The lights go down, and Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2017 production of “Dracula” begins.
Thick, almost viscous fog has rolled across the floor. Through the fog, the tip of an obelisk suddenly appears. Just as you register that it’s the sort of obelisk one might find in a graveyard, the headstones appear, and we’re looking at a familiar and creepy scene: twilight in the cemetery, still and quiet.
A scream breaks the silence, followed by a clap of thunder and the flash of lightning.
A woman runs onstage, desperate, hysterical. She’s followed by a grotesque monster. His long hair is disheveled, his face twisted into an animal sneer, his features somewhere between that of a man and a beast.
He catches the woman. She struggles, and miraculously breaks free. The monster chases her around the graveyard, a sick game of cat and mouse.
But then the woman finds a huge iron cross, and uses it to simultaneously beat him and ward him off — the unholy monster can’t stand the sight of the holy object.
Just when you think the woman might escape, the monster points, and the cross explodes. The woman turns to run and with another pointed finger…
The voice is omnipresent, like it’s coming from inside your own skull, and the woman freezes.
The monster walks over to her, and as he puts his arms around her, the lights black out, for an instant only. When they come back, Dracula stands in the monster’s place; regal, powerful and evil.
He bows his heads and delicately tears into her neck. The blood wells up, crimson and thick, and runs down her heaving chest.
That’s all in the first three minutes.
What does it take to make that happen? What’s backstage, out of sight, out of the limelight?
Last week LEO went backstage for a tour to find out, to look into the guts of the play and see the innards of the pyrotechnics, the flying rigs, the lights, the sounds and the trap doors.
And the blood. So much blood. Gallons of blood.
An hour before the show starts, every actor who fights or flies shows up to run through their steps, a crucial precaution in making sure that none of the pretend violence causes real damage.
There’s Dracula, Renfield and Van Helsing, as well as Dracula’s various wives, victims and other assorted adversaries.
Overseeing it is Stephen Horton, the show’s stage manager.
He’s really the nerve center of the entire show, calling the cues that trigger everything from the actors’ entrances to the operation of the theater’s air conditioning.
Here, he calls the fights, and gives vocal versions of those cues, leading the actors in what’s known as “fight call.”
“Half speed, mark your vocals, Mina, go! Monster go,” commands Horton.
The actors from that first scene — Andrea Abello as Mina, and Calum Bedborough as the monster — walk through their fight. They’re jovial but precise. It’s half speed, to make sure they have it in their bodies.
“OK, full speed, mark your vocals, stand by, Mina go, monster go!”
This time it’s still friendly, but now it’s fast. The violence almost looks real, but the screams aren’t performed, and the last bit of magic, the acting, isn’t all there yet.
The cast repeats this process for every fight in the show, along the way the set gets changed several times, providing an opportunity for the trap room to go through its paces… but we’ll get to that later.
In addition to fights, the monster practices a sudden, high-speed drop from above the stage.
The flying rig and apparatus comes from a Louisville company called VFX, which sets up flying for shows all over the country.
To test the fall, a weight is attached to the industrial-strength wire that the actor will hook up to in just a second. The weight drops, showing the mechanism is working fine. An electrical winch pulls the line back up. Then, they try it again with Bedborough, and down he drops, easy peasy.
When he reaches the stage, he unclips, and slips out of the complicated harness that attaches him to the fly line, and walks off. It’s pretty nonchalant for a guy who just plummeted down from the ceiling, but I guess he’s got other preparations to worry about.
Fight call finishes up, and the actors depart as Horton takes me backstage.
The Blood Wells Up
Backstage at Actors Theatre is a bit of maze. A dressing room here, a scene shop there, restrooms and a door with an angry, red sign on it that tells actors to stay out. Behind the sign is a special kitchen, reserved for props, maybe food that needs to be stored or prepared, or maybe something that needs to be kept cold. For “Dracula,” the kitchen mostly holds (fake) blood, including a delightfully macabre fridge full of blood. It holds several gallons of the stuff, which I’m told will get used up in approximately three performances.
The production uses four different kinds of blood, tailored to the specific needs of the scene. Sometimes the blood needs to spurt; sometimes it needs to stay put on a body; sometimes it needs to be washable; or sometimes it needs to be edible. Each variety has a special recipe, and Actors Theatre mixes up all the special effects blood themselves.
The show features a whole host of trick rigs: handheld blood balls, strapped on pouches and even one blood-spurting robot.
For that first scene, a bottle is attached, hidden in Abello’s dress, as Horton explained.
“It’s basically an enema bottle… I mean, that’s what it is. But it’s connected to a piece of medical tubing that runs up her back, and there’s a loop in her collar, so the tube runs out to her collar, and it’s wrapped with white tape so you don’t see it.”
So the blood is there, and then when Dracula bites her, he just squeezes the bottle in time, so it gushes out when his face is away from Mina’s neck.
A few feet away from where Abello is getting her enema bottle filled, there’s a table with a couple Tupperware beverage containers filled with all the various kinds of blood that will be needed for this performance, as well as the robot baby.
The baby is actually a simple-looking motor with a couple of levers stuck out that move. The baby isn’t ever seen; it’s inside a bag when Dracula uses it to lure his wives away from someone he’s planning to eat.
The robot is controlled with a retooled remote control, the same kind you might remember from your remote-controlled car. A stagehand can twiddle the little controls, and the little arms wiggle. Then they can push a button and the blood spurts out. That baby has a lot of blood, and he leaves it all onstage.
His face, twisted into an animal sneer
For “Dracula,” masks, makeup and wigs all get approved by one woman before they hit the stage: Wig and Makeup Supervisor Jehann Gilman.
And like every other piece of the show, this involves a varied set of solutions for some pretty novel problems.
That monster chasing Mina needs to look scary, as realistic as possible. Normally, that would mean prosthetics; a fake nose or ridged forehead, attached with some face-safe adhesive.
But that monster sees a lot of action, so a sturdier solution is needed. The makeup department created an ultralight mask. It lets the actor be expressive, but it keeps the mask on the face during his fights and flights. But it’s still easy to take on and off for quick changes.
Like this mask, much of the work from the costume department doesn’t happen the day of the show.
Wigs get put on, and makeup is applied before curtain, but it’s mostly done by the actors, who are taught how to do the work themselves. That includes all the wounds in the show, which are painted on.
And then there are the teeth.
“There’s a couple people who have to have custom-made fangs. So we do those in house. I do their mouth cast, and then sculpt the fangs out of dental acrylic. But Dracula wears store-bought fangs, and is super comfortable in them,” said Gilman.
Wigs get made in house, too. Over the years Actors has built up a large number of house-styled coifs.
“We have a wig stock,” said Gilman. But those don’t always get the job done, so new wigs get made frequently.
And unlike the blood, all that hair comes from humans. It looks better, it styles better, and when it’s time to clean them, they can use shampoo and conditioner.
Through that fog, an obelisk appears
Down under the stage, in what’s called the trap room, a lot of the moving pieces of the show are humming away, a busy flurry of movement.
For instance, that rolling fog is created by a big fog machine, and next to the fog machine is a person-sized CO2 tank. It’s used to cool down the fog, which makes it cling to the floor.
There’s also an elaborate system of hydraulic lifts. They bring the coffins, tables, graveyards and one comfy looking chaise lounge onto and off of the stage. The majority of the set moves using these trap doors.
Peter Regalbuto, who’s listed as deck carpenter but does a whole lot more, spends the show down in the trap room flipping the switches that make the trap doors, which they call sun roofs, slide out of the way, before triggering the lifts.
“You have to press and hold each button,” said Regalbuto. “I’m watching all the monitors, I have a second operator to operate all the sunroofs, and I’m in charge of making sure everything goes up and down.”
Monitors — video feeds of the stage — are used all over the production to help perfect the timing of the technical elements.
Through these monitors Regalbuto does his other job.
“I sit, and wait for things to break, which they do on a regular basis.” Reglabuto quips. Sixty nine performances can lead to a lot of wear and tear.
And the cross explodes
Nothing catches the eye and catches the audience off guard like a quick little explosion, or a sudden flash of flame.
The pyro-in-chief for “Dracula” is Jason Weber, who is also in charge of the lights. To deal with the explosives needed, he has to be licensed by the federal government.
“They want to make sure you’re not going to sell things to strange people, and that you are going to use your license for what you say you’re going to use it for,“ Weber explained. It’s the same license that you would get if you were doing demolition in a mine, or any kind of explosives work.
In addition to the federal license, the local fire department has to come watch each show once, as Weber walks them through the explosion he wants to do.
In theater, there are basically two main ways of making fire: flash paper and explosive powder.
Flash paper you can actually buy yourself; it’s a blast to play with, and you can pick some up at Caufield’s Novelty on Main Street.
“It’s very light, almost like a tissue paper material, and it burst into flames almost instantaneously,” said Weber.
That’s how they do the fireballs that Dracula throws, as well as the flaming cross.
At other times, onstage lights explode, as Dracula casts his adversaries into darkness.
“For those we use, it’s called ‘Airburst Flash Powder.’ Basically it’s a powder that has metallic material so that when it initially combusts, it ignites those metallic materials that cause a sparkle as it’s coming down.”
Both kinds of explosions are triggered by “electric matches.”
“It’s basically two electrical wires,” Weber said, “soldered to an electrical plate, with a standard match head on top. When we fire the effect, it sends electricity through those wires, and it causes a short on the metal plate. If you short two wires together, there’s a small spark.”
The spark ignites the match, the match sets the fire, be it flash paper or powder.
Other effects — like the big explosion that ends the show — use concussion powder that makes a loud noise, and a red powder that creates a red explosion.
For that final moment, Weber goes all in.
“We determined how much powder to use in that effect based on the maximum allowable amount,” he said.
But what does it take?
All of this action — every explosion, light or sound cue, appearing and disappearing headstones, the flying monsters and the remote-controlled baby spurting blood — is all being cued by Horton from a booth behind glass, high above the stage. But before he walks up two and half flights of stairs to start the show, he makes his last pre-show circuit backstage, and cues the actors.
“Places for the top of the show,” he calls politely into each of several dressing rooms, and the answer from all the actors is always the same:
“Thank you, places.”
After he heads upstairs Horton sits down and dons a head set, which connects him to key members of the backstage crew, including the sound board operator, the light board operator, Regalbuto down in the trap room and the team flying in the monster.
He’s connected to them, because each action doesn’t start until Horton gives a crew member a cue. Each cue is assigned a number and a designation like “lights,” or “sound;” cues have a “stand by,” and a “go,” as in:
“Lights, cue 100 standby… Lights, cue 100 go.”
Most shows, your basic hour-and-a-half to two-hour-long piece of theater, have around a 100 cues. “Dracula” has about 1,000.
That first scene with Mina and the monster has almost 100 all by itself. So, as soon as that scene starts, Horton is calling cues at light speed, rattling off numbers and designations, strings of “go” and “standby,” even calling cues to the house managers who are carefully controlling the air conditioners so they don’t interfere with the fog’s effects. Many onstage effects need multiple cues: lights and sound; and lights, sound and fire.
Every member of the team is working hard to create the illusions of a centuries-old blood sucker murdering a young woman.
But if it all goes right, and it did during the show I saw, the audience won’t even think about all those intricate backstage interactions.
They’ll just sit rapt, hearts in their mouths, hoping Mina can escape.
Later, they’ll hope that Lucy can be saved, or that Jonathan can get away, or that Dracula can be defeated. Things will explode, thunder will strike, there will be blood, and those scenes will have dozens of technical pieces of the puzzle moving as precisely as the steps of a ballet.
And it all happens just out of sight, a few feet away from the limelight.