Alumni Feature: Kristy Staky and Top Knot Wigs

Kristy stands on a "red carpet" for the Make-up Artists & Hair Stylists Awards, smiling, as she is interviewed by media personality Frankie Grande.

Welcome to our Alumni Feature! Today, we hear from Kristy Staky (The Theatre School, ’11), founder of Top Knot in Los Angeles. Top Knot is a leading wig and facial hair construction company that has worked on Dune, Los Espookys, and Mythic Quest, to name just a few. Kristy has a unique Blue Demon story that exemplifies how our students learn broadly and get real world experience from as early as their first year at DePaul. Without further ado… Kristy!

A selection of photos of facial hair pieces designed for the "Dune" movie. They range from a bushy black beard to a greying goatee to a few pinned pieces that could be beard extensions.

FROM ON STAGE TO BEHIND THE SCENES

In 2007, I entered The Theatre School (TTS) at DePaul as an acting major. I was very excited about a career in performance, and like most actors envisioned a star-studded future working in the bright stage lights.

Over the course of my time at DePaul, I explored many different interests in conjunction with my major. I minored in American Sign Language, a skill that I continue to use to this day. I joined a few student organizations, including the LGBTQA student group and the TTS ST*RS program. But perhaps the most influential thing that happened while I was a student was my decision to work in the makeup shop as a student employee.

 

I got my first taste of makeup work during my first year “crew assignment.” While I was in The Theatre School, each freshman, regardless of their major, received a crew position every quarter on one of the various TTS productions. These assignments ranged from scenic building and costume run crew, to front of house operations and stage managing smaller shows. This introduced students to the other departments involved in theater, not just the singular track that they majored in. I have since realized that this was one of the very best parts of my education. A theater is, at its core, a community of artists collaborating to bring a piece of work to life. Without a basic understanding of the other departments, you are not able to work together as effectively. Of the three different crews I was assigned to my freshman year, the one that I truly enjoyed the most was my makeup crew position on one of the children’s shows at the Merle Reskin Theatre.

DIVING INTO WIGS

The following year, I got to try my hand at makeup again. Every acting major was required to take a “Theatrical Makeup” class in their sophomore year. The purpose of this class was to prepare actors for doing their own makeup in future shows. We learned everything from aging make ups, to more fantastical animal makeups, to some basic special effects tricks, and I absolutely fell in love with it. When I finished the class, I wanted to learn even more and asked to take the “Advanced Makeup” elective the following quarter. This advanced course covered more technical skills like prosthetics creation, detailed painting, and ventilating (the act of creating wigs and facial hair by tying/knotting one strand of hair at a time into very delicate lace).

Actor and comedian Julio Torres, posed behind a few melting candles, looks off behind the camera. He is wearing a vibrant blue wig with a staircase headpiece on top. The wig is featured in a production image at the right.
While I enjoyed everything I was learning, I found I had a particular affinity for wig making. It takes a specific type of person to be good at ventilating and to enjoy it. It takes patience, artistry, and an insane amount of attention to detail. I realized I was one of those people when I began my junior year and I took an on campus job working in the makeup shop as a teacher’s assistant. This was before The Theatre School had a makeup major, so all of the makeup work for all of the productions put on by the school was done by the teaching assistants.
A long light brown wig from three angles on a bust mannequin.

Soon enough, I was taking on all of the wig building projects for each production at TTS. I even began working as over hire labor for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, assisting their wig department with wig builds when they did not have enough staff to complete projects. I was also asked to stay on as the teaching assistant over the summer for Continuing Education classes in wig maintenance and productions. By the time I graduated from DePaul, I had assisted on over 25 different TTS theatrical productions and had been working professionally as a wig maker in the Chicago theater community for 2 years. But even then, I don’t think I quite understood the direction my career was headed.

 

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

I had already decided to move to Los Angeles after I graduated from DePaul. I am originally from Chicago, and I wanted to try my luck in a different city outside my comfort zone before I got too entrenched in the Chicago professional communities. I wanted a new adventure, and Los Angeles was going to be it. I still thought I would pursue a career in acting, and to my credit, I did, for a few years. I landed roles on a couple television shows and in a few commercials. But the real “A-Ha!” moment for my career trajectory came one day while I was working in a local makeup supply store. 

 

A promotional image for "Mythic Quest," with lead Rob McElhenney posing stoically in black sweatshirt and sword lofted on shoulders. In bottom right is a production image of his beard wig on a mannequin.

A woman wandered into the store and proclaimed, rather loudly, that she needed someone to make her some custom facial hair pieces. My boss at the time heard her and mentioned that he had just hired someone who happened to know how to ventilate, and he volunteered to “loan me to her” for the day. She had me make her a mustache as a test of my skills, and on the spot she hired me to work on her film. Within 3 days, the production had expedited my passport and flown me to Mexico, where I would work for the next month on the Cesar Chavez film, starring Michael Pena, America Ferrera, and John Malkovich. It finally hit me that this was what I should be doing. I hadn’t realized how rare wigmakers are in the industry. It is a difficult skill, and one not commonly taught. And apparently they are so hard to find that I had been essentially picked up off the street to work on a high caliber project. As soon as I returned from working on that project, I started my own company, Top Knot.

Two wigs from "The Power of the Dog," along with the poster for the film. One wig is long and dark brown, and the other is a light blonde up in a bun. At top, Kristy Staky's name can be seen in the credits of the film.
Since Top Knot’s creation in 2012, I have been fortunate to create pieces for hundreds of different projects. I’ve worked on numerous Oscar nominated films, fabricated hair pieces for major Disney World Animatronics, built pieces for Lady Gaga’s performances, designed hair made of spaghetti, created unique methods of applying short hair wigs, and worked on everything from Sponge Bob to Star Trek

Each project brings a new challenge. From designing the piece with the department heads, to creating and knotting a hair growth pattern, to cutting, coloring and styling the end product; each step requires ingenuity and problem solving. And the variety of work I get to take on is endless. One day I may work on werewolf arms in the morning, a vintage 1950’s women’s wig in the afternoon, and eyebrows for fake dead bodies in the evening. The job is never boring. And it is always in high demand.

 

 

A TRANSFORMATIONAL EDUCATION

Someone once asked me if I regretted majoring in Acting. And honestly, the answer is no. DePaul was the exact right place for me to be. Its conservatory nature allowed me to thoroughly immerse myself in the theater world and gain a knowledge of some other possible paths within the art form that I loved. It took many years for me to realize that the thing I had loved about acting wasn’t actually the performance; it was character creation. I loved telling a story and watching the actor transform into someone else entirely. It turns out that I just wasn’t supposed to be the one transforming; I was supposed to be the one creating the transformation. 

 

 

 

Kristy Staky applies a stencil to an actor in a makeup room. She careful. Share carefully draws the outline of what will be a facial hair piece on clingfilm on the actor's face

The Theatre School also offered me the opportunity to explore and grow in whatever direction I needed to as an artist. They allowed me to take the advanced makeup course, which was usually only reserved for non-performance majors. They worked with my casting schedule to allow room for a student production of a piece that I performed entirely in ASL. They encouraged me to create and work on pieces in the professional Chicago theater scene as a wigmaker. I am incredibly fortunate for having had a team of mentors who really fostered these things in me. Nan Zabriske (now retired Head of Makeup) and Damon Kiely (my advisor and now Associate Dean of Interdisciplinary Initiatives and Academic Innovation); I owe my entire professional career to you both. While I didn’t have the benefit of the new Wig and Makeup Design & Technology program, I do know that The Theatre School was the beginning of, and reason for, my success as a wigmaker. If you are one of the lucky ones who happens to already know that this career is for you, just imagine how far you could go.

~Kristy

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