MOORHEAD - Jess Rau pursed her lips and looked up, carefully formulating her thoughts. She was sitting in the hair and makeup trailer earlier this week at Trollwood Performing Arts School, her home away from home for the last month or so. She knows her opinion may not sit well with the costume makers she works with, but she shares it anyway.
"I think that the hair is the one thing that changes you into that character," says the hair and makeup designer. "It can be the most beautiful period costume, but if you have a have a modern haircut, you're not going to feel it. The cherry on top is the hairstyle. I think it's the most important piece of theater."
Audience members can judge for themselves when Trollwood's mainstage musical, "Hello, Dolly!", opens tonight with a full cast of beautiful bouffants, inspired up-dos and magnificent moustaches.
The musical centers on a strong-willed matchmaker in 1890s New York, so looks are everything.
Rau "finished" her wigs last week, but a wig-maker's job is never done.
"Wigs are never finalized," she says. "They're the one thing in theater that's ruined every night and rebuilt every day."
What takes a toll on the hair pieces?
"What doesn't take a toll?" she responds.
Being outside and exposed to the elements, the wind, heat and humidity, combined with a performer's sweat under stage lights and actively moving, even a carefully coiffed head of hair can be reduced to a rats' nest by show's end.
"It's been a cool challenge," Rau says. "I'm used to doing this in cold, dark theaters."
Rau came to her backstage profession after studying theater and vocal performance. A turn working backstage for the play "Tartuffe" and taking care of a $1,000 wig had her singing a different song. She dropped out of college, enrolled in cosmetology school and started interning in the wig department at the Guthrie Theatre in the mid-1990s. She would go on to make wigs for the Metropolitan Opera, as well as the Minnesota Opera and eventually work full time at the Guthrie where she still occasionally helps on shows. In the mid-2000s she worked in admissions at Trollwood, so this summer is something like a homecoming.
She lives in Minneapolis with her wife, former Fargo singer/violinist, Haley E. Rydell.
Wigs are more than an afterthought. She's involved in planning for the show from early on and needs to work closely with costumers and even sound technicians, to determine where a performer will wear a microphone.
Working with wigs has given Rau a distinct appreciation for each character.
"Beauty and fashion have a direct correlation with what's happening in society," she said.
"It's this beautiful combination of history and a person coming together at the same time. You have to know everything about the character."
For this main character, Dolly Gallagher Levi, a middle-aged widow looking to start over, Rau made sure the outgoing woman's hair was, "bigger, saucier, sassier, more wavy".
While women of the time didn't wear much makeup - with the exception of prostitutes - Dolly does.
"As I was peeling back this onion of what this musical is about, I couldn't believe how ahead of her time she was," Rau said. "She's a business owner, self-educated. She's out there making a life for herself. She's not afraid of being front and center when women weren't supposed to be. She's ahead of her time as a burgeoning feminist of the 1890s."
"It's funny and fun and a strong woman lead," says Kathy Anderson, executive director at Trollwood. "We have an amazing group of young people so dedicated and it translates on stage."
Andie Peterson, the actress who plays Dolly, actually gets two wigs, one that's normally worn under a hat, and the other, fitted with a feather fan headpiece she wears for the show's signature number.
The wig and hat changes present a challenge, but Peterson said it's a welcome one compared to previous headgear. In 2016's production of "The Little Mermaid," she played Ursula, whose wild wig included styrofoam, plastic and spray paint.
While the wigs used at Trollwood are steps above the standard store-bought Halloween costume variety, most are made of plastic and working the hair requires more than just a curling iron which could melt the whole thing.
A good theater wig will be lighter so the actors and actresses don't even notice it.
"You don't want actors thinking about wearing a wig. Your job is to make it as light as possible," Rau said.
She said wig makers are best off to know something about sculpture since both are based on building, layering and problem solving.
"You have to be like MacGyver and figure things out when they're not working," she said.
The work is worth it. When Rau helps actresses and actors put wigs on, she watches their faces for reaction.
"Suddenly they transform into that character," she says.
"Getting to wear this beautiful work is an honor," Peterson told Rau earlier this week as they put her second act wig on, a process that can take about five minutes.
The young actress looked in the mirror and turned her head to check out her new locks.
"Now I don't want to take it off," Peterson said.
If you go
What: "Hello, Dolly!"
When: 8:30 p.m., tonight - Saturday, Wednesday - July 21 and July 24 - 28
Where: Imagination Amphitheater at Bluestem Center for the Arts, 801 50th Ave., S., Moorhead
Info: Tickets from $10 - $32, www.trollwood.org, (218) 477-6502.