Interview: Oscar Winner Mia Neal Talks About Creating Wigs for Broadway’s Shucked
Mia Neal has had a busy theater season. The wig and hair designer’s latest Broadway show, Shucked, officially opened this week. This season, she also worked on Hercules at Paper Mill Playhouse and Ain’t No Mo’, KPOP, and 1776 on Broadway. She has also worked in TV and film, making history with Jamika Wilson as the first Black women to win the Oscar for hair and makeup for their work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but she originally moved to New York over 20 years ago for the theater scene. “Theater is my home,” she says. “It was my original goal and place and it’s really where my passion is.”
Every show requires something different for the hair and wigs, and for Shucked, a new musical comedy about a small town called Cob County where corn is a way of life, Neal’s goal was to make sure nobody lost their individuality. The cast includes John Behlmann, Kevin Cahoon, Andrew Durand, Grey Hanson, Caroline Innerbichler, Ashley D. Kelley, and Alex Newell, and the show highlights their comedic and musical strengths, and that goes for their looks as well.
Neal based the wigs on everybody’s everyday hair styles, matching the hair colors and textures as close as possible. “One of the most beautiful things about the cast is everybody in the audience can find themselves somewhere in that cast,” she says. “And I don’t want to do anything to take that away from them. So, the wigs were made to match their own hair. And you may say, ‘Why would you do that? Why not use their own hair?’ And it really is for the continuity of a show.”
It boils down to this: There isn’t sufficient staff to wash and blow dry everybody’s hair before each show to make sure it looks the same from performance to performance. So wigs make it easier for cast members because they don’t have to maintain their own hair.
The nature of the show allowed Neal to have fun with the wigs as well. When the corn mysteriously stops growing, Maizy (Innerbichler) ventures out of Cob County and travels to Tampa, Florida, for help. For that scene, everyone looks like an exaggeration of a Floridian, complete with big hair. “No one matches themselves in that. There is nothing about them that is themselves in that,” Neal says.
The wigs are handmade, strand by strand, by Neal and her studio. “I feel like people should know more about what we do,” she says, “the design aspect, and how I actually think about characters and what their daily process is before I make a decision on what they would do for their hair. What do they have access to? My part in all of this as a wig designer is I’m telling a story right along with everyone else. I have to think about that same process as the other designers that are dealing with the actors visually in terms of making sure that this character’s hair makes sense with who this character is, and then I have to create that from scratch.”
Neal thinks if more people understood the work it takes — that wig designers have to mold each actor’s head, that they don’t just go to a store and buy wigs — respect for the craft would be greater. Neal graduated from the Juilliard School Professional Internship for Wigs and Makeup. Other schools, like the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, also offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in wig and makeup design. “I feel like there’s a lack of knowledge around our craft and what goes into it and the amount of education that we’ve had,” she says. “If there’s one thing that I can contribute to theater and around hair and wig design, it would just be opening people’s eyes to how much goes into it and how much education we acquire to be able to do this.”
Specifically, Neal feels that the lack of respect comes from the Tonys, which does not have an award category for wig and hair design, unlike other theater awards. Neal won the first ever Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Wig and Hair for Shuffle Along in 2016. And she does feel appreciated by actors, costume designers, producers, and the rest of the community. “I’ll be bluntly honest, it’s just the Tonys. That’s when I don’t feel a member of the theater community. When I’m like, ‘Oh man, we worked so hard this theater season too,’” she says.
Tony recognition or not, she’s enjoying her time on Shucked. “I enjoy going to this production so much and I’m being so honest. Some days I go and there’s little changes that I make, so I’m like, ‘Today I’ll just stay for 15 or 20 minutes into the show.’ I just want to see this little change that I made or this addition to the show and I find myself standing back there for the entire show, singing and dancing,” she says. “It’s so much fun. And everyone’s happy to be there. Company morale is on a 10 always.”