When Shylock, the Jewish moneylender of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” makes the case for his humanity, he poses a rhetorical question: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
But though all Shakespearean characters may bleed, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, they don’t all bleed the same blood — or at least, not the same fake blood.
Chris Young, the theater’s properties director, mixes a unique version of the vital fluid for every gory scene in every show. No ketchup or red food dye here: Young’s complex recipes vary depending on the color and fabric of the actor’s clothes, the nature of the stage lighting and the type of theatrical injury at hand (or leg, or heart).
A collection of recipes for a particularly bloody production of “Julius Caesar” reads like a gruesome cocktail menu. “Cinna the Poet’s Couplet Catastrophe” calls for a simple half-cup of Reel Blood (see below) and one tablespoon of water, while “Caesar’s Assassination” requires three-quarters of a cup of Reel Blood, a quarter-cup of baby shampoo, two teaspoons per cup of glycerin and nine 30-milliliter strawberries. (In fake-blood lingo, a “strawberry” is not the fruit, but the corner of a sandwich bag filled with fluid.)
“It’s storytelling,” says Young, who joined the theater company as a props artisan in 1990. “And it’s, ‘How do you get something that’s as realistic as possible, and still comes out of the costume, and doesn’t turn your actor into an itchy mess?’ ”
Most of Young's recipes start with a base of Reel Blood, a commercial product that costs $3.75 for a one-ounce bottle (the per-ounce price goes down for larger bottles, so it's best to buy in bulk). It comes in a dark red "original," as well as a brighter "arterial" version that mimics the oxygenated blood of deadly wounds, and a brownish "aged" blend for cuts that are scabbing over.
Fred Blau, the movie makeup artist who founded Reel Creations, is apparently somewhat secretive about his blood recipe. If his fake product stains an actor's costume, he'll communicate directly with the wardrobe designer cleaning the garment. Young gathers any bits of intelligence he can. "They clued me in that the soap is like a shampoo, not like a dish soap," he says of one of the ingredients in the mix.
Before mixing in his own add-ons, Young always asks his actors whether they have dietary restrictions. Crunchy peanut butter can make for a realistic eye-gouging in the Oedipus plays, but itchy hives if Oedipus has nut allergies as well as mommy issues.
Then, Young tweaks the recipe so that the blood shows up against the actor’s skin or clothes. Red looks striking on white cotton, but if the liquid is too thin, it spreads and turns pink. Against a darker shade, glycerin adds shine to make that vital fluid pop. Different lighting can throw off the whole calculus, so Young always tests his recipes on himself under the stage lights.
“I try not to get too covered in blood,” he says. “But sometimes I’m walking around and people are like, ‘Is that you?’ ”
Once Young perfects a recipe, there's the matter of concealing the blood until theatrical violence strikes. In a kitchen cabinet beneath the stage, Young stores a variety of fluid containers that actors can hide strategically on their persons. A character who gets punched in the jaw might slip a blood capsule inside his cheek until the moment of the blow, then bite and spit. (Reel Blood is safe to put in your mouth, but not to swallow). If the blood bags look realistic, it's because they are: Young gets them from a former technical director of Arena Stage who has since become a doctor.
There are miniature bags that an actor can palm and then press over his supposedly wounded flesh. But the bags make a sound when pressed (“They’re actually from my dog’s squeaky toys,” Young explains), so actors have to time the moment of release to coincide with a battle cry.
Bloodying up an actor onstage always requires some sort of sleight of hand — the precise timing of a mimed blow, a shout and the release of a hidden blood bag. Young’s still proudest of the first show he worked on with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, “Richard III.” In one scene of the tragedy, a corpse begins to bleed. (Renaissance lore had it that a body’s wounds would open if the victim’s killer came near.)
Young and the wardrobe designer created a complex pressurized tubing system hidden beneath the actor’s costume. “It was actually tush-powered,” Young says. “He just arched his back a little bit . . .”
When staging a violent act, Young says, you want it to look realistic, but not too realistic. “You want people to be scared for the character, but once they’re scared for Chris,” he says, meaning the real person, “they’re out of the story.”
That’s one reason the theater usually stages previews to get audience feedback before the main run. During one production of “Macbeth,” some audience members found the killing of Macduff’s family a bit too brutal. Young had attached a blood-storing crush pad to the back of a doll’s head, so that when the actor playing the murderer whacked the doll against a concrete bench . . .
“It was actually the sound,” Young says. “There was a crunch.”
One more reason to test violent scenes in technical rehearsals and previews: Blood bags squirt. Another particularly violent “Macbeth” splattered audience members in the third row during a rehearsal. (Blood will have blood . . .) Although some die-hard theater fans might regard getting covered in Shakespearean blood as the equivalent of catching a home run ball at a Nationals game, most prefer not to get their clothes stained. So the actors moved the fight farther upstage.
By the way, if you do get fake blood on you at a show, contact the wardrobe designers. They know what to do.
What happens to all that blood after the show? Once Reel Blood comes out of the jug, it never goes back in — Young’s sanitary standards are almost as high as a surgeon’s. The jugs are sealed and stored in a cool, dark place until violence strikes the stage again.
“It’s like storing a good wine,” says Young, ever the connoisseur.