Stage Effects | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Stage Effects 

Heads are rolling at the Goodman Theatre. Geoff Binns-Calvey is responsible.

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When we visited Geoff Binns-Calvey in his backstage workshop last week, the first thing we noticed was a big stack of dollar bills on the table. Closer inspection revealed Bob Falls's picture in place of George Washington's, and "Play Money" stamped across the top. "I xeroxed real money," said Binns-Calvey. "then spray painted it from about four feet away to get this fine speckled effect. It's not even green paint, but from a distance it reads green."

As Goodman Theatre's prop master, Binns-Calvey is an expert at creating illusions. We'd just seen a character suffer a gunshot wound during rehearsals for Landscape of the Body, and were curious how Binns-Calvey achieved this and other gruesome effects called for in the script.

Thirtyish, bespectacled, and bearded, Binns-Calvey cheerfully explained the device he was tinkering with: "This is a blood pump. The syringe unit would be taped to the actor's chest or back (depending on how hairy he is) under the shirt. Fill up this synrige about halfway with stage blood. The vinyl tubing here would go underneath the costume [from the syringe] to the area where you want the blood to appear." Binns-Calvey pointed to an almost invisible length of fishing line, and explained that the actor holds on to a ring at one end; at the other is a nail, which props up the plunger on the syringe. As soon as the nail is removed, a rubber band affixed to the plunger snaps, forcing the blood out. "So when you get the gunshot, you do this"--Binns-Calvey cried out and jerked his hand to the side--"and that pulls the nail out of the syringe, and the rubber band snaps and squeezes the blood out, oozing a giant patch on the actor's shirt."

To keep the "blood" from dripping on the costume prematurely, Binns-Calvey blocks the end of the vinyl tubing with Vaseline. "It acts as a plug. But when the nail is pulled out and the rubber band is released, the pressure is enough to push the Vaseline out, and the blood starts to flow."

As for the stage blood itself, Binns-Calvey said, "You can use ordinary food coloring dye and get a beautiful red, but it's almost impossible to wash out. I like to make my own blood from baby shampoo, peanut butter, and red dye. The red dye clings to the peanut butter particles and gives it some opacity, so it looks pretty horrible--and it washes out very well."

Tracey Priola, a stagehand, walked into the workshop, poured some premixed "Reel Blood" (a commercial fake blood used for more ordinary effects) from a gallon plastic jug into a paper cup, and began dipping a small sponge into it. "Tracey's putting together a blood sponge for the big death scene coming up," Binns-Calvey explained: "It's going to be tucked under a piece of scenery with duct tape. He'll drag his [wounded] hand on it and then do a real Sam Peckinpah smear on the wall."

We asked Binns-Calvey about the Styrofoam and plaster heads scattered about the room. "That's Anthony," Binns-Calvey replied, at what appeared to be a severed head lying on the work bench. "Anthony Rapp, the actor who plays Bert. There's a scene where Bert gets his head cut off, and later that thing comes bouncing out of a duffel bag. I drove about five pounds of 16-penny nails into the back of the head, so it would come up every time like a Bozo the Clown punching thing. You dont want it to roll out, face down, to the audience." Picking up the head cast to show the nape of the neck studded with nails, Binns-Calvey said, "Here, drop it on the floor--it makes a great noise." We let go of the head, and it did create a sickening thud on impact. "Euuuh . . . and then it comes up face first," Binns-Calvey effused. "It"s horrible. I watched it from the second row yesterday. It's great."

"I made one of my wife," he continued as he proudly held up another specimen, complete with wig and lipstick. "This is the first one I made. It's a practice piece. My wife goes through a lot."

Although Binns-Calvey couldn't remember exactly where he first learned head-casting technique, he's done about 30 and has it down to a science: "First, you grease down their face with Vaseline, so the plaster won't stick to the skin. With muslin and duct tape, you make a bald cap to protect the hair. You use ordinary fast-food straws to fit up their nose so they can breathe. Now, if you use this," he added, pointing to a can of seaweed-derived compound, "it thickens quicker and you don't tear out so much eyebrow." He chuckled, "You always lose a few eyebrows with plaster.

"So you put the plaster on the person's face. He has to keep eyes and mouth closed while he's under, but that's a pretty primeval instinct anyway. After 10 or 15 minutes, the plaster hardens. Then we say, 'Sit forward and grimace,' and you sort of blow your mouth out like so"--Binns-Calvey puffed out his cheeks and exhaled, making a "pffft" sound.

Picking up a heavy object the size, shape, and color of a hornet's nest, Binns-Calvey said, "This is the mold we used for Anthony's head. You paint it [inside] with several layers of latex, a milk-shakey, flesh-colored substance, and let that dry. If you pulled it out at that point, you'd have a soft, living Playtex glove of a face. So you need to pour in isocyanate foam to bulk it out, and after that has cured for a couple of days, you pull the whole thing out. It makes a terrible tearing noise, but because the latex is so tough and resilient, the cast comes out in one piece."

Rummaging around a corner of his workbench, Binns-Calvey found a volume of Gray's Anatomy, which he uses to ensure the accuracy of the fake trachea and other organs dangling from the bottom of the head. "I just take a look at this book to fill in the details."

We left Binns-Calvey to watch some more of the rehearsal. When we ran into him backstage later, he was dragging a hefty duffel bag toward his workshop. "The problem," he said, "is that the head hasn't been rolling out quite as well as it should. The latex is catching on the rough canvas inside. So I'm going to line the bag with some slick satin material, and hopefully that will make it pop right out."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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