Name: Cheryl El-Walker, Wilkinsburg
Work: Resident makeup, special effects, and costume artist at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company
Do stage actors always use makeup artists?
Oh no. I might work with a whole cast or one person. There might be something that’s complicated the actor can’t do, or that takes me two minutes and would take them 20.
“Complicated” meaning not always the best version of themselves?
Yes, not all sculpted cheekbones. It's also nails in people’s heads, skin falling off.
That's the special effects part. We did a play with [special effects artist] Steve Tolin. I loved all of that! We did projectile vomit. I made up this thing called Cheryl’s Hurl. We put it in these little packets and stuck it in the actors’ clothes and then they would push it out — vomit! It came in different colors.
I got to do skin for a zombie that ate her own arm. Just chewed on it. It was so much fun. I won’t give you the recipe.
That's OK. How did you start?
I was 14, selling Mary Kay with my mom. I always acted in school, did all the makeup for all the plays. I study on the internet, look up videos, research, practice. All the time.
Are you finished once the curtain rises?
Not always. In Jitney, the guy got beat up. I had to climb into the back of a car and put blood on his lips and give him a black eye between his scenes because he never left the stage. I had to lay down on my back with the makeup kit on my chest in the dark.
So you're showing physically what the characters have gone through.
And it can be progressive depending on how time is passing. You’re not going to get an immediate black eye. It might turn blue. Your bloody lip might turn into a scab. We take the audience on a journey, and they can get lost and out of the play if something's off. “His eye should have been a different color by then, that happened three days ago.” People will come backstage and say that to me. One of them was my sister because she’s a nurse and she knows.
What else have you done in addition to beauty and special effects?
One of my favorites was Gem of the Ocean. Chrystal Bates, beautiful Chrystal Bates. I had to take her and make her 400 years old. Taking someone from a beautiful, beautiful young face is challenging.
Do you feel like it’s harder for women to be unattractive than men?
Extremely. We have to be careful that we don’t look haggard. Men, it’s just like, “Oh, look at him being rugged.” Rugged. One of the hardest makeups to do is a natural face. But you can’t go with nothing. You’re washed out, you can’t be seen under the lights, all your features disappear.
Why theater instead of TV or film?
Oh! Theater is alive! You can’t get a better ticket in town. It’s never the same and I love the fact that it’s similar. It's close. But every night, it’s a different show. I like that energy, that whatever happens, happens.
What's the best part?
Transforming people so they’re unrecognizable? I love it. In Heat of the Night, the same woman played both this yokel and this sophisticated mother, and people kept saying, “Why didn’t the mother come out and take a bow? Why wasn’t she at curtain call?” And I said, “That’s her.” I’m telling you, when I get that kind of feedback, I soar to the stars. I fooled you! When I transform the actors, I’m giving them range. You don’t have to be in this one little box that people put you in, where you can only be this one thing, one person. You have more.