The art of keeping every hair in place

The musical is called "Hairspray" for a reason. Bouffants and beehives, towers of curls and cascading locks star alongside actors in the musical comedy set in early 1960s Baltimore.

The Arts Center of Coastal Carolina's production of "Hairspray," which runs through May 29, includes close to 50 wigs. The design, shaping and upkeep of those coiffures fall into the hands of Susan Spencer, a former hairdresser who thought her knowledge of that specific period of hair styling would stay in that era. Turns out she was wrong.

Spencer has been a seamstress with the arts center for about 13 years. For a production of "Beehive, The '60s Musical Sensation" several years ago, Spencer worked up a 6-inch spiraling hairdo for costume director Jen Correll to wear to a meet-and-greet event.

That well-coifed bit of nostalgia stuck with Correll. When she saw that the arts center planned a production of "Hairspray," she knew the perfect person to serve as a veritable wig mistress.

Spencer was a stylist in late-'60s Michigan, a time when women came to salons for 15-minute upkeep appointments and the air was full of hairspray, smoke and gossip.

Spencer took notice of the evolving styles at the time, even allowing herself to be the test model for trendy new 'dos at business trade shows.

She left the business after three years, her interests changing as quickly as the latest fad.

Forty years later, she found herself straightening, curling, primping and trimming wigs into the styles that had otherwise been left in the past. She consulted past productions of the musical and relied on her hairstylist daughter for a refresher course.

She works with the usual tools of the trade: plastic curlers, hairspray, combs of all shapes, picks, a volume adding-contraption called a rat and lots of styling gel that makes the hair "crispy," as she calls it.

The original wigs come without much flair. It's Spencer's job to give them personality. Blond bangs for lead character Tracy Turnblad; curls piled high for Tracy's mother Edna; pink highlights for the crew at Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway.

The wigs are steamed and put in a box with a hair dryer to keep their shape. They're finished off with a hairspray strong enough to hold a 12-inch mohawk, Spencer said -- or at least that's what one of the tech guys told her.

She started working on the wigs about a month before the show. The true test came after the first dress rehearsal. The wigs were flopping all over the place. She learned a hard lesson. Actors don't move like regular people. They move with 10 times the energy. They're bopping and dancing and shaking.

"I thought 'What have I gotten myself into?' " she said.

By the end of dress rehearsal, the wigs were disheveled. She had to double down -- twice the hairspray, twice the upkeep. She plans to stay on throughout the show to make sure the wigs stay in top shape.

The wigs proved to be a bit more difficult to work with than initially imagined. But working on a Styrofoam model does have its advantages.

"Real hair is much easier," she said. "Thor difference is that this client doesn't mind when you stick a pin in their head."