Advice From a Professional Stage Makeup Artist

A Conversation with Judi Lewin

Woman having make-up done
Image Source Getty

What does it take to become a makeup artist for the theater? Well, when seeking career advice, I feel it’s best to contact an expert. And since I almost blinded myself with eyeliner during my performance as Shakespeare’s Mercutio, I certainly am not an expert when it comes to stage makeup. Fortunately, I found someone who is: Judi Lewin.

Judi Lewin has worked as a professional hair and makeup artist for over thirty-five years. I had the pleasure of meeting her during a film shoot. And, although she has been working in the movie and television industry, I asked her if she would tell me about her extensive career as a makeup designer for the legitimate stage.

How did she begin her career?

While living in her hometown of Toronto, Judi had a natural talent for makeup. Whether it she was applying it to herself or her friends, she had a knack for making people look their best. It wasn’t long before many of her “theater friends” requested her help. Soon, she found herself transforming the faces (not to mention the hairstyles) of actors.

Her first experiences took place at local theaters in Toronto. Her earliest productions were community theater musicals such as A Chorus Line and My Fair Lady and Annie. Her love for her craft motivated her to take on show after show, and after a couple years of amateur productions, she began to work on a professional basis.

She has worked with such theaters as:

Recently, Judi worked as the Key Makeup Designer for the new show, Happy Days – A New Musical, based upon the classic hit television show.

So, what does a Makeup Designer Do First?

Read the Script Carefully

After accepting a job from a director, Judi reads through the script. After reading it through, she reads it a second time and makes notes, listing the characters and paying close attention to the setting.

Communicate with the Director

Then, she works with the director to find out “what specifically the director wants to see.” She does everything she can to learn about the director’s vision in advance, before she begins the design process.

Judi explained to me that in smaller, lower-budgeted productions, the director’s input might be all that she requires. However, the bigger the show, the more likely producers, executives, and others will want to express their opinion – and that’s when the business of the makeup artist can really get complicated.

Do the Research

Judi recommends that up-and-coming makeup designers constantly gather historical images. Find photographs, illustrations, and other images from any era in the past. Also, find information and visual material about as many different countries and cultures as possible.

By gathering images from the internet and even old books from second hand-stores, a makeup artist will increase her knowledge of different looks, eras, and lifestyles, from “aristocracy to someone who lives in the slums.”

Working with Actors

Judi informed me that it is common for actors to feel insecure, sometimes about their looks, sometimes about their performance. Occasionally she has worked with a few prima donnas, but she has a weapon against rudeness. “Kill them with kindness,” she says. “Be lovely and polite.”

She also mentioned that because so much time is spent together, actors often reveal personal details to their makeup artists. Her rule about that is, “Nothing leaves the makeup room.” (Needless to say, I did not learn any juicy celebrity gossip.)

Advice for Career-Minded Make Up Artists

According to Judi, here are two reliable ways to become a professional:

  • Attend a Makeup School (She recommends The Makeup Designory in Burbank, California and New York City).
  • Intern with a professional who works in both theater and television (That way the intern will learn two very different techniques).

What’s So Great About the Theater?

One of the reasons Judi loves working in live theater so much is simply because it’s alive! “In theater, things need to happen NOW!” Her stage experience is a sharp contrast to her film work, in which the general rule is to work on the makeup until it is perfect. During a musical, the makeup artist has a limited amount of time to get things right. This makes the experience both challenging and fun. The excitement of live theater invigorates Judi Lewin and her fellow artists.