Watered-down oatmeal and a little orange food coloring makes the best fake vomit. This was one of the first lessons I ever learned as a Properties Artisan for the Hartford Stage Company production of Antony and Cleopatra. It was the first show I’d ever built; I was a fresh-faced graduate from the University of Virginia, at the very beginning of what would become my ongoing career building theatrical properties. Two years later, I settled back in my hometown of Stuarts Draft, VA, and began working as Properties Master for the ASC. But I had a lot to learn between then and now.
A lot of my work is carpentry and painting – its what I have the most experience in, and typically what I do best. But when I’m not listening to “Paint It Black” like it was my mantra (take a good hard look at the Blackfriars Playhouse’s stock furniture to see what I mean), I spend a good deal of my time coming up with solutions for questions like ‘Can we have Caesar vomit into a bucket onstage?‘ and ‘What sort of snake will we be using for Cleopatra’s death scene?‘
The first question began as a simple ‘yes’, with a simple solution – the actor would in some discrete fashion take a swig of vomit solution (the aforementioned oatmeal and food coloring concoction) that he would then spit out into the bucket. Easy in, easy out. But they didn’t like it. Not that I can blame them; I think that holding cold, watery oatmeal in my mouth would be just enough to have me vomiting for real. But the concern was more quantity not quality, and so we had to design a system to deliver more upchuck for their buck.
So, we tooled around a bit. Our first attempt involved a hot water bottle and a long plastic tube that would run up the actors arm. But the oatmeal was too thick and we couldn’t get enough pressure behind it to move it through the tube. We tried another involving popping a plastic bag, but it was too unruly. Finally, we settled on strapping a paint tube full of ‘vomix’ to the actor’s wrist. Lean over, bring your hand to your mouth, and squeeze down on the tube – and you could projectile vomit over three feet. I tested the product a bunch of times, and had gotten throwing up on target to an art form. We were ready to put it into the actors hands…
…And on his first attempt, he squeezed the tube and the contents went upwards – towards his face, rather than away – and coated him in cold, sticky, orange oatmeal. To the guy’s credit, he remained shockingly levelheaded about it. We got him a towel, helped him clean up, and then went back to the drawing board. Of course, in the end, Occam’s Razor proved itself true, and the guy sucked down and spat out cold oatmeal every performance.
The snake, though, proved to be anything but simple. We began with negotiations with a bona fide snake charmer, who offered to bring in some of his trained snakes for us to consider using in the production. The man was an absolute professional, and his snakes were indeed ‘charming’, but when the Director revealed the intention to throw the snake across the stage, negotiations quickly fell apart. We couldn’t use the real deal, so it was time to delve into the fine world of simulated serpents.
It became my major mission, finding every fake snake I could get my hands on. Rubber, wooden, plastic, even a few paper snakes – some were too big, others too small. Movement became the major qualifying quality – if it couldn’t move, it was useless. If it had some kind of ‘memory’ – that is, a tendency to coil, or unwind – that too was undesirable. We found at least one that had good size and movement, but looked like a long brown turd with glowing red eyes and smelled even worse.
What would become our final solution began as a joke – during a trip to a toy store (looking for more fake snakes) – I commented on the presence of some three-feet gummi snakes. It was a sugary monstrosity that did not look particularly appetizing (and wasn’t), but it had the right size and build to it. So we went ahead and bought one. Once out of its packaging, we found that it also moved well; and with just a little paint and polyurethane, we sent it onstage.
The same show would go on to feature requests such as ‘We need a fishing pole. It will be used as a phallus‘ and not one, but two incidents of legitimate stabbings onstage during fight call. It was quite the introduction to what has become my career, and taught me that there is a tool more powerful than any brush, drill, hammer or paint.
The most important tool I have as a Properties Master is an active imagination; the ability – the passion – to answer such requests as ‘We need a Captain’s Chair for Return to the Forbidden Planet’ or even ‘Can we have a giant tentacle hanging from the heavens?‘
Yes. Yes we can.
– Chris Moneymaker, ASC Properties Master