Staging Cannibalism

Judy Merrick as Otty
Actress Judy Merrick as Otty in "The Blood Brothers Present: Freaks from the Morgue."
Judy Merrick as Otty
Actress Judy Merrick as Otty in “The Blood Brothers Present: Freaks from the Morgue”

As it turns out, staging cannibalism in theater may not be as difficult as you think. James Comtois, New York playwright and co-founder of Nosedive Productions, thinks scenes of blood, terror and gore can actually be a fun challenge for theatermakers and audiences.

Since 2006, Comtois and co-founder Pete Boisvert have produced “The Blood Brothers Presents,” a collection of short, original horror plays.

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“This is a not-for-children, adults-only collection of horror. Not the flashlight under the chin by the campfire doing spooky-time stories. This is definitely a lot more adult-themed stuff,” he says.

“We’ve gotten some nice, decent houses. There are a few folks we see every year… You can gather a pretty decent crowd of people who are looking for something gross and depraved for the stage.”

Boisvert and company member Patrick Shearer host the show annually. Each short play is usually based on true crime stories. Perhaps their most successful show was “The Blood Brothers Present… The Master of Horror” in 2008. That year, the group received permission from author Stephen King to adapt some of his stories for the stage.

“The Blood Brothers is definitely Pete and Patrick’s baby. It’s really their thing. I’ve been a big fan of horror as just sort of a nerdy fan boy. I’m a big fan of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the (George A.) Romero Night of the Living Dead movies. I’ve always liked the idea of seeing if we could do certain things for the stage that are typically known for film,” he says.

Theater isn’t typically known for horror. The living room set is a default for many theatermakers. Even when theater tackles horror, it usually doesn’t show blood and guts.

“I definitely do like the idea of showing and seeing what we can do in terms of stage effects… And audiences respond to stuff on stage,” Comtois says

“Otty,” is one of the most memorable plays from The Blood Brothers productions. Comtois wrote the 15-minute play only a few months before it was staged in 2011. It is the story of cop who responds to an emergency, only to find a woman has eaten her newborn baby. She believed the baby was possessed by the devil. Comtois loosely based “Otty” on a true crime story.

The script has stage directions, such as: “Otty drops the robe, leaving her in her underwear. Huge chunks of her flesh torn or cut off, with deeps lacerations over her arms and legs where she still has skin. Her nipples have been cut off. Some of the cuts are made to look like designs/tattoos like pentagrams. Some of the cuts are also fresh and still bleeding.

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“I handed Pete the script. Pete directed this one, and I said, I’m not going to lie. This one may be a little f-ed up. And he’s like, ‘OK, well we’ll see. And he read it and said, ‘Wow, you were not lying, James. Wow.’ So he was definitely taken aback. Especially by that scene.”

Rather than ignoring stage directions, the director decided to work with them.

“We have makeup people who made her up, and made it look very much like that. They did a heck of a job on that,” says Comtois. “Our effects person, Stephanie Cox-Williams, gets a kick out of trying to figure out how to do all this stuff.

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Cox-Williams created a mixture of “red goop and something quasi-edible but didn’t look it,” Comtois explains. Judy Merrick, the actress playing Otty, would pull the concoction out of her bathrobe on cue and begin eating it. The key was to create a mixture that didn’t cause the actress to gag onstage.

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Makeup Designer Melissa Roth drew pentagrams on Merrick’s stomach. Cosmetics also helped create the illusion that Otty’s body had been mutilated. “It looked like she had cut off a good portion of her breasts,” says Comtois.

Upon seeing Merrick’s appearance, the audience gasped.

Comtois couldn’t remember if “Otty” featured blood spurts. But for other shows he’s done, they’ve used squibs, or tiny bags you hide in the palm of your hand. The bags are filled with fake blood. He recommends practice to get the blood flowing at the right moment. You also have to make sure the audience isn’t hit with uncontrollable blood spurts.

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The final consideration was cleaning the stage. The best blood and gore is machine washable. It also doesn’t stain the stage. Crew was assigned specific duties, such as mopping the floor after the show.

“Don’t worry about what people say can’t be done,” says Comtois. “One of the playwrights that influenced me the most is Clive Barker. And if you read any of his older scripts, he was writing and producing these shows when he didn’t have any money, either. He was doing plays before he was a famous filmmaker and novelist. He was doing these shows with no budgets. And the stage directions in those are insane. In one of them, he describes a head on a pike that starts talking. And you’re reading it and thinking, how could they have done this?”

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“If you are inventive enough and thoughtful enough in your staging, you can do anything… If you can think of it, it can probably be done somehow.”