When I talked to him, Sass was planning a bloodfest for his "Macbeth," which runs through Sept. 12 at California Shakespeare Theater. He knew he'd have to be judicious, so as not to numb the audience to the violence; the Scottish play involves assorted slaughters, murders, and severed heads. Says Sass, "The bloodiest flesh scene in the show is early on, when Macbeth comes down and later his wife comes down and they're soaked up to their elbows in the blood of the slain king. After that, I've chosen not to have blood leaking too much on flesh." He adds hastily, "Not to say it's a dry show after that." There will be buckets of blood, for example, splashed over a wall in one scene, but the slain body will have disappeared.
So why do stage actors like to work with blood? Seán G. Griffin, who played Donny in the satirical bloodbath "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, says the eight gallons of blood used in that production helped him get into character. Being saturated over face and body was something he'd never experienced before, and he likens it to a kid playing in a mud hole and thoroughly enjoying it in the moment. The blood helped drive the scene. "It almost feels like real blood," he says.
Stage blood can be homemade or purchased from a company like Kryolan and can comprise many different elements, explains costume designer Cassandra Carpenter, who presented a paper and demonstration on the topic for a convention of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, the association of stage design, production, and technology professionals. For example, blood can be a mix of Karo syrup and peanut butter. It can contain dish soap. It can taste minty. It can smell moldy or stinky.
It can get everywhere, even into your underwear. It can stain your skin. You can tramp through it, sit on a couch, and leave a red butt print on the upholstery. So there's a lot to deal with. Carpenter recommends duplicate costumes for particularly bloody shows: Actors feel less inhibited when they know there's a backup costume.
Other problematic qualities of ersatz blood: If made of corn syrup, it can be sticky, causing your shoes or boots to make disgusting sucking noises on the floor. If made of liquid glycerin, it can be so slippery that you might fall. Sass remembers a production in which an actor carrying a dead body slid down a bloody ramp, and the dead body had to help walk itself offstage. (I once saw an especially gory "Macbeth"—so gory that I worried whether the actors would fall.)
Sass also notes ways that blood can look all wrong: too orange, or with the consistency of red jelly. Bright arterial blood, he thinks, looks fake, so he prefers the darker stuff. Carpenter recalls that when blood for an outdoor production was stored in a refrigerator, it was extra-chunky the next night because it was filled with ants.
"For actors, it's about how do I get it on, how do I get it off, and a little bit less about emotion and intent," she says. "For professional actors, it's just part of what they deal with, a prop, like a glass of water or a cigarette. And you rely on the technicians to make it work."
Actors are aware of the hazards involved in acting with blood (caveat: don't get any in your eyes). It's especially challenging because you usually don't get to work with it until close to performance. Coby Getzug, playing Davey in the Mark Taper's "Inishmore," was very nervous as the time approached to work with the vital fluid. "But it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and now I enjoy it," he says. "In a lot of ways, it's a partner. It's another element that keeps the audience interested." Before the show, the actors applied Derma Shield to their skin, a lotion that makes it easier to clean up afterward.
Getzug says the blood is so slippery that it felt like he was ice skating. A lot of the time he was on his knees, so he finessed the technique of sliding across the stage, but he still had to be careful not to fall. And then there was the scene in which the cat exploded in his face. That blood had particles in it to look like brains and was thick and gluey as it dried. Sometimes Getzug's eyelashes stuck shut.
For Berkeley Repertory Theatre's production of "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," early in the rehearsal process a special-effects person came in to discuss his plans with the actors. "He kept us apprised every day or so about how they were solving problems," says James Carpenter, who played Donny. "And he demonstrated everything on himself first." That allowed the actors during rehearsals "to have that knowledge in the back of our heads while we were thinking of what we were doing."
One particular transition in that play was terrifying. As Carpenter and his fellow actors lay in pitch black, the tech crew—who'd kept their eyes shut backstage to prepare themselves for the darkness—bolted in, throwing gallons of red glop everywhere. "We could hear people rushing around dropping tools, bodies deposited, and you just had to trust that they could see you," Carpenter says. "We on stage were totally blind."
Afterward the actors slid around, covered head to toe in gore. Tools would twist and turn in their hands if they weren't careful. Carpenter got a couple of cuts because he couldn't see where a blade was in the dark. The blood formed a thick viscous layer between rubber boots and the stage floor, requiring very careful, well-balanced curtain calls. "I hope it didn't affect my acting," says Carpenter of the bloodbath. "I tried not to let it. I'm sure it helped some way, not in ways I was conscious of, but I'm sure it added a layer."
Director Sass looks upon blood as an actor's tool if it's introduced soon enough, even before tech. In "Titus," the crew would brew the blood during intermission, using warm water, so it wouldn't be such an alien sensation for the actors. They could experience it as if it were their own blood—their life force ebbing out. The important thing for directors, Sass says, is to respect the actors, have consideration for their concerns, and make sure to provide adequate space and utensils for them to clean themselves afterward.
Says Carpenter, his role in "Inishmore," for which he spent weeks literally wallowing in stage blood, was not his most physically challenging, but it was one of the most fun things he's ever done.