Friday, February 17, 2012

Big wigs: an interview with Dennis Milam Bensie

For a long time, I've wanted to write a Hairpisode on the art of wigmaking, but where to begin? Then it hit me: Ask an expert. Below, I interview author Dennis Milam Bensie, author of Shorn: Toys to Men, a book-length hairpisode. (For my review of Shorn, click here.)

About Dennis Milam Bensie

Dennis Milam Bensie is an Artist-Around-Town ...Seattle that is. Born and raised in the Midwest, Dennis has lived in the Pacific Northwest for over twenty years. He currently works as a theatrical dresser for TWU Local 887, which sends him to The 5th Avenue Theater, Seattle Opera, and Pacific Northwest Ballet, to name a few. He also works as a Hairpiece Technician for William Collier Design in Seattle. Dennis' first book, Shorn: Toys to Men was published by Coffeetown Press in 2011 and was nominated for a Stonewall Book Award by the American Library Association. Shorn was also named "One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011" by The Advocate magazine. His second book One Gay American will be released by Coffeetown Press on June 1, 2012.

Interview by Claire Gebben

CG: First, I cannot resist asking about an outrageous wig recently worn by the singer Björk on The Colbert Report. My knee-jerk reaction was: What a bad wig. But Björk has people to promote her, and a  sense of style, which clues me in I’m the one missing something here. What can you tell me to help educate me about wigmaking as an art?

DB: Not all wigs are pretty, just like not all Art is pretty. I would say that Björk was doing her own version of "drag." The wig is helping her get attention: good and bad.

In my wig days, I have done shows that needed to be Masterpiece Theater-perfect. Flawless wigs that one cannot tell are wigs. I have also done shows where the wigs are making a statement and are obviously WIGS. Every show is different. I learned fast you have to be open as an artist and let a show or a project take you someplace new if it wants to go there. 

CG: For costume wigs is there a school of wigmaking? Or is most of the training artisan-style, with new methods invented on an as-needed basis?

DB: I don't think there is a school in the U.S. that teaches wigmaking. Some theater programs offer some workshops and classes. The best training is to get hooked up with a wigmaker and apprentice or intern someplace. I hear University of Cincinnati in Ohio has a good wig internship and Utah Shakespeare Festival has an intern program. I think Santa Fe Opera does, too.

CG: Is the hair for wigmaking hard to come by?

DB: No. You can get hair at any Sally Beauty Supply. I won't guarantee the quality. With the age of the Internet, hair for wigmaking is pretty accessible.

CG: How long does it take to make a wig from scratch? How much does it cost?

DB: There are a lot of factors that go into it. How big is the head? How thick is the hair in the wig? Am I tying all the hair into the wig? Am I sewing wefting (like what is used for weaves) into the cap? The wigs made for theater can take anywhere from six to thirty hours to make. You have to figure your time into the cost. Plus there are materials and the hair to consider. Human hair is sold by weight, so the longer the hair, the more it weighs, and the more actual hair it takes to complete the wig. The cost of the hair adds up quickly if the hair is long. A handmade wig can cost thousands of dollars.

CG: What is the most spectacular wig you’ve ever made?

DB: Men's wigs are very difficult. Men's hairlines are, more often than not, thinner and differently shaped than women's. You have to account for that when doing a wig for a man. Plus, men usually have short hair and making a wig of a basic, short hair men's hairstyle is very tricky. Any wig with really, really short hair should be custom fit to the head and have just the right amount of hair in it or it will look weird. I have built a lot of wigs for men from scratch and they always are challenging. It takes hours and hours to tie in the hair.

Shorn: Toys to Men was adapted into a play called "The Cut" in early 2011 by a Seattle fringe theater company with almost no budget. I donated my time and resources to do the wigs and there were a lot of men's wigs in the play. Of course, I was wigging my book and my life. I had to make wigs of what my hair looked like as a child, and two different hairstyles of mine as an adult. I made a wig of what my dad's hair looked like, as well as my mom, my ex-wife, my child molester and all the other characters in the play. Here is a video of the wig fittings from "The Cut" (the stage adaptation of Shorn).

CG: About your new memoir, soon to launch. I understand it doesn’t have as much to do with hair?

DB: One Gay American (released June, 2012, Coffeetown Press) doesn't directly have anything to do with hair, but it does in a way. I started growing my beard out last April. I haven't cut it since and it is now long and thick. I was amazed how men looked at me differently--namely the "bear" community. I wrote a few vignettes in One Gay American about dating and how the tables were turned on me after growing out my beard. All of a sudden I was the one being objectified for my hair. My memoir Shorn was all about me objectifying others for their hair, so having the beard was an interesting lesson. Men who wouldn't have given me the time of day suddenly took interest in me simply because I was sporting a long goatee. I felt like I was the same guy as before ...or was I?

CG: Something to ponder, and a reason to look forward to One Gay American when it appears on shelves this June. Thank you, Dennis, for being my expert on wigs.

For more information, visit Dennis at his blog. His wig portfolio can be found at Portfolio of Dennis Bensie.