Problem

When The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) presented Shakespeare's entire canon in one year, it could have been a bloody mess. But theatres from all over the world agreed to help out, bringing productions mounted elsewhere to Stratford. The mess, as it turned out, would come to England via Chicago, at the top of Henry IV, Part I.

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (CST) director Barbara Gaines wanted a pre-show in which the king has a premonitory nightmare foreshadowing the bloodshed to follow. As the lights come up, spectators see the king, sleeping on his back, blood oozing and overflowing onto the white pillowcase next to him. Sound cues build until he wakes and, in not much longer than it takes to emit a terrifying scream, ethereal lighting becomes natural, and the blood is gone, the pillow clean. “The pillow is literally out on stage by itself, and the effect had to happen quickly and legibly,” notes scenic designer Neil Patel.

“Had we been in a proscenium, it would have been pretty easy,” says CST production manager Chris Plevin, “but we couldn't put plumbing on the upstage side of the bed because the theatre is a deep thrust.” The simple set had a strong architectural shape to ensure it would adapt from the theatre in Chicago to the RSC. “Prominent in the design was a dark-red leather and wood floor out of which a simple floating platform bed would emerge,” Patel says.

In addition to having spectators on both sides of the bed where some could see behind it, the “bed” in question was a sheet over a pedestal on an 8'×8' hydraulic lift that served many purposes. When higher than the bed, the lift became a banquet table; sunk below, it was the source of a pyrotechnic effect for a magical display; flush with the stage, it was the floor. There was no place to hide anything. “The floor had to be flat; it couldn't have nozzles or plugs,” says Plevin. They considered placing someone beneath the trap and constructing something that could pump up from below. “But any sort of umbilical cord connecting any of the pillow-bedding to the stage couldn't work because there was no place to run it that wouldn't have been obvious.”

Even if it had been easier to make blood appear, just how could they make a red liquid disappear?

Solution

Plevin says he had access to “binary clear liquids that, when combined together, can change color and change back, but they are all fairly noxious. The actor had to be lying next to whatever substance we used.” The simplest solution would be to use a red soap-based chemical and take the lights out for a fraction of a second, allowing the actor to flip the pillow during a brief blackout after he screams. To make this work, the blood would have to be contained on one side of the pillow only.

There were four essentials to make it work:

  1. A chemical for blood that would absorb quickly into fabric.
  2. A fabric that would bleed outward when hit and into a quickly radiating circle. This would have to be a highly absorbent, loose weave that retained the liquid well so that the actor could flip the pillow without getting much spill onto the expensive bedding fabric.
  3. A fabric/liquid combination that could be laundered daily and last through an eight-week run.
  4. A way to control the timing of the blood-flow and a way to cut it off.

CST had worked with Jauchem and Meeh Inc., a special effects company from New York, to create a fire effect for a previous show. “They do a fair amount of pyrotechnics, but they have people who are very creative problem-solvers in all effects arenas,” says Plevin, who enlisted the company's help on this.

The team wound up building a self-contained mechanical pillow that was essentially a pillow structure carved out of dense, closed-cell foam, similar to bead foam but denser and coated so that the blood could not soak into the foam. They split the pillow down the middle, creating a cavity between the two sides. In the middle, they built a reservoir in which they put a detergent-based liquid with red dye. They connected this to a small pump powered by a rechargeable battery pack in a waterproof box. Flexible plastic tubing passed through the foam through five tiny apertures on the top of the pillow.

“Inside the cavity, there was also a small radio receiver with a high-end remote-control system, usually used for remote detonation for demolition projects,” Plevin explains. “Given the precise timing needed for the moment, we needed to ensure that the control system was impervious to radio interference and that the operator could have very specific control over the pump. Someone talking in the lobby on a cellphone couldn't make the pillow bleed. Our properties stage crew would stand at the back of the house with remotes, push a button, and the pump would go on.”

The blood came through the tiny holes. “As it came through, we had to make sure it wicked out quickly, within ten seconds from when you see the blood, and he wakes up. A material in the pillowcase held moisture in so it didn't start to puddle and get into the bed itself.”

They tried many fabric samples to find something that would hold moisture in to protect the bed and at the same time looked elegant enough to be appropriate for the period and setting of the scene. “A pillowcase in a king's bedchamber needed to match the extravagance of the rest of the scene and couldn't be too rough-looking,” says Plevin, who settled on loose-weave linen.

The CST's Henry IV, Part I and Part II, featured sets by Patel, lights by Ken Billington, sound by Lindsay Jones, and costumes by Virgil Johnson.

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