A beginner's guide to stage makeup


While larger theatre organizations will provide actors with a stage makeup artist, if you're performing with a smaller or community venue you'll be on your own. As a well-rounded musical theatre performer it's important to know the basics of makeup application, and be able to recreate looks consistently for every show. A lot of the principles of stage makeup are not that different from applying regular women's makeup, you'll just apply more, give it more staying power, and make bolder color choices.

Tools: If you are planning to perform in musical theatre consistently, it is worth it to invest in high quality makeup products, as they will last longer and perform better. Popular brands include Mac, Ben Nye, Mehron, Aesthetica and Kryolan. Don't forget a full set of high quality brushes - your brushes will make or break your application.

Base: Starting with a freshly washed face, if your skin is dry, use a regular moisturizer as a base layer, followed by a primer, which is a lotion that will help the foundation bond to your face to prevent smudges or sweat streaks. If your skin is normal to oily you can skip a moisturizer and just apply the primer.

Foundation: Apply foundation in a color that matches your skin tone as closely as possible. Keep in mind that stage lights tend to wash out or add a cooler effect to colors, so it can't hurt to go a shade warmer when choosing your foundation color, unless the character you're playing is supposed to look sickly or wan. Use a sponge or brush to evenly apply a layer of foundation to your face, carefully blending at the hairline and jawline. Make sure you blend the color naturally into your neck.

Powder: To set your foundation, you can brush a layer of powder on top of it.

Contours: Stage lighting tends to flatten a face, but you can add back some definition by applying contour makeup in contrasting colors. Add darker powder in the areas of your face that recede, such as under your cheekbones, temples, the top of your forehead near the hairline (where the sun would naturally hit it), and below your bottom lip. Add powder that is lighter than your normal foundation color in the areas of your face that protrude, such as cheekbones, the middle of your forehead, the center of your nose, and the center of your chin.

Blush: If you're playing a character that should have a youthful glow, or if you just want to add some extra color to your face, brush some blush on the apples of your cheeks (the plump parts that scrunch up when you smile). The shade of pink you choose will depend on what is required for your character.

Eye primer: Cover most, or all, of your eye lids with a primer to make sure that eye makeup bonds and stays properly.

Eye shadow: Eye shadow colors will vary widely depending on what type of character you're playing and what your natural coloring is to start with. For the sake of simplicity, assume that you'll use your normal palate of eye shadow colors, which for women is generally in the brown, gray, purple or peach categories, and branch out if your director calls for a completely different look. Start with light colors and move gradually toward dark shadow. Brush a light, almost white, eye shadow on your brow bone and the inner corners of your eyes, to widen and highlight these areas. Use a medium shade (within your palate) on the crease and outer corners of your eyes. Use a third darker color blended around the outer corners.

Eye liner: Using the color that was your darkest color above, or using black or brown, line your eyes along the top and bottom lashes. The amount of intensity of your eyeliner can be determined based on what kind of character you'll play - villains or sexy characters will probably want darker, smokier eyes. Eye liner comes in many different forms, including pencils, liquids or powders, so play around with which form gives you the most control.

Eye brows: If you have medium to light eye brows, enhance them with a brow shadow or pencil that is about one shade darker than your normal color, to give your face structure.

Mascara: apply mascara or fake lashes as you see fit for your character. If you choose fake lashes, be very careful about removing them, as to not pull out your real lashes.

Lips: If you're going for a natural, basic stage look, choose a lip color that is about two shades darker than your normal lip color. Prime your lips first with a lip primer so the color will bond, then apply lip liner and lipstick. If you want a dramatic look, have fun with any shade you see fit. Lip liner is increasingly important as the lip color gets darker.

Experiment: During dress rehearsals and previews, ask for feedback from audience or directors in the house as to how your makeup looks from a distance. If you are playing a role that demands a lot of facial contact or sweating, you may need to reapply makeup mid-show or use a stronger powder to set your whole look.

Removal: Post-show, don't skimp on makeup removal! It's a pain, but stage makeup is far worse than regular makeup when left on your skin overnight, and will more likely cause breakouts and irritation. Soap won't do the job, you'll need a real makeup remover, followed by several soap and water rinses.

Men: All of the above techniques may be applied for both male and female actors. Most men use base, foundation, powder, contouring, eye liner, brow color and light lip color as a base look for the stage, but your director should give you feedback as to how much makeup is needed for your character. In large houses, men will need to apply more makeup to be seen from a distance.

Want more acting tips for musical theatre? Check out our acting tips blog section, or pick up a copy of our eBook, Sensational Scenes and Songs, chalk full of exercises to help you create your character and prepare for performances.

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