A Creeping Pool of Blood

by Jay Duckworth
The ending execution in The Pillowman at George Street Playhouse.
The ending execution in The Pillowman at George Street Playhouse.

The Pillowman calls for gore, just generally not at the last minute

Will Frears is an amazing director. He creates tender moments with soft images full of great beauty—and juxtaposes them with a gritty side that sounds a little like: “After we shoot him in the head I want him to fall and immediately I want a blood to pool around his head … Like, three feet of it.”

This request came the Wednesday before tech week on The Pillowman at George Street Playhouse. Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is a famously brutal play—one of the most brutal plays I have ever worked on—requiring people getting stabbed in the eyes with pens, multiple beatings, electrocution, rotten children’s bodies … and tons of blood. So now, four days before tech started, we had to figure out how to make a 3-foot-diameter (approximately 7-square-foot) pool of blood appear at the same speed and in the same area, night after night, in the middle of a turntable set—and, oh yeah, we were almost out of money. Did I mention I think Frears is an amazing director? It’s true. Which is why we went for it.  

My first idea involved using an IV bag or boda bag full of blood that a prop runner could just squeeze once the body fell. I took these two options to our fight choreographer on the show, J. Allen Suddeth, the author of Fight Directing for the Theatre. He smiled at me—the kind of smile wizards give their apprentices when they try to do magic and fail. He appreciated my options and thanked me for being proactive. He also said with modifications one of my ideas was in the neighborhood of his solution.

We went to the prop shop and he grabbed a five-gallon Home Depot bucket, a bottle of Tide detergent, some medical tubing, chocolate syrup and red tempera paint from our children’s tour and placed them all on the prop work bench. He mixed the Tide, chocolate syrup and the red tempera paint in the bottom of the bucket, and added water little by little to make a mix of blood with a light viscosity.

Then he asked if we had a mop. 

When I said yes he stuck the hose in the bucket, gave a heavy draw on it and dropped the hose to floor. Since the bucket was higher than the end of the tube, the blood siphoned out of the bucket and flowed out on the floor like a dream. In about a minute we had a beautiful pool of blood.

“So that’s solved,” he said. “Would you take a cup of this blood to costumes to see what adjustments we need to make? And on your way back you’ll want to grab that mop.”

We couldn’t siphon the blood from the bucket onstage, so we bought a small outdoor pond pump. Will generously re-staged the shooting to the edge of the turntable so the victim could fall to the static deck, where we drilled a hole just the size of the medical tubing and we fed the delivery tube into the hole from off stage left. We used water to test it in order to make clean-up easy and to test for leaks. The first time we ran the effect it took three seconds for the water to reach the stage after “Go,” but because we didn’t turn the regulator down on the pump the water shot up like the Bellagio fountains. We knew that the blood was thicker than water (see what I did there?) and the viscosity would slow the flow down so we tested it with blood. This time it took five seconds from “Go” to reach the stage, but it still spurted a little. We asked Allen if we should make the blood thicker, but he was concerned that would make the puddle pool more slowly or even burn out the motor on the pump. His solution was a single saddle Crosby over the medical tubing, which we tightened until the flow was what we liked.

In the end it worked great, but I will say this: If your show ends with a man being shot in the head, make sure that you have a backup gunshot sound, in case all your rounds misfire. (Don’t ask me why I know that. Because that certainly did not happen to us on the final preview performance).