Born in Quebec, Makeup Designer Nathalie Gagné has been fascinated by makeup and its influence on an actor’s craft since her teens. She studied theatre production at Cégep de Saint-Hyacinthe, a community college in Quebec, then went on to become one of the first graduates of the Montreal subsidiary of the famed Paris-based makeup school École Christian Chauveau.
Gagné worked in theatre, film and television before joining Cirque du Soleil, the Quebec-based entertainment company, as the Head Make-up designer in 1995. For fifteen years, Gagne has been responsible for the make-up design of all the Cirque performers around the world.
Is your role as Head Make-up Designer a collaborative one?
Working for Cirque du Soleil for the last fifteen years has given me the opportunity to work with so many talented designers. I work very closely with the costume designer, the director and the light designer as what they do also affects the make-up. The way the director asks the actors to move, the way that the costume director dresses the actors and the way the light designer places the light on their faces, all affects the make-up. The colours I choose are also very important. The colour chart needs to work well with every one.
What is the first step in designing the make-up for a Cirque du Soleil show?
I start working six months to one year before the show starts. At the beginning I need a picture of the whole cast as they are all different nationalities. From one nationality to another all of the faces are so different – the textures, the volume, the expressions. It is important for me to see how they move their body because when they move this affects the emotion in their face.
Unlike actors, acrobats aren’t used to studying their own faces so I get them to move in front of the mirror to see what their face is doing when they move. This way they have a better understanding of how to make the make-up look more alive on stage. Otherwise, the make-up will look like a mask and if this is so, it means I have not done a good job.
Does the make-up help reflect the personality of the different characters in the show?
As I said before, the acrobats need to know how to move their face with the make-up to heighten the personality of their character. The eyes need to be present also as all of the emotion shows in the eyes. I always try to give more space and more light to the eyes. The top of the cheek catches the light so I place brightening highlighters here.
Why do the performers apply their own make-up for each show?
Oh my goodness, on Cirque du Soliel we have between 55 and 89 actors for each show so we couldn’t possibly do them all! If we were to have one makeup artist for each of them we would have to start at 6am every day.
How do you teach the performers to apply their own make-up?
When I started at Cirque 15 years ago, there was only a piece of paper with dots of colours on it and scribbled instructions for the performers. It was very simple so when I started at Cirque, I developed a different way of referencing the techniques they needed to follow.
After I design the make-up, I separate the technique into different steps and take pictures of each step, writing on the side of each picture what kind of tools and products they need to use. When this document is ready, my assistant and I start to teach them how to apply the make-up. This is a long process because the make-up is always very detailed and sophisticated. I like it to be colourful with perfect blending. I’m a little bit fanatical about that.
It can take about 2-4 hours for the acrobat to understand how to do it and they need to practice every day. Ordinarily, when the show is on, it takes them about 45min to 1 hour to apply the make-up. When they know all of the steps without having to read them and they know what product to use, it becomes much easier and quicker. We give them a big bag with new product, new brushes, powder puffs and sponges – which is a treat for them.
Do you only use M.A.C Cosmetics?
Yes, I use all M.A.C products. What I love about M.A.C is that they have a professional line (PRO line). I can’t work purely with the fashion line because the colours change four times a year or more, which is not good for us because a show at Cirque can go on for 10 to 20 years so I have to make sure that each colour I choose is going to be available for that length of time. M.A.C have a huge shade range and many textures, which is important for me also. Sometimes when I need some new colours I can speak directly to M.A.C and we develop the colours together.
What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
I have to travel a lot. It’s nice to travel – apparently travelling keeps you young! – but it means I always have to be very far away from my family.
What do you love most about your job?
That it is creative. All the different nationalities that I work with and all the designers that I work with keeps me awake with new creations, new designs and new ideas. It is an amazing place to work.
It must be hard saying goodbye to the performers once your job on the show is finished?
I am with all the actors for 6 months to a year working with them every day so they become my kids really. Each show becomes a new family so yes it makes it very hard leaving. But I always come back. Once the performers know how to do their own make-up I leave for the next show but I always have to come back once a year to every show around the world to see if they are still doing a good job at applying the make-up. Or I may have to return because the lighting has changed or there is a new actor.
How has M.A.C cosmetics supported you in this role?
M.A.C provide me with products long term, which is very important. We also give a very good gift to the performers from M.A.C, which is generous of them. Along with their make-up and tools, the performers are given a kit including skincare products so they can look after their skin before and after applying make-up. I show them how to wash their face and how to care for it. For each actor we give them a M.A.C PRO card so if they want to buy one of the products for their real life they can get a discount.
Is it hard to switch between every day makeup and theatrical makeup?
You should be glad you cannot see me this morning! I don’t wear a lot of make-up but yes in the real world make-up is very different to that of a performer.
Shows that demonstrate the creative relationship between Cirque Du Soleil and M.A.C in 2009 include: Kooza and Saltimbanco in America, Corteo in Japan, Quidam in Ireland, Varekai in Russia and Spain, Alegria in Canada and United Arab Emirates, Dralion in Australia and New Zealand.