Hair Apparent

If you’ve watched even one theatre production in the last twenty years or so, chances are you’d have feasted your eyes on Ashley Lim’s work. A veritable maestro of hair, Ashley has created wigs and headdresses for every single W!LD RICE production since its inception almost fifteen years ago. He chats with us about the joys of working in the theatre industry and the inspiration for his breathtaking designs in Monkey Goes West.

How long have you been working with W!LD RICE?

Since Day One! I had collaborated with Ivan on theatre projects since the late 1980s. When he returned from the UK and founded W!LD RICE, I was happy to jump on board.

You began your career as a hair stylist. Even today, you still have your own salon. How did you first venture into the theatre scene?

It happened because the late William Teo, my former boss, also did a lot of theatre. When he worked on shows, we occasionally had to help out. That’s how I got to know many theatre people of that generation, like Ong Keng Sen and Ivan and Glen.

Ashley’s elaborately hand-crafted headpieces for the Heavenly Court of Monkey Goes West –
from Jade Emperor and Empress to fairy maidens and soldiers

What do you enjoy about working in the theatre?

The freedom and challenge of creating something new and different for each show – to create different hair pieces, from different eras, with different looks. As a hair stylist, you don’t get to do such things ordinarily. No one is going to walk into my salon and ask for some of the designs I’ve whipped up for shows! So it’s definitely more fun and interesting than just cutting hair.

Where do you get your ideas?

From whatever is interesting! Based on the script and characters and conversations with the director, I’ll start researching in books or on the Internet, and then I’ll develop my own designs. It can take a few months to come up with the various looks and hairstyles for the show, while constantly modifying them in discussions with the costume designer and director.

What does your job entail once the production bumps into the theatre?

In the first few days, I have to be at the theatre to put on wigs and make sure they’re properly fixed. We establish a routine and get a sense of what changes are required and when. Typically, I will follow the entire production through to the last show if possible. But, if I can’t be at the theatre for whatever reason, my assistants would have been primed after the first week or so to handle the styling and fittings without me.

Ashley fashioned these helmets out of face masks. After finding a mask with the right shape, texture and detailing, he cut it up via trial and error to find just the right look. The finished helmet is then spray-painted gold.

What are some of the most interesting challenges you’ve faced in your career in the theatre?

Designing the look for Monkey Goes West is one of the most challenging things I’ve done. The headpieces range from the elaborate ones for royalty like the Jade Emperor, through to gold helmets for the soldiers played by the FIRST STAGE! kids. The other one was Forbidden City – there were a lot of quick changes. For instance, twelve girls from the ensemble would come in at once for their headpieces to be changed, and I still had to take care of Kit Chan at the same time!

How did you come to design the headpieces and accessories for Monkey Goes West? Isn’t that typically the job of the costume designer or the props department?

Yes, but this time, I was thinking that I really wanted to create a complete look. You can design a hairstyle, but if the headpiece or accessories are wrong, it would look very strange. So I thought I’d take that on too.

‘The headpieces for the Jade Emperor and Empress will feature a dragon and a phoenix respectively.
Ashley found the wooden phoenix model in Chinatown, and added some ‘scales’ to make it look more 3D.

How closely did you work with the costume designers, Saksit and Phisit from the Tube Gallery, and director Sebastian Tan on the overall look for the show?

It depends on each costume. I have to coordinate closely with the designers. They come up with the costume first, then we talk to Sebastian about the final look. Once he’s agreed to the style that he wants, then I can build on it. After I create and design a piece, I would take pictures and send them to Saksit and Phisit and Sebastian for their approval.

For Monkey Goes West, I settled on a gold theme, because the characters from Heaven are all gods. I’ve also gone with something Oriental with a bit of a modern touch for Chua Enlai’s look in the show – he plays both Princess Iron-Fan and Auntie Fanny. There’ll be a tinge of green added to the hairstyles and headpieces of both characters, to provide a bit of continuity!

What’s it like working with the kids in the pantomimes?

It can be really challenging working with kids. The younger ones, especially, don’t yet have the discipline that comes with working in the theatre. So, sometimes they will run about even after their hair and make-up are all done. But I’ve watched some of the FIRST STAGE! kids grow up. The older ones, of course, have learnt how to behave backstage over the years. And then they grow up, and come back to the pantomime. Just like Kimberly Chan, who was in Cinderel-lah! and will now be starring as Red Boy in Monkey Goes West!

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