Lady Macbeth should ask, regarding the murdered King Duncan, “who would have thought the old man to have so much Karo syrup in him?” Most of the fluids you see on stage are fake, notably blood and alcohol. Both challenge directors and actors, and lead audiences to the eternal post-show discussion question: How did you do that? In the spirit of public service, this week Drama Queen spills the beans — or the blood.
Kryolan leads the theatrical and film cosmetics industry, and it’s serious about blood. As the gentleman who answers the phone at the San Francisco store proudly points out, “Every time Indiana Jones bleeds, he bleeds our blood.” The relevant page on their Web site, Kryolan.com, is queasily interesting: qualities (dries shiny, peels off easily) and quantities (you can buy a four-ounce bottle, but you’ll save if you go for the gallon) scroll over an image of a luxuriously bloody disembodied hand. Products like “Hydro-Fix Blood” and “Instant Blood Powder” (“Transparent Blood” is the usual choice for stage work) come in two colors: Light (arterial) and Dark (veinous). Impact and Transparent Theater, both of which are currently fielding tragedies, find Dark more economical because it can be thinned heavily with Karo corn syrup and still look right.
Further bloody effects can be obtained from things you find around the house. According to Impact’s Melissa Hillman, “Blood and brains are best produced using Kryolan Dark, Karo syrup, and strawberry preserves. We started with cottage cheese, but it didn’t look right.” The bogus blood is loaded into blood packs which the actors either hold or tape to their bodies. Clothes or props conceal blood-soaked sponges. Some Kryolan blood has a detergent base so it washes out easily, but you don’t want that in your mouth. So Kryolan also manufactures blood capsules, a nontoxic powder in a gelatin capsule that reacts with saliva.
While drenching the stage in blood is easy, getting it clean is another matter. Hillman has found that only baby wipes will clean up the fake blood without taking along the new paint, and as soon as the audience is out of the theater her crew is working to make LaVal’s basement look less like a crime scene. And just like the real stuff, getting fake blood out of the costumes means everything goes into the wash immediately.
Blood will out, but what about fluids that go in? Actors often field the question, are you really drinking alcohol onstage? If the alcohol is bourbon or scotch, the actors are drinking cold tea. Colored beer bottles can be reloaded with water. Ginger ale often masquerades as Champagne, although a tiny bit of brown food coloring in sparkling water means no sticky props later. Cranberry juice substitutes for wine. After that, the magic of stage fakery fades and it’s up to the actors to make the story — and the blood — flow.