A bloody business indeed

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Our last show this season is The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh. This play is a gleefully ghoulish black comedy about the fact that even monsters love their moggies. It’s violent, difficult, and if you like your humor dark it’s hilarious, but if several gallons of stage blood and salty Irish swearing aren’t your cup of tea you might want to sit this one out.

In 2009 Nick and I flew down to the Bay Area to see Berkeley Rep’s production. We got a back stage tour which simultaneously convinced us that we really wanted to do this show and we probably wouldn’t get to because of the cost. So when our 2010 season was announced we were really excited to see Inishmore on the list. This show is big, beyond the limits of hyperbole big. This show is so big that research and development for the special effects in our production started last season.

As is often the case when we have a show of this size and complexity, the shops have been working on elements of this production in between the other shows all year. We’ve tested pneumatic gizmos that mimic the various effects of gunshots, done extensive research into robotic cats, and there has been exhaustive testing to determine which fake blood recipes are easiest to wash out of costumes. Oh yes, this show is not for the squeamish. All of which brings me to the specific subject of this post; building the body doubles for three of our actors which will be dismembered on stage during every single performance.

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I came to this project partway through when it was determined that an extra pair of hands with some sculpting experience would be useful. At this point life molds of the actors had been made and foam rubber replicas of their heads and shoulders had arrived in our shops along with an assortment of other body parts. My task was to take the rigid headless foam bodies and transform them into believable stand-ins for actors who are rather more attached to their extremities than is useful for our purposes and much more difficult to reassemble.

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My first task was to articulate the joints on the bodies and reinforce the foam so that it will stand up to use during the show. I was also given a map of the stage showing where each corpse will be during the scene, which body parts will be pre-cut and which ones are removed during the action. This entire project was surreal and I admit to taking a certain ghoulish glee in it. One of my chats with Marne, our props master, involved deciding which of the life cast body parts she’d purchased would be used on which corpse.

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I also spent some time figuring out whether we wanted to use a flexed or pointed foot on the body that gets his foot cut off. I borrowed some shoes from the costume department to see which foot was easier to dress. In the end we decided that the pointed toes were more realistic.

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Here’s a picture of me cutting the foot off of the ankle so I could reattach it in a way that would flop in a realistically dead manner. Both ankles on this fellow got that treatment but only one of them is also dismember-able. In the photo on the right you might notice that there’s a curved line sticking out of the severed ankle, this is the end of a blood delivery system before it was trimmed flush.

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It turns out that ribbons of lycra gathered into ruffles make passable tendons when you saturate them with red tinted latex.

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Two of our crew also donated body parts to the show. Thomas, one of the props artisans, gave us his knee and Max, our Master Sound Engineer, donated both of his hands.

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Don’t worry, I gave them back when I finished with them. Although it was a near thing, and we did keep some of Thomas’s leg hair. Oops! There was a bit of a learning curve involved for all of us.

All in all this has been a fantastic project and I learned a lot during the weeks I was on loan to the props department. I can’t wait to see the bodies in action on opening night!

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