Fake blood has flowed ever since the first curtain opened, staining stages and thrilling audiences. These days, writes Lee Tran Lam, the curtain might fall but the bleeding never ends

What does death taste like – peanut butter, chocolate syrup or liquid detergent? For actors who are splattered, stabbed, or shot onstage, death may come in other flavours. Bloodshed may be as sweet as sugar or bitter as washing-up goop. And while it seems a simple affair – ensuring red ooze drips from the doomed character – the free flow of theatrical blood is as intricate and twisted as family ties.

In Company B’s 2003 production of
The Lieutenant of Inishmore in Sydney, the blood spurted with a geyser’s intensity, the audience got splattered and crew members had trouble washing the red stains from their hands. Production staff on the Belvoir Street Theatre show, Brenna Hobson and Ewen Duncan, remember the daily spray all too well – it was one of the company’s bloodiest and most expensive shows. Its level of gore, though, was modest compared to its bloody predecessor of 2001, Emma’s Nose. Both plays needed St John’s Ambulance officers in the audience in case things got messy, which they inevitably did.

Fake blood is one of theatre’s great challenges. It can’t look too chunky, too runny, too thin, too blue, too purple or too unreal. It also needs to make life easier for the poor lackey who cleans up afterwards. This was a great consideration for Inishmore, written by Martin McDonagh, which chronicles the revenge taken by Padriac (Daniel Wyllie), a psychopathic member of an Irish liberation splinter group, following the decapitation of his cat Thomas. The catalogue of onstage violence is impressive – 20 or more bullets are fired, hitting three people (who also get dismembered), a cat explodes and there’s some torture thrown in for good measure. End result? A Tarantino-sized torrent of red stuff. No wonder the main ingredient in Belvoir’s blood recipe was detergent.

Besides being easy on the cleaners, detergent makes fake blood flow better, notes Bell Shakespeare production manager Moira Hay. She should know, given Shakepeare’s fascination with flashing blades and bitter feuds. Accordingly, Hobson approached Hay for blood-making advice on Inishmore.

“I knew that Bell Shakespeare had a really good blood recipe that washed out of clothes,” recalls Hobson, now with Bangarra Dance Theatre. The recipe comprises blue detergent and red food colouring (the blue pigment provides the depth). Unfortunately detergent can irritate skin, so Belvoir concocted quantities of corn syrup-based blood as well, which meant costumes had to go “straight into a bucket of Sard” after the show.

Psycho’s iconic shower scene, which depicts blood streaming down the drain, Alfred Hitchcock found chocolate filmed best in black and white. For Kill Bill, Tarantino wanted his gore to resemble “samurai blood”, not the standard “horror” variety. “You can’t pour this raspberry pancake syrup on a sword and have it look good,” he told Time magazine. In keeping with the film’s classic kung fu homage feel, Tarantino used the genre’s lo-fi tricks, which meant pricking blood-filled condoms at the right point, a technique invented in 1970 by one of his heroes, Chinese director Chang Cheh.

Fake blood can be finetuned by lighting, set design and other directorial preferences. Grading and colouring of film can also play its part. Ewen Duncan, who has a background in movies and television, points out that, “If you see a film that doesn’t have a very good blood quality, very often it’s because that’s not been the main priority in grading the film afterwards”.

Although Belvoir failed to beat Peter Jackson’s Guiness record for largest amount of fake blood used – a stomach-churning 600 litres sprayed freely in the zombie-mowing scene of
Brain Dead – Duncan estimates the Inishmore season accounted for 50 fake litres, enough to fill nine humans, if it were real.

Making blood spurt, squirt and shoot at the right time is an art in its own right. And Belvoir has many impressive tricks to ensure the red liquid surges on cue.

“Sometimes you’re lucky and they’re standing upright the whole time so it works by gravity,” admits Hobson. Likewise, actors require to fall on their front or back can simply squash a blood bag.

But sometimes it gets “slightly hi-tech” and they call in film effects professionals such as David Trethewey (
The Matrix Reloaded), who created what Duncan calls “exploding jackets” for Inishmore. “He designed these vests that went off when they were shot,” Duncan adds. “There was blood that was pressurised under air, and when the actor flicked the switch, blood came out of either their chest or their back.” In another scene, a character is shot while leaning against the wall. “Every night he had to be at the same spot, because they’d have these jets in the wall, behind his head,” explains Duncan. Mairead, Padriac’s girlfriend (Rita Kalnejais), had two guns, one pointed at each side of his head. “She shot him in both sides of the head and as they went off, the noise of the guns triggered an air cannon, which fired the artificial blood up the wall as though it was his brains,” he says. “For a stage special effect, it was pretty good.”

Some things did go awry. It took a few nights to angle the jets correctly so as to avoid dry-cleaning bills from the front-row patrons. Another problem surfaced with the dismemberment scene, with blood-filled condoms strategically positioned inside a fake torso, ripe to burst when actors sawed through the dummy. “Sometimes they didn’t hit the condoms and the condoms would just flop out on stage,” says Duncan. “But they looked like a kidney or something, so that was alright.”

If this makes you queasy, perhaps we shouldn’t mention how they blew up the cat (although it was fairly harmless). Perhaps you have a low threshold for gore, like those audience members who were overwhelmed by
Emma’s Nose. “Once a performance,” confirms Duncan, “they had someone being sick or fainting.”

The curious title of Paul Livingstone’s play refers to the famous proboscis of Freud’s patient, Emma Eckstein (Meaghan Davies). The psychoanalyst (Tyler Coppin) didn’t know how to treat her “symptoms”, which included hysteria, period-related cramps, and masturbation, so he enlisted the expertise of his friend, Wilhelm Fliess (Jacek Koman), an ear, nose and throat specialist. Believing the nose was a sexual organ, Fliess decided to operate, but he bungled the job and left a large surgical souvenir in Emma’s nasal cavity: namely, half a metre of gauze. This led to a near-deadly hemorrhage and permanently disfigured the patient.

Given the play’s historical backdrop, the stage was inevitably soaked in red drips and splatters. Most of this can be attributed to the protagonist’s creepy plight. Bandaged head to toe throughout, Emma is mute and watchful, communicating only through profuse flows of blood. She bleeds from the nose. She bleeds from the mouth. She slips on her own blood and haemorrhages. No wonder people lost their appetites.

So how did Belvoir pull off such bloodletting? For the nosebleed they ran two IV bags up to Davies’ nose. “And then she pressed on them, and blood came out,” explains Hobson. “But it got all over her face, so we had to use corn syrup.” Tubes were also run up to Davies’ mouth, so she could bleed from the lips. The bandages hid these tricks from the audience, who were probably too busy covering their eyes anyway.

Bell Shakespeare had a similar scenario in
Richard III, with blood gushing from a bandage-bound victim’s wounds as Richard (John Bell) talked to him. “That was a bit of a challenge,” admits Hay. “You have to have your super runny blood, and make sure it doesn’t squirt up and squirt people in the face, so it doesn’t look like a mad sauce bottle. In the end, I think it looked quite good and you could hear people go, ‘oh!’ It’s always nice, for a prop, to get a little gasp.”

The battery-operated mechanism for the blood spill involved syringes and IV tubes, and was operated by the stage manager.

Bell Shakespeare often resort to easier ways of bleeding onstage, with actors spurting out syringes of blood when stabbed or being stabbed. A couple of times, they’ve had a “sneaky hole” on the stage, where actors stick their hands to dab with blood. The resultant blood “can be a bit runny but it’s got to be a bit gluggy,” Hay elaborates. “You’d be looking for more of your sugar-based blood, I suppose, than a water-based blood.”

Hence the many different blood recipes available. When people talk about Bell Shakespeare’s “blood recipe”, it’s a bit of a misnomer. The range of blood types is extensive enough to impress a toothy Dracula. “Stiff” blood has to hold its form – it’s blood that won’t drip over everybody. “Wet” blood, on the other hand, can travel a bit. With
Lieutenant of Inishmore, Hay notes, the blood had to be so wet it streamed across the stage. For this year’s War of The Roses, only “dry” was used for the decapitated heads. Despite the high body count, fake blood was barely employed because “the pace of the play is so fast, we couldn’t really accommodate much blood”.

One of the common ingredients in their blood is sugar, though it can congeal and become crusty. Peanut butter is another unlikely ingredient, popular because it attracts blood stains instead of transferring them onto clothing. The chunky variety has the happy advantage of resembling bits of bone.

Rehearsal can also affect the blood-making process. The actors may suddenly decide to stab their victim in the ear hole, Hay suggests, “So you’ve got to rethink your mechanism, which means you’ve got to rethink your blood. And then there’s always an extra complication, like [an expensive costume] right in the line of squirt, so the whole show becomes about, ‘don’t get any blood on the silk’. By the time you accommodate everybody’s needs, you’ve created a monster out of one little bleeding moment.”

Bleeding moments, however, are what makes theatre so great.

The legendary Théâtre du Grand Guignol, established in 1897, had Parisians flocking to witness its unsavoury use of severed eyeballs and blood-encrusted heads. Patrons were duly rewarded with gore-making mastery: Guignol actors knew animal’s eyeball bounced best on the stage, and its crew boasted a menu of 10 blood recipes, each congealing at a different rate. Animal corpses were supplied by Montmartre’s butchers every morning. The onstage mayhem included multiple guillotining, nose-cuttings and eye-gouging, and one hapless character was devoured by a puma. The chance to see the popular Guignol actress Paula Maxa simply decompose into an ugly corpse filled the house for 200 consecutive nights; her performance was such a must-see that one theatre critic believed Guignol’s audience “wouldn't have exchanged its seats for all the gold in the Americas”.

Royalty from Greece, Holland and Romania all attended Guignol performances, but the actors measured their success in faintings. “During one play that ended with a realistic blood transfusion, a record was set: 15 play-goers had lost consciousness. Between sketches, the cobble-stoned alley outside the theatre was frequented by hyperventilating couples and vomiting individuals,” writes Mel Gordon in
The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror.

Guignol’s second director, Max Maurey, employed a house doctor to tend to patrons overwhelmed by the bloodshed. Surprisingly, the victims were often men (women usually refrained from looking at the more graphic scenes). The venue became so synonymous with gore that nowadays, everyone from Alice Cooper to Wes Craven are described as being a touch Guignol.

Yet theatre’s bloodthirstiness has a much longer history. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Globe Theatre, for instance, splashed fake blood around during swordfights and onstage mutilations. A simple bite into a sheep’s intestine filled with blood would trick theatre-goers into thinking an actor’s tongue had been sliced out. Or a strategically placed sponge, doused in the blood of a sheep or calf, would help an Elizabethan performer bleed.

In medieval religious plays and mystères, blood flowed just as generously. Fake blood of this era is likely to have been red paint or liquids, contained in sponges, animal intestines or leather sacs, notes English Professor John Spalding Gatton in his essay,
Mutilation and martyrdom on the medieval stage. In a 1513 French production of a religious mystère, La Sainte Hostie, the stage direction called for a stabbed character to spurt so much blood the flow resembled the cascading torrent of “a pissing child”, as one spectator eloquently put it.

Earlier references to theatrical blood are harder to find, admits University of NSW Professor John Golder, an honorary senior research fellow in the School of Media, Theatre and Film. How might the Ancient Greeks have represented the climatic moment of Oedipus, when the protagonist emerges with his eyes gouged? Golder ponders the question. Animal blood “starts to smell very bad, very quickly” he says, suggesting the Greeks might have preferred a more stylised display, such as the red ribbons which signified “cascades of blood” in medieval theatre. “Also when you bear in the mind that Greek and Roman ampitheatres – Greek in particular – were of such enormous proportions, visibility was a key aspect. You’d be more likely to see streamers of red material attached to the sockets of a mask, than blood dripping down the front of an actor.” It’s too bad – the stage managers of antiquity might have had fun dabbling with peanut butter and red food colouring.

While bloodshed is as old as time itself, theatre’s use of it has become post-modern. A recent production of Edward Albee’s
The Zoo by American company Hydepark Theatre ended with actor John Shepherd stabbed and bleeding onstage. But instead of rising to take his curtain call, Shepherd lay “unconscious” and the flow continued, which confused patrons. Was the play actually over? Should they leave? Was there some mysterious bonus scene still to come? As audience members pondered this, Shepherd stayed prone, a tube of corn syrup-liquid leaking under his body.

He had been directed to play dead until tipped off by the stage manager that the final theatre-goer had vacated. They all did, eventually, confounded by the increasingly bloody sight before them. Except after one show when Joan Lipkin, the artistic director of a socially conscious performance company, That Uppity Theatre, took action into her own hands. “It’s up to us to end the play,” she said, and along with other patrons, came onto stage and tended to Shepherd as if he were a real victim.

“They opened my shirt, and put some clothing under my head as a pillow,” Shepherd told St Louis arts magazine
PlaybackSTL. “Then they decided they were going to lift me and take me out of the theatre and into the elevator. I decided to break character if they got me out of the room, and I did. I was bloody from head to toe and I woke up and said, ‘You guys are the best audience ever!’”

Which proves that, regardless of the age, fake blood is still the theatre’s most compelling special effect.

State of the Arts
, October-December 2005