Master Harold the assigned makeup artist is Susan Drozd, though most of what she’s done is to provide images which show the actors how they should style their hair and makeup, and then they do it (themselves) and are expected to have their own makeup supply.”

Over the course of Saenz’s class this fall students were introduced to the materials and techniques required to proceed from simple “street makeup” to complete abstraction. The projects build upon each other in complexity.

It’s been several years since Stage Makeup was offered by Theatre and Dance. “This is the first semester I’ve taught it, but the hope is that it will be offered every fall,” Saenz said.

“We’ve done five projects so far this semester, and we have one more to go. As you can see, Moriah Armstrong (pictured) is in drag for the ‘Drag Project.’ The thing that’s different this time around is the climate and trying to be more inclusive. When I took the class as an undergraduate at Indianapolis the ‘Drag Project’ was called ‘Gender Bender.’ I didn’t want to call it that since it insinuates that there’s two genders, and that there’s a binary. I really wanted to emphasize to the students that drag is a heightened performance art and if you choose to be more female-identified or more male-identified, that’s fine, but it still has to be drag.

White female student with long hair in ponytail and fake beard.

Moriah Armstrong for the "Drag Project."

“Moriah was our only ‘Drag King.’ The rest of the students did high glam Drag Queen makeup. Allowing students to choose what they wanted to express themselves as, and express their drag character as, was very important to me. They all have so much fun and as the projects tick by they get more infatuated with their faces and what they can do, pushing the limits. They’re very adamant about sharing photos with friends and family.”

Saenz’s syllabus for the class is scaffolded. “I created each project to build off of the one before, so that it further abstracts the face (as we progress),” he said. “As mentioned, week one was simply ‘Street Makeup.’ Our second project was period makeup, called the ‘Decades Project.’ I asked students to choose a year anywhere between 1920 and the 1990s, then research the makeup and what people wore then. We had everything from Vaudeville, as with Katya (pictured), all the way to grunge. So it’s their face but with different stylized makeup from the period.

“When we got to the ‘Old Age Project’ some students tried to make themselves look like they were in their mid-forties, which is just a little bit of makeup. The oldest looking student I had in class achieved about the age of 90. We had a good range.

“I placed the ‘FX Project’ after ‘Old Age,’ because the students still had to use their own faces but it involved special techniques to look like they had gouges, scrapes and burns. The project coincided with the week of Halloween. Then on Halloween itself we did ‘Intro to Drag,’ so I showed up in full head-to-toe drag with a ball gown and wig.

 “Our current project is ‘Animals.’ They’re still using their facial features, but abstracting it to be an animal, which will lead us into ‘Fantasy,’ in which anything and everything can happen.”

White female student in elaborate makeup, feathers and fake beak to appear as a parrot.

Katja Rabus as a parrot for the "Animal Project."

The practical impact of Saenz’s class was immediately realized. During the department’s recent production of Outrage, student Sam Meireles assisted with makeup, which included making some actors appear to be older. “Sam went in for the first hour of dress rehearsal while the actors were getting ready and put some of the men in mustaches and did a little bit of old age makeup,” Saenz said. “Then when she watched rehearsal from out in the house she realized that the old age makeup was washed out between the lighting and the distance, and that she needed to go darker.

“I’m very proud of her. From what I gather, this is the first formal training that has been offered and then implemented into a stage production. I definitely want to push the boundaries further as we get into (future) season selections. What can we do to really showcase our students’ work in costume, hair and makeup in our productions?  

“That goes into our final project ‘Fantasy,’ which is wide open. I told the students, ‘Show me what you want your face to look like. Provide a rendering with step-by-step instructions for how you plan to implement the makeup.’ However, it’s a partner project, meaning the students will literally design some kind of facial makeup for themselves but they must pass it off to their partner to implement on their face. The students must follow the instructions verbatim in order to help teach their partner about what they might have left out.”

For students interested in similar course offerings, Saenz added, “In the spring I’ll teach Costume Construction, which was offered last spring. In addition to that I’ll teach several Costume practicums. The costume designers for our shows typically register for that class. I also teach a theatre class towards Costume Shop assistance.”

Latino male in elaborate makeup, with one side mainly orange (as a fish) and the other side as a dog.

Zech Saenz, Instructor-Demonstration for "Animal Project."