A couple crashes their car while driving through a blizzard. They reluctantly seek shelter in a dilapidated cabin. The cabin’s inhabitants are welcoming, but a persistent uneasiness hangs over the couple—growing as time passes. Mysterious things start to happen… It sounds like the plot of any horror movie, beckoning viewers to turn off the lights, cozy up on the couch, and grit their teeth. But not this time.
“Grey House” opened on Broadway in May 2023, creating the thrill of suspense within the intimate setting of the Lyceum Theatre. Classic horror tropes, along with some new surprises, engage audiences from the stage, mere feet from where they are certainly on the edge of their seats. Backstage, skilled artists—including several UNCSA alumni—bring the spooks and scares of the show to life.
“This show that we’re doing is unlike anything I’ve ever done on Broadway, unlike anything I’ve ever seen on Broadway,” says Michael Ferguson (M.F.A. Design & Production ’12). “There have been shows that have been horror-adjacent, suspenseful or thrilling, but this is the first show that leans hard into the horror elements. And that’s not to say that’s all the show is… there’s a lot of heart to the show as well, and some really gut-wrenching performances. But this is the first time I can recall going to a Broadway show and getting the ‘scary movie’ level of excitement.”
Ferguson serves as the “Grey House” hair and makeup department head. He is joined by fellow graduates of the Wig & Makeup Design program: Christina Grant (M.F.A. Design & Production ’04) is makeup designer and Kai Madden (M.F.A. Design & Production ’14) is assistant hair and makeup. Together, and in collaboration with the costume designer, they set the visual tone for the nine actors in the show.
“How do we tell the story with makeup,” ponders Grant as she describes the process of designing for “Grey House”... something that unfolded quickly during the four weeks leading up to previews. After some initial research, Grant created cohesive character looks to present to the director—alumnus Joe Mantello (B.F.A. Drama ’84). “[Joe] didn’t want anything big and flashy,” she recalls. It’s a sentiment they shared. “There should be subconscious change over time; nothing too dramatic,” Grant explains. The characters just need to appear a bit off.
A key item on her list to develop—a prosthetic—took some more finessing. Without sharing many details (no spoilers here!), Grant divulges that the prosthetic is a key element in the production, and required hiring a prosthetics builder. A contact lens tech was also brought on to create custom lenses.
With her work largely complete ahead of the show’s opening, Grant now enjoys the payoff—hearing the audience’s reaction to the horror unfolding before them, usually communicated through uncomfortable groans or nauseated sounds. “I also like the subtle things that the audience might miss,” she says. “The show is working on them psychologically over time and, if we’ve done our jobs well, nobody will even notice.”
Grant, Ferguson and Madden swiftly made their way to New York City following their respective UNCSA graduations. Grant picked up a job on “42nd Street” through an alumni connection, then worked on several other musicals before moving to film and television in 2016. Ferguson spent his entire career on Broadway until “Tootsie” closed in early 2020. Madden first came to New York to work with Wig Fits, a wig shop associated with “Saturday Night Live,” before continuing to work on Broadway as a swing and for “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “Beetlejuice.”
Costume Designer Rudy Mance first approached Grant about joining the creative team for “Grey House.” After reading the script, it was an easy “yes.” Ferguson came on board to helm the hair and makeup department after reaching out to Grant, hoping to return to Broadway after working in film and television since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He then advocated to hire Madden, insisting that the range of hair and makeup needs for the cast were too great for one person to manage. Madden was eager to sign on, her interest already sparked by the announcement that Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actor, was cast for the role of Bernie.
Born with major hearing loss, Madden describes herself as culturally deaf. “In this show I get to be among my people, using ASL (my first language) for the first time in my career.” What has felt isolating working on previous productions has been a unique opportunity for Madden on “Grey House,” as cast and crew members have been learning ASL together.
“There are these incredibly complex, interesting characters that come from diverse backgrounds [in “Grey House”], and the fact that they incorporated a deaf character where the focus wasn’t about them being an oppressed deaf person is huge,” says Madden. “I feel like that’s often the default narrative, and it creates a really one-sided depiction of the person. This show does a good job of having a character on stage who happens to be deaf and who happens to sign—but it’s not their entire identity.”
Hair and makeup work is divided evenly between Ferguson and Madden—all actors need to be ready at the top of the show and there are many small, yet technical elements to consider. Tasks include a mix of wig fittings, hair styling and makeup.
Microphone placements for each cast member are also on the pre-show checklist for the hair and makeup department. This requires collaborating with the sound department, which includes Head of Sound Brian Davis (B.F.A. Design & Production ’18) who mixes the microphones and is responsible for many of the unsettling sound effects throughout the show.
We have a similar vocabulary and similar experiences, in terms of both work and school… we had a jumping off point, which really helped.Michael Ferguson
In the weeks leading up to opening night, Ferguson shares that it was critical to learn and be able to confidently execute the overall vision for the cast’s hair and makeup. “I had in-depth conversations with Christina about her design process and aesthetic,” he shares, which helped him to prepare and to be consistent with the final looks. “We have a similar vocabulary and similar experiences, in terms of both work and school… we had a jumping off point, which really helped.”
And nothing is more thrilling to Ferguson than to sit back and see the fruits of the team’s labor on stage each night. Sometimes he’s perched above the audience on a 20-foot high catwalk. “From that vantage point I get a visceral reaction from the audience, and people are truly disturbed and uncomfortable,” he describes.
Working on “Grey House” has allowed Ferguson to avoid the jaded perspective he sees from many of his peers and collaborators on Broadway: “It’s sort of a thing in New York theater, and probably in other places, too, to be blasé about what you do,” says Ferguson. “But the times do come along when you’re doing something really cool. And that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a job and it feels like work, but there is something really special when your work is also something that you really enjoy.”
“I hear the actors every night finding new moments and new connections with each other,” says Ferguson. “That happens only once when something is committed to film, and you don’t get to revise it. But in the theater every night you do—you get to have that journey again and again and again.”
And audiences and critics are enjoying the journey; some leaning into the horror elements of the show while others focus on the uneasiness it creates as a psychological thriller. Entertainment Weekly describes “Grey House” as “spine-chilling and unbearably tense,” while The New York Times says it’s “an expert haunting.” Though the work of the hair and makeup department may not be the first thing audiences discuss on the way home from the theater, it is essential to the overall experience— a demonstration of the precision and skill of the UNCSA alumni who have poured their time and talent into the production.
As he reflects on the boldness of “Grey House,” Ferguson brings the conversation full circle to his career in hair and makeup:
“There is a vitality to live theater that you don’t necessarily get working in film and television or other media,” he says. “And it’s difficult to shake that. It’s difficult to not want to scratch that itch. I remember once I was told there are hair folks who learn to do theater and then there are theater folks who learn to do hair. I fall into the latter camp. I am a theater person who learned to do hair and makeup. It brings me joy and satisfaction in a way that no other thing can.”
“Grey House” runs on Broadway through the beginning of September 2023. Tickets are available online.
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July 10, 2023