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The Craft

Shuffling off This Mortal Coil

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Shuffling off This Mortal Coil
"I had an actor once who was condemned to hang for stealing a sheep…. I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play…and you wouldn't believe it, he just wasn't convincing. It was impossible to suspend one's disbelief."

—"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" by Tom Stoppard

"In theater the death that happens offstage is the most real."

—"An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening" by Mickle Maher

In onstage death scene can indeed be challenging. When I suggested writing on this topic, my editor recalled Francesca Annis' demise as Gertrude in "Hamlet," opposite Ralph Fiennes: "A sharp, instantaneous snap of the neck. Very dramatic, and also very silly."

For Oregon Shakespeare Festival's current Gertrude, Greta Oglesby, being poisoned was initially intimidating because she'd never died onstage before. "It's not like I can take a quick class on it," she says. "Even getting a perspective from other people was not very helpful." Director Bill Rauch told her to make it as visceral as she could. She'd actually watched her mother die in 2000, but that didn't come to mind when working on Gertrude. "Although now that we've had this conversation, it might," she admits.

Instead, she considered what dying from poison might be like: "There may be coughing, but I don't do that; it might not work if you have text. There has to be shortness of breath, a little in and out of consciousness. Maybe a little delirium." Because the queen has an important final warning for her son ("O my dear Hamlet—The drink, the drink!"), Oglesby has an objective to play right up to the end. Actually, as Los Angeles actor Tony Amendola suggests, you can read up on how different types of deaths affect you physically in the book "How We Die" by Sherwin B. Nuland.

Amendola has appeared in various death scenes: a slo-mo, stylized death as Coriolanus; a knifing finish as Eddie Carbone in "A View From the Bridge"; a glorious demise as Cyrano de Bergerac, in which "even in death," Amendola says, "he's still trying to find the perfect expression of what he's feeling inside, which is the opposite of what's happening outside." If you're playing Richard III, Amendola notes, how you choose to die says a lot about the character: "The big parts can stand some grandness." He adds, "It's actually liberating to do a knife fight. Deaths are wonderful if you've earned them."

James Newcomb points to the difficulty in dying after a fight, as so often happens in Shakespeare: You're gasping for air. It helps to collapse facing upstage or on your side, so the audience can't see your diaphragm heaving. In recent years, Newcomb has sunk to his knees and expired relatively slowly in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (the poison wasn't cyanide or strychnine, which cause severe spasms, but a slower sort of venom), croaked as Coriolanus at the Utah Shakespearean Festival, and was stabbed as Richard III at Oregon Shakespeare.

Like Amendola, Newcomb talks about the feeling of release in a good death scene: "In 'Richard,' it was such a relief to let go when Richmond killed me at the end of a fight. You've been focusing and concentrating for such a long time. It's a fantastic feeling to let go of it…. But Iago kind of gets away with it; the actor never gets to release, because he doesn't die. It sort of sticks with you."

Stages of Dying

At the Denver Center Theatre Company, artistic director Kent Thompson notes that time is necessarily compressed in onstage deaths, so he encourages actors to identify critical markers: fighting for life; the realization of the inevitable and the release of that fight; the last effort to communicate, whether in words, feelings, or gesture; then the breath leaving the body. "The most moving, startling, shocking moments are when the person realizes they're dying and then the final moment, when there's either exhalation or total relaxation of the body. Those two moments are critical to every death scene and highly personal to each actor and to each character," he says.

"I've rarely seen the death rattle on stage as it happens in real life," Thompson adds. On stage, death must be treated poetically; if too explicit, it can evoke unwanted laughter. You don't want the audience to be taken out of the play by a death that's too theatrical or, at the other extreme, too naturalistic. "You want to respect that moment of this character leaving us," he says.

After he'd experienced death in his personal life, Thompson says, he approached directing death scenes from a new perspective: "You don't feel like you have to comment so much on those moments. You realize it's just an awful thing that happens, a profound loss, rather than having to theatricalize it."

He recently directed Meghan Wolf as Desdemona in "Othello." Wolf, who was especially excited about her first professional death scene, says the biggest challenge was technical: "I'm being suffocated, and if you're acting like you can't breathe, the impulse is to hold your breath. But if I did that, as soon as I was dead I'd be gasping for air." She finally mastered the technique of acting as though she couldn't breathe while actually breathing quite naturally.

The moments after death are especially difficult for actors. Wolf, for example, had to remain onstage for 15 minutes, breathing very shallowly. "I focused on the back ribs instead of the chest or stomach," she explains. "I tried hard not to swallow. My biggest fear was having to cough. And I'm getting spit on and can't flinch." As for the actual moment of her demise, she imagined lights at the end of a tunnel, as described in near-death experiences.

As Mozart in "Amadeus," Luke Koehn had to quickly go from his breakdown and confrontation with Salieri to Mozart's death scene. "The easiest way to approach it (for me) was to work from the circumstances (physical/emotional/psychological)," he emails from Hawaii, "pinpoint the cause of death, and research the physical sensations that one goes through when in that state. For me, it was a lot easier to play a physical sensation (like an ulcer eating away at my stomach lining) than to deal with personally confronting death. Which I don't believe Mozart really could have done at that moment anyway because of his incoherence."

Expiring on screen is a somewhat different task. In film, actors can be freeze-framed—apparently even if someone else is moving within the shot. But Newcomb points out, "When you die, your eyes dilate. I've never seen that on film."

He adds, "Hollywood likes to show powerful impact"—characters are shot and get blown backward off their feet. But Newcomb has talked to soldiers who say that when a high-velocity bullet goes through you, you actually drop like a rag doll. And if you're shot in the arm or leg, the initial response is surprise. He recommends Dave Grossman's book "On Killing" for more grisly details and a psychological perspective.

To die realistically, whether on stage or screen, it's about specifics, says Newcomb: How long does it take to die if you're stabbed in the kidney as opposed to the colon? What does this poison do as opposed to another poison?

It's a running joke for Los Angeles actor John T. Woods that he's forever dying on camera. He's been shot in the face, stabbed, faded away of old age; he's even been eaten by a giant snake. He's never been freeze-framed; he's always had to play dead. "It's tricky to die with your eyes open," he says. "You can't let them dash about, which is what they want to do on their own. I pick a point in the distance and let my eyes go out of focus."

Woods notes that some actors open their eyes wide and look frightened, as in "Look at me! I'm a corpse!" But he's learned to keep it simple. He's seen somebody die in real life, and the person looked a bit intoxicated, mumbled, and faded out. "Real-life death is simple and subtle," he says, "not dramatic. The pain is internal."

Having spent so much time dying while acting, Woods can't help wonder what it will be like when he finally kicks off for real—peacefully, he hopes, of old age. Will a lifetime of himself playing death scenes flash before his eyes? Will his last words be, "Quick, take a note—this is how you do it"? And the rest is, of course, silence.   

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