As a director and producer, I'm not typically easily rattled.
Jobsite Theater tends to pick material that we're confident we can do well and that will still push us, our artists and our audience just enough to make it all worthwhile. As a director I really only go for work that speaks to me on some internal level. It doesn't have to be all deep and shit, or something that has to change the world, but I certainly have my sensibilities and predilections. As a producer I'm a bit more conservative.
Every so often, though, a play comes along that everyone can see from a mile away will be a sick challenge, but one that would pay such dividends if it was pulled off well. As a working collective, sometimes the intense discussion will in the end push us away from such work, or at a minimum hold us off for a year or so until we're perhaps better prepared to handle it.
Right now we are very literally knee-deep in one of those shows that sparked a lot of debate within the company - The Lieutenant of Inishmore. It thrills me endlessly and makes me wanna poop my pants a little all at the same time.
In brief, the story is about an Irish freedom fighter (one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, sure) desperate to liberate the north who is too intense for even the IRA, and the rampage he goes on when he gets news that his beloved cat of 15 years has been killed on his home of Inishmore, a small island off the west coast of Ireland. Add in his poitin-swilling father, a long-haired goob of a kid who ride's his mom's pink bike around, that kid's tomboy of a sister renowned for blinding cows with a bb gun from 60 yards and a trio of Northern Irish gangsters, and it's a recipe for a big payoff.
We've never even attempted anything so complicated. Or expensive. This is one that will see us going big or going home. There is pretty much zero margin for error.
To be honest it's as exhilarating as it is frightening. I'm not sure what that says about me. It's got me feeling like I'm once again flying by the seat of my pants while doing a lot of praying/crossing fingers, which is how Jobsite started anyway, so perhaps there's some comfort there. Or maybe I'm an adrenaline junkie. Or a masochist. Just plain stupid?
The space we perform in, TBPAC's Shimberg Playhouse, is not that large. There's hardly any backstage space (anywhere from 1.5 to 8 feet, depending on where you are). The dressing room really only wants to have four or five people in it. It's not the most technically capable space on the planet. Warts and all, though it's ours, and we love it. We find ways to work around what we can't do, and capitalize on what we can.
It still makes for interesting challenges, so we really look at what a show requires technically when we look at plays. The Lieutenant of Inishmore doesn't require a crazy-big set or anything, but what it does require is making all of our lives very interesting right now, and they were things we knew we had to do when we got into it:
- We're using six stage firearms in the show. Even the smallest blank load they make is really loud in that room. One character only ever fires both of his guns at the same time, making it twice as loud. At the end of the first act there are 25 rounds expelled in less than a minute and a half. I'll hear that for the first time tonight. If anyone is friends with actress Kari Goetz on Facebook and doesn't mind a pretty big spoiler, check out the video she posted today of the test fire she did last night for the first time.
- I'm not trying to give things away (though this is a show I don't think knowing what's coming really matters, because you can't help but not react to things this disturbing, and marvel at exactly how it works), but when that many guns are firing, things are bound to be actually shot unless of course you're a storm trooper on the Death Star. Each time a bullet connects to something living, we have an effect rig for that. These special effects rigs jettison high-pressured corn-syrup-and-dye blood at a ridiculous rate of PSI out of hidden spots on the actors, that the actor controls with a hand-held switch. We have five such rigs that will be hidden on actors and in the set. These get tested on Saturday.
- Once someone is shot up - what do you do with the body? We have three corpses that will appear on stage at one point that the actors are trying to get rid of to grisly comic effect.
- The play is sort of about a cat and all, so it would make sense a cat is in the show somewhere, right? Actually, three cats are in the show. One of the cats has two different prop bodies. Two of the cats are what we'd really classify as a special effect, and involve more of that blood mixture and some other fun stuff I won't mention in fear of giving too much away. Don't worry no real cats will be harmed in the creation of this show.
- The blood rigs were designed by FX guru Steve Tolin. Steve's rigs have been seen in multiple productions of this play, and from my research he's essentially the second-most-used FX artist for this show behind Waldo Warshaw, the original FX artist for the show in NY (who we frankly just couldn't afford, he's non-negotiable and likely rightfully so looking at his resume). The cat props as well as a few other odds and ends for the show are being rented from Annette Westerby at Denver's Curious Theatre. Here's a video of Curious testing one of Steve Tolin's effects, and that would be Annette doing the narration
- We've mounted a chain winch to one area of the set, where a shirtless and shoeless actor is strung up by the ankles and pulled up into the air for a torture scene. This actor is spending time getting used to being hung upside down so he can, you know, act and all that at the same time. Blood rushing to your head does some funny things while you're trying to remember your lines and stay connected with your scene partner. Here's a photo of the first time we strung him up:
- Add to all this other random small blood effects, like say giving an actor an effect to make him look like his toenails are missing or that he's been shot in the face with a bb gun, and we're planning on going through roughly four gallons of blood on that set every night. It's not all the same kind of blood, either. There's a mixture of blood for the blood mortar rigs, a mixture to look more brainy/chunky, a mixture for mere flesh wounds it's like Dr. Death's 32 Flavors backstage.
- All of this is going to require about an hour and a half of setup every night before the audience arrives. Things have to be mixed and loaded and pressurized and double-checked to ensure they're just right. This will also be the first show that we intentionally take a 20-minute intermission on, so that we can set the stage for the second act. There's that much to do.
- The show itself is just at an hour and 40 minutes with intermission. It will also require about an hour and a half AFTER the show nightly, just to clean up all that blood and gore. Twice as much setup and cleanup as there is show.
- To ensure the set isn't ruined by all that sugar and food coloring, we're essentially waterproofing everything within an inch of its life. The entirety of the set will be covered with six layers of polyurethane. Things like curtains will need to be laundered nightly. We've also built the stage on a 3 degree rake (meaning it tilts forward just a bit) and we've installed a gutter on the front of the set to catch all of the running gore and rolling shell casings, which will need to be cleaned out nightly.
- The costumes are being bought in bulk. Frankly it might just be simpler and more cost-effective to chuck white t-shirts and jeans in the trash every night than it would be to try to get all of that off of everyone's clothes nightly.
I've never made my designers work so hard. I've never pushed everyone associated with a show so fiercely. Go big or go home. It's been my mantra for these past however-many weeks.
I'm telling everyone that this show is a student of the Sonny Chiba Garden-Hose School of Special Effects. It's certainly more Tarantino than Tennessee Williams. More Peckinpah than Pinter.
When we pull all this shit off, though, it's going to be genius.
Even though I've said all that about the technical complexities of the show, it's more than that it's really an engaging story. It's about people, not the effects. And, if you can believe it, this whole play is very, very funny. Pitch-black funny, but funny nonetheless. The play couldn't exist, though, as it is without the effects. They're critical to it.
So this is as Hollywood, as indie-gore film as we've ever gotten, and maybe as we'll ever get. For a world that embraces films like In Bruges (which McDonagh also wrote), Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi I have to believe that they would equally embrace a night in the theater that provided a similar yet wholly more immediate experience. I still jump every time one of those guns is fired. You can't help not to. It's why you can't replace the experience that live theater provides.
I think we're going to try to videotape some of these effects tests this weekend. We're excited. Maybe I'll share. I'm trying to walk the line in making sure people know why this is so unique and something people (even those who may not normally be into plays) should come see and at the same time save enough surprises for those who pony up to buy a ticket. It's hard, and oddly enough for maybe the first time I'm not so concerned about those spoilers killing sales. Maybe it might actually make more folks show up. I'm still pushing to get a news camera out to a rehearsal they always say if it bleeds it leads, right?