PROBLEM

Danna Segrest and Nathan Mitchell have blood on their hands. Corktown, a new play by Michael Brian Ogden that opened at Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, MI, tells the story of an enforcer for the Irish mob who falls in love but not before body parts are strewn about, boiling water and vomit are thrust in characters’ faces, and just about everyone on stage is seriously splattered with the red stuff. Oh, and that’s all after a corpse in a body bag wakes up.

Although the action transpires in what appears to be an ordinary apartment, Segrest, properties designer for Guy Sanville’s production, says, "We knew right away when we read the script that it would be a doozy."

What mix would create blood that looks real and cleans up well, and when it splatters, how do you make sure it hits its intended target? How do you make a realistic severed limb? Is there a way to throw a pot of boiling water at an actor without burning him? And how do you zip an actor into a body bag and leave her on stage for a time without suffocating her?

SOLUTION

Mitchell, assistant to the director/fight choreographer, had worked with blood before and says the simplest solutions are generally the best ones. He placed a small amount of liquid in the corner of a sandwich bag, tied it with a rubber band, and cut off the excess bag. Actors practiced with water; bags broke at the corner, as planned, and the liquid spewed. Then the situation became bloody. "We started with a lot of blood and went down to less and less," says Mitchell. "We had to decide where to hide the bags and how to reveal the blood."

Actors grabbed bags hidden in the set, crushing them against themselves as they were shot. Not all blood tricks were actor-driven. In one scene, a character shoots another, who falls against the sink, and blood has to spray behind the sink. "We did the kitchen sink blood with rubber hose and an air compressor. Someone backstage pulled the trigger and sent air through a hose I mounted in the right direction," says Mitchell. "The space is not that high, so we had to be really precise about how much fluid left and where." Adds Segrest, "It’s like a deck sprayer. You put the blood on the front tip, and it sprays out really fast with the air compressor. The sink was rigged with a tank of water and [Ben Nye] Mass Casualty Powder."

The weight of the blood mix matters. "If you try it with water, it’s too light," says Segrest. "When you use corn syrup, the ratio of water and syrup has to be heavier when something needs to fly through the air, but when someone gets shot on the floor, and there’s a big pool of blood, you use less corn syrup."

Color is critical, too. "Straight food-coloring turns everything pink," continues Segrest. Mitchell used Hershey’s syrup when he wanted it darker and sometimes added one or two drops of blue or green food-coloring to the red. "It takes prep time to get blood to look right," he says.

Since some actors had to spit blood, they opted for Ben Nye Stage Blood in zesty mint for those scenes. "It’s safe," says Mitchell, who didn’t add laundry detergent, though it might have made cleaning clothing easier. "There’s so much chance for blood to get in actors’ faces. They’re rolling around in it." They tried some homemade blood, made with products available at the grocery store that are safe, but found that significantly more food-coloring is needed, and commercial products that require only a spoon of powder may be less expensive.

Costume designer Christianne Myers might have found a good deal in thrift shops, but she elected to buy mostly new clothing. That way, she could find duplicate and sometimes triplicate outfits, necessary when blood stains were being removed between shows. "Special detergent takes everything out of polyester," she says, explaining that she opted for garments in a less expensive fabric than she might otherwise have selected.

Sometimes directorial touches made life simpler in the costume shop. A gangster on the verge of softening needed to be "warm and tweedy to play against the menace of the bad guys," Myers says, but even Scotchgard™ wouldn’t make a tweed jacket blood-proof. So, she asked Sanville if the character might take off his overcoat in an early scene; the clothing he had beneath it washed nicely with extra-strength detergent from Melaleuca.

Also, because some blood was sprayed through pneumatic devices, and some waited in sponges or squibs that were preset on the stage, it wasn’t necessary to build hidden pockets. "The only thing I had to worry about was making sure everything was maintainable, and duplicates were available," says Myers. Jackets got Scotchgarded again when they came back from the cleaner. Since most performers were dripping with blood by the end of the play, each was given a basket near the stage; dropping outer garments into a tub of water and getting clothes from the basket before walking to the dressing room kept offstage areas clean.

Victims in Ogden’s play might leave the room in body bags and sometimes in pieces. Since most body parts were already bagged at the top of this production, Segrest had to create bulges within the bags. "We knew we were going to be working on this before Halloween, so we hit the sales," says Segrest, who used masks inside of bags to give the impression of human faces within. One hand with a ring on it had to be exposed, however, so Segrest asked a Purple Rose apprentice to lend her a hand. He served as a model while she constructed a silicone cast from moly gel in a latex base. "We added coloring and hair, and attached the mold to the sleeve of a suit coat." The sleeve stuck out of a body bag.

In one surprising scene, a corpse that is carried into the apartment in a body bag sits up—not a corpse at all. An actual body bag is non-porous and might suffocate an actor. "We tried rolling the victim up in a rug, but it wound up being too heavy for her," says Segrest. Regular theatrical muslin closed with duct tape proved safer and less cumbersome, but it frightened the actor. "It would fall on her face, and she couldn’t move inside the bag," Segrest adds. Mitchell rigged wires that made it possible to hold the fabric away from her face. "A piece of wire ran around her head. It was like a kid’s toy—a tube for toddlers to crawl through. I used medical hose and put a coat hanger in." Mitchell also compares the rig to a large Slinky, 3' in diameter. The stiff metal, with rubber protection, created a cage around the actor’s head. Segrest says they tried standard padding to further protect her from the wire, but towels were more effective.

Button snaps made it possible for the actor to remove the contraption before exiting the bag. Large holes on the upstage section of the bag made breathing easy and allowed light to stream in, and there was enough wiggle room within that she could tape her own mouth as she sat up. When the bag is opened by a thug who wants to finish the job, she throws up in his face. A no-spill baby cup filled with butterscotch pudding proved useful here. She took a sip as the bag was about to be opened, tucked the cup down, and spit. The trick was to keep the contents from spilling as the corpse was carried in. "We did go through a lot of different ideas," says Segrest.

In one scene, a character cooks noodles in boiling water. The team considered using a stove with a working burner, but in rehearsal, Sanville and his actors decided the boiling water should be thrown in another character’s face. Of course, that meant they had to find something that looked like boiling water but wasn’t. "Bubbling dry ice would also burn him, so we decided to use something seltzery like Alka-Seltzer," says Segrest. "So we put a bowl of it near the stove, and when they were fighting, she threw it into the cold water, so it looked like it was boiling."

Fight scenes, sometimes in slow-motion, involved real knives, dulled for safety. Quintessa Gallinat’s sound design punctuated these moments. The idea was not so much to make spectators believe a knife was really sharp but to create what Gallinat says were like text bubbles in a graphic novel or comic book. For slow-motion combat, she looked for music that would underscore and serve as counterpoint to violence, "something that didn’t glorify violence," and selected Jonathan Elias’s The Prayer Cycle—"operatic with middle eastern influence," the sound designer says.

Scenic designer Bartley H. Bauer created a realistic living room, kitchen, and bath with doors leading to a partly visible bedroom and a hall. The apartment included just about everything—even the kitchen sink—along with blood feed-lines and hidden squibs. Lighting designer Daniel C. Walker provided flashes that focused on the impact when there were gunshots and physical strikes. The production’s stage manager was Stephanie Buck.

Davi Napoleon, a theatre columnist for The Faster Times, has been writing for LD since 1977. She authored Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.