Theater major's makeup designs showcased at national competition

April 13 2007

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - During hours spent hanging out in her mother’s beauty salon as a teenager, Leslie Arnold experimented with hair and makeup on mannequin heads.

“She would give my two sisters and me mannequin heads and tell us we could make them look like anything we wanted to,” Arnold said.

“That’s how I got interested in special effects hair and makeup - you can bend the hair to get the look you want. By using facial putty and latex you can make the face look like anything you want.”

But the lesson taught by her mother in the salon has stuck with her to this day - don’t be afraid to be creative.

The fifth-year senior from Spencer came to Indiana State University and developed a connection with the theater department. A member of the theater department faculty was able to meld her interests in theater and hair and makeup while nurturing her creativity.

“Sherry [McFadden] introduced me to the technical aspects of costuming,” Arnold recalled, adding she went on to work on productions such as “Endgame,” “Tales Kids Love,” “Twelfth Night,” “Leavesakes,” and “Moon Over Buffalo.”

Early in her design career in the theater department, Arnold would bring her mom in to cut and color hair on a show she was in charge of.

During her junior year, an idea hit her.

“I should go and get my cosmetology license,” Arnold said.

She talked it over with McFadden who encouraged her to do it.So Arnold took a semester off and went off to beauty school. She returned to Indiana State in August 2006 with her license.

Having a cosmetology license has its advantages.

“I learned a lot about skin texture and bone structure and that is invaluable in creating specific looks. I know how the hair works and I can do cuts and colors myself,” Arnold said, “It’s a time saver as well as a cost saver.”

Her award-winning hair and makeup designs from the Indiana State theater department production “Polaroid Stories” have earned her a chance to compete against other designers from across the nation at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) in Washington, D.C.

Polaroid Stories explores the hard, dangerous world of teenage runaways, weaving mythological stories and characters together with the words, feelings and actions of urban street kids.

Arnold had to research the drug and rave cultures in order to design for the production. She was designing for a rough crowd - dirty, bruised and cut, showing the physical appearance of drug use.

She quickly found the knowledge of the skin she learned in cosmetology school came in handy when doing makeup designs.

“There were a lot of bruises on the actors. I had to know where the blood vessels would break and where to put the darks, the lights and the reds,” Arnold said.

One of her favorite designs was for the character Persephone. The actress cast in the role played a split-personality dual character.

“I remember thinking ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could portray that in her hair?’”

Arnold, who works part-time in a Spencer salon, did some research and colored the top of the actress’ hair a dark red/black and bleached up her ends about three inches.

“She had that bleed-in between the two characters. That was really fun,” Arnold added.

Sometimes the look evolves.

A couple of nights into Polaroid Stories, the male actors approached her about using makeup to resemble bloody knuckles.

“You know, I hadn’t thought about that,” she said, “But it worked.”

According to Arnold, the reason it worked was the collaborative effort between her and the 10 actors and actresses in the production.

“The person’s personality and the way they act on stage plays into design. You could see the actors morph on stage. That is the coolest thing for me. They were totally different from when I started making them up two hours earlier,” she said.

Arnold will travel to Washington D.C. April 17-23 to do an informal presentation to a panel of judges about her designs, which will be on display.

She has mixed emotions about the competition.

“It will be amazing to make connections with people in the business,” Arnold said, “I’m scared but I like it this way. It’s a new experience.”

She will be competing for a chance to intern with Randy Mercer, a noted Los Angeles hair and makeup designer. Mercer designed for the Broadway show “Hairspray” and did makeup and hair for the television series “Project Runway.”

Working under the wings of the Hollywood legend would give her a flavor of what she really wants to do -- special effects hair and makeup for television and film.

“I’d really like to work on a show like ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ It would be fantastic to do that sci-fi/horror look,” Arnold said.

Working in television and film is a goal, but Arnold also wants to stick close to her theater roots.

“It’s where you get started in this business,” she said, adding “Theater make you work harder, in the sense the audience can see everything. There are no retakes.”

Before she became a hair and makeup designer, she was a playwright.

“I started writing before I became interested in hair and makeup. In fact, my mom thought I’d become a writer,” Arnold said.

For her, playwriting is an internal outlet while makeup is an artistic outlet, like painting.

“Words are different than dealing with hair and skin,” she added.

Writing also keeps her grounded in theater.

“When arthritis makes it difficult to do hair and makeup, I’ll still be able to write,” Arnold said.

Arnold, who is scheduled to graduate in May, is grateful for the opportunities she has experienced at Indiana State’s theater department.

“It’s been an amazing journey. I’ve come along way in five years. If it weren’t for Sherry [McFadden] and Arthur [Feinsod] I wouldn’t be where I’m at. I’ve been really blessed.”


Contacts: Leslie Arnold,
Arthur Feinsod, department of theater chair, (812) 237-3336 or

Writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or

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Story Highlights

During hours spent hanging out in her mother's beauty salon as a teenager, Leslie Arnold experimented with hair and makeup on mannequin heads.

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