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Blood is Ancient, Blood is In

Warning: bloody puns ahead.

The spray of blood has stained the screen in the last few years. Zombies, vampires, and serial killers have butchered the private detectives, lifeguards, and angels of the eighties and nineties. As more blood drips from the screen, it has inevitably pooled on the stage—but wait, it was always already there. In Goethe’s Faust, before Faust signs the wager, Mephistopheles reminds him of the “ink” to be used and tells him: “Blood is a juice with curious properties.” I’d hate to agree with Satan but he is right. Blood is curious, especially on the stage. Blood is both repulsive and hypnotic. It is a vivid symbol of life, birth, death, and violence. Its color is a signifying force like nothing else on stage; consider Clytemnestra’s crimson welcome mat for Agamemnon, bladders of blood in the stage properties list of Philip Henslowe, and the gory effects of the Parisian Grand Guignol. Whether symbolic or realistic, theatre and blood go together like spaghetti and red sauce. Tom Stoppard gets this in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when he has the Player say to Guildenstern:

PLAYER: …I can do you blood and love without rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric without blood. Blood is compulsory—they’re all blood, you see.

GUIL: Is this what people want?

PLAYER: It’s what we do.

Haysam Kadri, the Artistic Producer of Calgary’s Shakespeare Company, has been incorporating blood effects as a way to draw new audiences. He told me that “Our audiences love, love love blood, particularly the twenty to thirty-five age demographic.” A recent sold out production of John Heimbuch’s William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead, about the great “zombie plague of 1599,” was so popular that for their next production of Titus Andronicus, the blood is back—oh boy it is back! Haysam said they spent hours fine-tuning how the blood effects are used including spray angles, timing, and strategic placement of all sorts of effects. For Titus, even the marketing campaign focused on the red stuff: “Blood will Reign Down” is the tag, and in a recent Facebook post, Haysam displayed pictures of the company making “meat” pies together.

But how do we do blood on stage? To understand the techniques and aesthetics of blood design, I spoke with Casey Kaleba, a certified fight instructor with SAFD, who has carved out a niche in violence design as a blood expert. With new productions in the last ten years that demand more realistic blood effects as well as the ever-engorging possibilities of blood in Shakespeare’s canon, Casey let me in on some of the secrets to using blood in production.

I’m one generation removed from the farm: my father raised and killed chickens, and had a completely different understanding of blood. It’s very hard to find blood today—it’s been locked away in white medical cases and removed from the process of feeding us.

A blood splatter.
Blood: It's a messy business. Photo by Jake Rothenberg.

Kyna Hamill: How has the use of blood transformed to become more elaborate and sophisticated in special effects in the past ten years?

Casey Kaleba: Two reasons: blood is on our minds and we have changed the way we see blood. The first is deeply cultural. I see it connected to a decade of wars that have been fought behind a curtain of selective image-crafting. It was a long legal struggle to let press photographers even take pictures of the caskets being unloaded, and so the depictions of combat have been highly sanitized. Our cultural experience of blood has diminished drastically. I’m one generation removed from the farm: my father raised and killed chickens, and had a completely different understanding of blood. It’s very hard to find blood today—it’s been locked away in white medical cases and removed from the process of feeding us. However, our entertainment has become preoccupied with the depiction of blood. Dexter, Kill Bill, Pan’s Labyrinth, No Country For Old Men, Rambo, 300, CSI, etc. Even the leap in the gladiator/classical genre, from Gladiator (2000) to 300 (2006) to the Spartacus miniseries (2010–2013) blood has moved further into the foreground. We’re now conscious of blood as a liquid in very different ways. In Psycho we saw it run down a drain, but digital effects have opened up a whole new world of depicting fluid mechanics. In the practical world of the stage we’ve moved away from simple blood bags and into a world of pneumatic squibs, syringes, set-mounted sprayers to recreate a much broader range of traumatic experiences.

Kyna: Can you explain more about how the technology of blood has changed in the theatre?

Casey: Ten years ago most stage blood just looked flat red. It was usually a variation on Karo syrup, food coloring, liquid soap, chocolate syrup or peanut butter, and the primary requirements were that it be edible, cheap, and washable, not that it actually look like blood. Since then a wide range of blood mixtures have become commercially available, and I think you can get a much better aesthetic today. There are dozens of commercially available blood recipes and mixes available that all tell different stories and solve different problems. The methods of delivery have become much more sophisticated: when I took my first class on blood effects in 1997, everything we needed for the class could be purchased at a grocery store. Now I special order blood, build pneumatic delivery systems, cobble together elaborate systems of bags and tubes and valves from medical, veterinary, cooking, and industrial parts to solve simple stage moments that need to look effortless but are exceptionally complicated theatrical moments.

Kyna: You can special order blood?

Casey: Yes. There are bloods that coagulate and dry brown, that work better in tubing, that won’t run or drip, that are designed specifically to wash out, to go in actor’s eyes, to recreate stigmata effects, that catch light better, that read as red under the different temperatures of television and stage lights, that stick to walls better, that read as fresh, or old, or arterial, or post-mortem. It’s a whole new market, and it’s driven by playwrights like Sarah Kane and Martin McDonagh, and by television shows that are competing with each other for the original, disturbing, exciting “wow” moments. To say that the technology has changed is to forget that these are just new solutions to very old problems. Osiris had to be dismembered, the saints were martyred, and Lavinia lost her tongue long before Dexter plied his trade or zombies came into fashion. Blood is ancient.

Kyna: How has your own use of blood on stage changed?

Casey: I still see it as my primary job to talk people out of blood effects. It’s a production headache, it creates huge logistical problems, and usually it’s unnecessary. But if you’re going to do it, you need to take it seriously, figure out exactly what story you’re telling and what effect you want the blood to have on an audience. I try to take my directors and actors through a specific rubric. First, I ask if we really need to do this. If we are going to do it, what is the effect on the audience going to be? Then what will the blood do—will it spurt, drip, spatter, seep, smear, track, reveal, course, creep, pour, soak, leak, dry, crack, scab? How will we get it to the actor, and how will the actor manipulate the device? What is the palette for the blood—is it on skin, fabric, walls, tables, floors? Is it arterial, fresh, deoxygenated? Finally, how do we clean it up? If we can’t answer every one of these questions, then probably we shouldn’t do blood.

Kyna: What are some of the things you’ve been asked to stage using blood effects?

Casey: I’ve been asked to do a soldier cutting off their own hand and a character’s tongue being cut out and replaced with a new tongue that speaks a magical new language—both mid-monologue and in full view; a character skinning themselves alive while dictating a suicide note; a character being flayed alive and strips of their skin stapled to the set; a close-up chest gunshot wound for a music video; menstrual blood mixed into a magic potion; a heart impaled on a dagger and then flung across a stage; and a character being disemboweled and their intestine handed to an audience member to help an actor jump rope in a live action Punch and Judy show. In my first ten years as a fight director I didn’t do as much blood as I do in a single season, or sometimes for a single show.

Kyna: How do you make the decision whether blood on stage should be symbolic or realistic?

Casey: I’m not sure it’s ever really a conscious decision, partially it’s pragmatic, because if they’ve hired me it means they’re going for a realistic solution. I think it often depends on what reaction you want from an audience. Blood can make an audience howl with laughter or pass out, it depends on how you sculpt the moment. Symbolic blood works when it replaces the body as the storyteller, but sometimes we want to see the actors’ actual bodies telling the story of suffering or trauma.

Kyna: How will you be staging blood effects in your latest show, Macbeth?

Casey: Largely, we won’t. It’s a touring production and I couldn’t risk the spaces we’re moving into, or give the actors the extra task of cleaning up a theatre every night. But blood is central to the story. It is mentioned more times than any other Shakespeare text, and so we’ve painted some very realistic blood onto Banquo in the banquet scene and Macduff at the end. I’ve done very bloody productions—a miscarriage from Lady Macduff is a strong memory from a recent production.

Kyna: What do your costume designers think about your use of blood?

Casey: They rarely like it, but I find they’ve had bad experiences with bad bloods. Blood is a headache. It gets everywhere and the actors’ boots track it backstage; it spurts onto the lighting instruments and cooks off unpleasantly; it soaks the actress’s bra and stains the actor’s fingernails. The backside of a column in a local theatre was spattered white about fifteen feet up from a very fine production of Lear, and the stain stayed there for almost two years.

If you’re going to do it, you need to be ready to commit to a full design process, and to treat it just as seriously as every other production decision. It needs to be respected.

I’ve seen people turn white, and others shut their eyes, and others smile. I’ve heard of directors walking out, and lighting designers vomiting, and I’ve watched several people cry.

Kyna: How do your audiences respond to blood effects?

Casey: They laugh sometimes, and they gasp sometimes. I’ve seen people turn white, and others shut their eyes, and others smile. I’ve heard of directors walking out, and lighting designers vomiting, and I’ve watched several people cry. I think what we need to always remember is that blood is a synecdoche for life and results in powerful imagery.

Kyna: How do your actors negotiate the blood effects?

Casey: Most of the time they seem to enjoy it, certainly much more than the costume assistant who has to launder it each night. I like watching actors discover how to play blood—to move beyond just holding their side and milking a bag, or putting a handprint on their cheek or a quick smear under their nose or across their arm, but to really explore the story of how the blood got there; to slide along a wall to leave a surprising smear. Those moments are rewarding because you can feel the temperature in the room change.

Kyna: What has inspired your use of blood in the theatre?

Casey: I deeply admire the artists of the Grand Guignol, not because of their love of gore or amplification of horror, but because they are superb craftsmen who fully practiced the power of the theatre to tell an audience when to breath, or how their hearts should beat. And I think theatre still has that potency, and blood is a window that looks straight into the heart of what it means to be human, to be alive, to be flesh, and to be mortal.

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". . . blood is a window that looks straight into the heart of what it means to be human, to be alive, to be flesh, and to be mortal". Yes indeed Kyna, and what an interesting article, refreshingly different from what I generally see here on this wonderful site. I enjoyed the brief section where you and Casey go into questions on the detailed purpose and effect desired, and if it is truly needed to move the action of the play forward. I also very much appreciated the necessity of having an attitude of "respect" when dealing with blood, for other reasons as well as pragmatic. The "theatrical" impact of experiencing blood on stage (well done) cannot be denied, and I wonder what other social and psychological factors are involved with its amazing popularity in the media. There are times when I am disturbed by this, because from my perspective it seems much of the popular indulgence with blood is actually like an addiction and is sought after and consumed like a drug, an unconscious acting out or seeking for. And I also recognize where it is potently mesmerizing. Perhaps another article exploring this?

As an actor I've never worked with blood on stage. As a director only once (did a production of DEATHTRAP years ago. I have to admit it was a thrill to see audience reactions to all three death scenes, especially the 'breaking through the curtain' one. The professional props person I was lucky to work with had an amazing log that had at the upstage end a hollow area that contained a small piece of sponge soaked in stage blood attached to the inner wall of the hollow. Usually it was the third or fourth blow to the head when the sponge would fly out (looked like a piece of bloody skull being projected) and always got a wonderful gasp from the audience.