Make no mistake about it: There will be blood. Ever since the Romans broke the tradition of Greeks keeping violence out of sight, there has been blood onstage, both real and fake. As a prop master for the last 30-odd years, I’ve had to navigate my way through some truly inspirational and some pretty disastrous blood special effects ideas posed by directors and actors. That’s why I was so happy to pick up Jennifer McClure’s Bloody Brilliant, a book that explains, as its subtitle puts it, “How to Develop, Execute, and Clean Up Blood Effects for Live Performance.”
Routledge’s Focal Press publishes a lot of great books for the theatre, and this one is full of information I wish I’d had years ago. It gives practical examples of different blood effects, and a breakdown of components for dispensing blood onstage, from the basic to the intricate. McClure also includes a well developed database of fabric types, as well as what blood colorant combinations work best with those fabrics.
When I’m reading the script of a show I’m prop-ing and I see blood enter a scene, a sequence of thoughts starts in my head: Do we need a fight director? Where on the actor does the blood appear? Where can I hide the blood? Will blood get on costumes, and has the costume designer considered it in fabric choices? Will blood get on the set walls or the furniture? How much time does the crew have to clean up? Each of these options requires a plan before I meet with the director or the rest of the design team. It’s important to make sure you listen to what your director’s vision is. I know that should be self-explanatory, but there are times I have expected blood to pour out over our Medea, only to have the director want tear-shaped red mylar to fall all over her instead.
Once the action onstage has been established, we secure a fight director, who is essential not only to making sure that the actors are absolutely safe, but to ensure they can use their expertise to choreograph the best ways to conceal the tricks of the trade. What do I mean by that? Well, if the actor gets punched in the nose, there is the old trick of giving them a folded handkerchief that’s blood-stained on the inside, which the actor then puts to their nose, only to open and look at and BOOM! It looks like the handkerchief is full of blood from their now-broken nose. If you need an actor to cut themselves with a knife, the answer can be as cheap as gluing a sponge to the back of a dull knife or as complex as making an actual blood knife with an internal pump.
Bloody Brilliant isn’t just a great resource for a range of simple to complex blood problems; it also guides readers from the planning phase through the onstage clean-up. Jennifer shows readers how to budget effects based on their scale. It’s not just about budgeting costs but also accounting for time, including pre- and post-show preparations and clean-up. She also discusses in-depth how to coordinate with other departments when deciding what kind of blood to use.
Are there more types of fake blood than there are of real blood? Oh, positively. A permanent dry mark is like the handkerchief described earlier, or like Mercutio’s wound under his doublet. In that case, you can have something hidden within the costume that is stained or painted onto the fabric and can be revealed after the action happens. This will not discolor anything it touches. Then there is detergent-based blood that will come out of the costume. Bloody Brilliant explains how to run tests on various fabrics.
Blood that may get into an actor’s eyes has to have an actor-safe base liquid. For blood that has to come out of an actor’s mouth, there are often small to large gelatin capsules that can be hidden around set or palmed by an actor until bleeding time. That kind of blood uses a different base, which may be chocolate or Karo syrup. But then what do you do if your actor is diabetic or just can’t have sugar? Try beets with a little distilled water. For high-viscosity wounds, there is a kind of jelly blood that can go on an actor which will not run, drip, or move.
Really exciting bloodbaths can happen when you introduce delivery systems and create the kind of splatter that gets all over the set, as in plays by the likes of Martin McDonagh. There is a scene at the end of The Pillowman where a character gets shot by investigators after putting a hood over his head. After a brief scene between the investigators, the wounded character stands up to give a final, blood-drenched monologue. Director Will Frears asked whether, once the body fell to the floor, a large pool of blood could leak out while the investigators were talking. Our fight director, J. Allen Suddeth, immediately said yes, then took me aside and whispered: “I’ve got a plan.”
We drilled a hole onstage and ran medical tubing underneath the set to backstage left. The tubing reached down into a five-gallon bucket of thinned-out blood based with tear-free, scent-free baby shampoo. This was then pumped onstage by a small pond pump. We just had to coordinate the timing of the pump with the gunshot to avoid getting blood onstage before the body fell. Once the body landed near the hole, it created the effect of blood pouring out of the body.
Inside of the hood, we used what’s called a “strawberry,” which the actor could squeeze as he removed the hood, so that blood would slowly drip down his face during his monologue. This meant we needed two different kinds of blood: one for the actor’s head, and one that wouldn’t stain the set after multiple bloody puddle cleanups.
Plenty of plays use vast amounts of blood onstage that all needs to be cleaned up before the next performance. Sometimes it’s a five-show weekend. This is where McClure introduces prop hero Count Vacula, the wet/dry vacuum.
Bloody Brilliant guides readers through the different systems of blood delivery for a multitude of scenarios. Since every play is different, and every approach to bleeding onstage is individualized or highly stylized, it is useful to have all of these creative options in your arsenal.
McClure does not skimp on safety either. This is not just about considering the blunt force and other risks associated with the weapons you use; it also requires discussing performers’ allergies; in addition to allergies to sugar-based blood solutions, there can be a question of whether they are able to have plastic blood-holders against their skin, or may be allergic to latex tubing.
In my years of serving as a props master, from the “all we have is $5” productions to the ones where “the backers want to bring their kids to the production meeting,” I would have shed blood for a resource like this book.
Jay Duckworth (@Proptologist on TikTok) is a professor, props master, and props designer with more than 20 years of experience in LORT and Off-Broadway theatre, fast-paced summer stocks, independent films, TV, and music videos. He is the founder of the Prop Summit, a yearly meeting of Broadway, Off-Broadway, LORT and academic prop professionals and students.
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