2016 True West Award: Diana Ben-Kiki

by John Moore | Dec 20, 2016
True West Awards. Diana Ben-Kiki. Emily Van Fleet. Matthew Gale Photography

 



30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS

Day 20: 'Wig Goddess' Diana Ben-Kiki

True West Award presenter: Arvada Center Artistic Director of Plays Lynne Collins

Her official title is “Wig Master.” But Diana Ben-Kiki, a 23-year veteran of the DCPA Theatre Company, prefers the more gender-correct (and apropos) title of “Wig Goddess.” She’s built 1,500 heads of hair since being promoted to her disputable job title in 1998.

“Everyone knows she’s the best,” said Arvada Center Artistic Director of Plays Lynne Collins.

Ben-Kiki’s goddess title (and wrists) were put to the test in a busy 2016. But her virtuosic coiffures for Sweeney Todd, Frankenstein, A Christmas Carol and the Arvada Center’s Tartuffe had heads turning all year. Not only for their singular style, but for how they so evidently helped actors to communicate their characters.

True West Award. Diana Ben-Kiki QuoteBen-Kiki has produced 135 heads of hair in 2016 alone, led by 60 for A Christmas Carol. Some are recycled from previous productions, and many are original works of art. Some are both. Among the 45 wigs she created for Sweeney Todd was Johanna’s gorgeous golden, flowing blonde cloud of hair. Also the barber Pirelli’s daringly blue streaks that perfectly accented the color of his outrageous costume. And then there was the mad Beggarwoman’s imposingly wild mane. Could any keen and longtime observer of Theatre Company productions have possibly recognized Kathleen McCall’s fiery postiche as the wig Ben-Kiki first fashioned for the Marquis in the Theatre Company’s 2001 production of Cyrano? Or that the color of the wig fairly matched that of the caged songbird Johanna, who turns out to be her daughter? Such are the subtleties of her often outrageously ornate craft.

What Collins appreciates most about Ben-Kiki, she said, is that she works really hard, and she is really well-liked.

“When she did Tartuffe for me, which was a very big wig design show, she was also in the midst of Frankenstein for the Denver Center,” said Collins, who put Ben-Kiki’s name up for today’s True West Award. That’s 20 wigs for Frankenstein and six for Tartuffe.

“One of the things that blew my mind is how she kept the ball rolling on both shows at the same time,” Collins said. “She was spread so thin, and yet you would never know it from her demeanor or the quality of her work.”

Collins’ favorite wig for Tartuffe was the one imagined by costume designer Clare Henkel for the sweetly dopey character of Mariane, earnestly played by Emily Van Fleet.

“Emily’s wig was a character in the play unto itself,” said Collins. What she loved most about it was the exaggerated hair bow on the back of her head. The bow is a concept Ben-Kiki first played with for an earlier staging of A Christmas Carol. “I just thought it would be perfect for Mariane,” Ben-Kiki said. “It was kind of fun and goofy, and because the production was such a highly stylized comedy, I felt like I could go a little over the top.”

True West Awards. Diana Ben-KikiAn assortment of photos from Diana Ben-Kiki's wiggy year. Top: Sullivan Jones as the mad scientist in 'Frankenstein.' Middle, from left: 'A Christmas Carol' wigs; Samantha Bruce as Johanna in 'Sweeney Todd'; Sam Gregory as Scrooge. Bottom: More wigs from 'A Christmas Carol.' Photos by Adams VisCom and John Moore.


Her personal favorite wigs of the year, however, were those she made for the two actors who alternated in the roles of the Scientist and Creature in Frankenstein, Mark Junek and Sullivan Jones. Director Sam Buntrock’s newly animated Creature was hairless, but Ben-Kiki’s hairpieces for the mad-with-power Doctor Frankenstein greatly helped the actors (and audiences) distinguish their dual portrayals.

Ben-Kiki's success and longevity in her chosen craft is all the more impressive given that she is entirely self-taught. She learned the basics from a book, and she sold her first mustache a month into her solo apprenticeship.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Ben-Kiki hails from West Hartford, Conn., and came to Colorado in 1992 to attend massage school. She joined the DCPA in 1994 as part of the backstage crew for the world premiere of Black Elk Speaks and assisted on wigs for the next three seasons before officially assuming her status as the DCPA’s resident hair deity. Over the years she has also worked with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as well as the Arvada Center and Theatre Aspen – she designed wigs for both of those latter companies’ milestone productions of Les Misérables.

She says audiences probably would never guess that most stage wigs (or hers, at least) are made of real, clean, sanitized and de-loused human hair. Yes, there are companies that provide her with human hair. She begrudgingly incorporated some synthetic hair into her A Christmas Carol wigs only because the show often has as many as 10 performances per week, and synthetic wigs do not require as much maintenance.

While the volume of Ben-Kiki’s work is impressive in its own right, she has but one simple barometer for measuring the success of her own work. 

“How do you know a wig is good?” she says. “It’s simple: If you don’t know it’s a wig, then I’ve done my job.”

How to make a wig/At a glance

  • The Costume Designer presents a sketch that includes a vision for the character’s hair. The wig designer’s job is to bring it to life.
  • A molding of the actor’s head is taken with Saran Wrap and tape.
  • The wig designer settles on a base color.
  • The hair is painstakingly hand-sewn into ventilating lace, often in intervals of eight non-stop hours a day until completed.Ben-Kiki credits her assistants for their help in getting the job done. "Team work, you know," she says.
Video bonus from 2008: Diana Ben-Kiki on the art of making wigs:




ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS

The True West Awards, now in their 16th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2016 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center's Senior Arts Journalist. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

 

THE 2016 TRUE WEST AWARDS
Day 1: Jada Suzanne Dixon
Day 2: Robert Michael Sanders
Day 3: After Orlando
Day 4: Michael Morgan
Day 5: Beth Beyer
Day 6: Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski
Day 7: donnie l. betts
Day 8: Night of the Living Dead
Day 9: The Killer Kids of Miscast
Day 10: Jason Sherwood
Day 11: Leslie O'Carroll and Steve Wilson
Day 12: Jonathan Scott-McKean
Day 13: Jake Mendes
Day 14: Charles R. MacLeod
Day 15: Patty Yaconis
Day 16: Daniel Langhoff
Day 17: Colorado Shakespeare Festival costumers
Day 18: Miriam Suzanne
Day 19: Yolanda Ortega
Day 20: Diana Ben-Kiki
Day 21: Jeff Neuman
Day 22: Gabriella Cavallero
Day 23: Matthew Campbell
Day 24: Sharon Kay White
Day 25: John Hauser
Day 26: Lon Winston
Day 27: Jason Ducat
Day 28: Sam Gregory
Day 29: Warren Sherrill
Day 30: The Women Who Run Theatre in Boulder
Theatre Person of the Year Billie McBride

3 comments

Leave a comment
  1. ms juanita | Dec 21, 2016

    wizardry and artistry, labor of love and passion for the work, adorable and goddessly stylish even under Xtreme stress --

    that's our deity, D1aNa❤️

  2. eric | Dec 20, 2016

    Awesome write up for my awesome Sister!

    Thanks DCPA !!!

    eric

  3. Mariella Sanfilippo | Dec 20, 2016
    She is an incredible talent. 

    Leave a comment

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    John Moore
    John Moore
    Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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