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From Agave to Zeus

Eric Hart • Props • February 1, 2011

Jay Duckworth paints mold release into silicone gel molds, prepping them to mold more silicone rubber into slabs of “meat.”

Jay Duckworth paints mold release into silicone gel molds, prepping them to mold more silicone rubber into slabs of “meat.”

All the steps in making sure King Pentheus has his head screwed off right.

[The Bacchae, in case you didn’t know, is a pretty gruesome play. And (spoiler alert) making the severed head of King Pentheus for the climactic scene takes some pretty gruesome prop making. If you want to see how life-like Eric Hart could make this prop (and trust me, they did an amazing, absolutely gross job), surf over here. –ed.]

“She wants to use real meat.”

My supervisor, Jay Duckworth, waited to see how I would react to his news. He had just come from an early production meeting for The Bacchae. The climax of the play features Agavë carrying out the head of her son, King Pentheus. The director, JoAnne Akalaitis, wanted to use a skull wrapped in real pieces of meat.

Duckworth continued, “We need to convince her we can fake it.”

Real meat on stage is a problem. It’s expensive, unsanitary, smelly and you need a dedicated fridge to store it. Because the New York Shakespeare Festival performs outside in Central Park, you have additional problems: our theatre is filled with hungry raccoons.

We decided to experiment with a product called Dragon Skin made by Smooth-On. It is a silicone rubber specially formulated for making skins on animatronic animals, among other things. You usually find silicone rubber used as a mold-making material in the prop shop. It’s useful because it is flexible, long-lasting, and absolutely nothing can stick to it. As nothing can stick to it, it is easy to clean. A number of manufacturers make an endless variety of silicone rubbers with different properties and uses. Dragon Skin is one of the few that cures almost clear; that gives us the option of tinting it whatever color we need. As it turns out, Smooth-On makes a line of pigments for silicone that was exactly what we needed. Among other colors, they have “light flesh,” “dark flesh” and “blood”—exactly the colors we would be using most.

Silicon rubber molds were cast from “meat slabs” made of clay  cast to help avoid using real meat in the production.

Silicon rubber molds were cast from “meat slabs” made of clay  cast to help avoid using real meat in the production.

Pouring Meat
Our first step was to make a prototype that would prove to JoAnne that we could give her what she wanted without using real meat. As a theatre that produces a lot of Shakespeare, we already had a number of skulls in our stock we could choose from. Jay made some slabs of meat out of plastiline clay while I mixed some silicone rubber to make a quick mold. It is important to note that silicone rubber will not set when it is in contact with certain chemicals. One of these chemicals is sulphur, and oil-based clays will typically contain sulphur. Unless it specifically says “non-sulphur” on the packaging, your silicone rubber will remain tacky and gooey where it is touching the clay (I also found if you take the offending clay away and let the silicone rubber cure in the air, it will eventually become solid). Furthermore, different formulas of silicone rubber have different curing times. We were using Dragon Skin Q (now called Dragon Skin 10 Fast) which had a cure time of 75 minutes, whereas some could take as long as 4–6 hours.

 

Once we had our one-piece molds made, we were ready to pour some slabs of meat. You can cast silicone rubber in a mold made of silicone rubber as long as you use plenty of mold-release. Typically, it comes in two parts that, when mixed together, cures to a solid. Manufacturers often tweak their formula to make a whole-number ratio of the two parts you are mixing; with the Dragon Skin, it was simply 1:1. You mix the pigment into part “B”, then mix that into part “A”.

As we poured several pieces of meat, I learned some things about the pigments. If you only use a little, you can retain some of the translucency of the silicone rubber and give it a more three-dimensional look. Also, you don’t have to mix the color in completely; if you just swirl it around a bit, you end up with a sort-of marbleized effect. So you can mix a base color and then stir in a touch of dark-blood color, and you can achieve a piece of meat that appears to have blood vessels running within the interior. Or throw in touches of white and yellow for tendons and fat. Good reference photos are a must. The fact that the colors remain the same after curing helps take a lot of guesswork out of it as well.

The prototype skull of King Pentheus, with silicone meat slabs attached to a “skin” of silicone rubber on the skull.

The prototype skull of King Pentheus, with silicone meat slabs attached to a “skin” of silicone rubber on the skull.

Now that we had some meat, we had to stick it to the skull. As I mentioned above, nothing sticks to silicone rubber. It can “cling” to things, but because it is chemically inert, it can not “bond” to other materials. The one thing it does stick to is itself. Though it takes 75 minutes to cure to the touch, it actually takes 48 hours to “fully” cure, during which time you can pour more silicone rubber onto it, and it will stick so well it is essentially a single chunk of material. As for adhering it to other objects, you can only mechanically bond it. If you pour it over a heavily-textured surface or an object with heavy undercuts, it will grip more sturdily. In the case of our skull, our plan was to completely encase the surface in silicone rubber to make an unbroken skin with no edge where it could peel off.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For our prototype, we just painted some Dragon Skin directly onto the skull, and used that as a glue to attach our slabs of meat. Though temporary, it would grip long enough to make it through the production meeting. We set up a table with the skull and some additional slabs of meat, and presented it to JoAnne Akalaitis and the design team.

“I’m impressed” she said, giving us the go-ahead to proceed in this fashion.

Eric Hart painting silicone onto a skull.

Eric Hart painting silicone onto a skull.

Building for Full Impact
I began work on the real head. With a new skull, I sprayed on some spray-foam. Once hard, I carved it to look like chunks of flesh that remained on the skull. I began painting on the silicone rubber. You can thin down silicone rubber with a solvent, and you can thicken it with a special silicone-thickening agent. With just a few drops into the mix, it becomes the consistency of organic peanut-butter, allowing you to add it to vertical surfaces without running or dripping. In addition to adding some of the slabs of meat we were making, I also coated pieces of muslin with silicone rubber to make strips of flesh dangling from the neck.

 

As I worked on this version, word came back from the rehearsal halls about changes to the head. We had been sending them photographs of our progress, and they had some reactions to it. Rather than a skull covered in gore, they wanted to see more of Pentheus’ face, with strips torn away here and there. We would need a mold of the actor’s face.

 

For more realism, the director decided the face of King Pentheus needed to be on the skull, which necessitated taking a plaster cast of the actor’s face.

For more realism, the director decided the face of King Pentheus needed to be on the skull, which necessitated taking a plaster cast of the actor’s face.

Life-casting an actor is a very involved process which has been written about in detail in many other places, so I won’t go into it here. We had Anthony Mackie, who was playing King Pentheus, come in to the prop shop and we took a cast of his face. We then had a plaster Anthony Mackie face which we could make a mold from and produce little Anthony Mackies to our hearts’ desire.

 

I covered a third skull with an underlying layer of “gore.” I cast a slab of the face and glued it into position. I made some other slabs of skin, which I glued onto other parts of the skull. I mentioned above that silicone rubber can be thinned with solvent. If you thin it enough, you can use it like paint and add highlights and shadows, or bits of blood, fat and gristle on top of your existing silicone rubber. I added a glass taxidermy eye and some wig hair and sent it off to stage.

 

The final, approved, head.

The final, approved, head.

We continued tweaking its appearance through tech, and even into preview performances. There was something about it that the director just didn’t like, but none of us could figure it out. It became apparent we would have to make a completely new head, even though we already had photo call and opening night was fast approaching. I made a new cast of the face with lots of extra skin around the edges. It was almost like an Anthony Mackie mask. I covered a fourth skull in blood and gore, then stretched the mask over the skull and adhered it. It looked absurd and outrageous, but it was exactly what JoAnne Akalaitis wanted. It turns out in our excitement in experimenting with a new product, we forgot a cardinal rule of prop-making: what looks good up close does not always translate to stage. The level of detail and realism we could achieve with the Dragon Skin looked phenomenal when we held the skull in our hands, and would have made a fantastic movie prop. However, the audience in the Delacorte theatre sits anywhere from 30 to 70 feet away. Agavë enters with the head from upstage, which is another forty feet away. From that distance, the head looked like a brown bowling ball, and it was at her entrance that it needed the most impact. We needed the over-exaggerated version to read from the audience so that even the people in the back seats would be chilled at its appearance.

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