The Ghastly Business of Theatre Gore

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“Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses” Photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Warning: This post contains images and descriptions that may make some readers queasy!

Bloody intestines, oozing blisters, melting hands—it’s all in a day’s work for Mary Williamson (THE ’08), a Chicago-based actor who also designs gory effects for local theatre productions. Though Williamson is a horror film aficionado and loved experimenting with makeup during her time at The Theatre School, she discovered her talent for this aspect of the industry by accident. During a production of Brett Neveu’s “The Earl” at the Inconvenience, the company she co-founded, Williamson needed to enhance the fight choreography in a particularly graphic way. “It was pretty clear that the whole set was supposed to be covered with blood by the time the show was over,” she remembers.

Theatre gore requires a different approach from movie gore, which can use computer-generated imagery and other special effects. “You can’t fake it the same way in theatre,” Williamson says. “Blood has to be able to wash out of costumes; props have to be reusable for the rest of the show’s run.” There’s also the matter of creating gore that matches the aesthetic tone of the production, as Williamson explains: “How far do you take it? How realistic should it look? When does more blood really ‘read,’ and when should you pull back?”

"Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses" Photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

“Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses” Photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Exploding blood packs are certainly effective, but they aren’t the only way to convey something horrific onstage. For “Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses,” produced by the Hypocrites in 2011, Williamson got messy behind the scenes as she figured out how to depict a whole range of nasty calamities. “We had Oedipus ripping out his eye; we had a pestilent foot chopped off,” she says. “There was a melting hand and a body covered with scabby burns.”

Liquid latex is a key tool in Williamson’s arsenal of creepy effects. To make the scabby burns, she painted latex over corn flakes and rice krispies. “Cereal is an old trick that makeup people use for more texture,” Williamson explains. Adding the cereal to a skin-colored nylon leotard jumpsuit transformed the costume into something truly hideous.

"Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses" Photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

“Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses” Photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Williamson also builds body parts with bits of tissue. “I made a nylon glove with bones poking out to mimic the melting hand,” she says. “The actor could still move her hand inside the glove, but it looked really gross, especially when we covered it with blood.” In fact, certain scenes in the play called for so much blood that signs had to be placed on the front-row seats: “This is a splash zone. All the blood washes out.”

"Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses" Photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

“Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses” Photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

For a 2014 production of Egan Reich’s “Breach” at the Dog & Pony Theatre Co., Williamson was called in last-minute to design whale intestines. “The challenge was to create a prop that could be used repeatedly, that you didn’t have to replace every night,” she says. The set was more symbolic than realistic, so Williamson ultimately used a coil of rope and nylons stuffed with spongy material for the whale’s entrails.

Being an actor, producer and director helps Williamson understand the needs of each production from multiple angles. “Creating gore is a collaborative process, and that’s one thing I really love about it,” Williamson states. “You have to hear what the director wants; you have to make sure the actors are comfortable handling the effect and can execute it properly.” The creative elements also keep things interesting. “There actually aren’t many rules,” Williamson says. “Some of the best stuff I’ve made has come from just messing around, trying stuff out. You never know what you’ll end up with!”

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