Help me tar and feather someone on stage!
September 3, 2008 2:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm directing a play that calls for an actor to be tarred and feathered on stage. It's a powerful moment, and I'd love to do it. But ... how?

Complicating factors:
- the theater we're working in has no on-premesis shower (there is a large mess sink, but no floor drain) and no possibility of altering the building to have one

Things in our favor:
- the actor is game, and largely bald, and willing to be stripped to skivvies
- we have a large metal tub (several, actually) in which to contain the tarring and/or clean-up
- we have a fair budget, so costly-ish solutions need not be ruled out
- this is the climax of the play, and we can make a feathery mess without worrying about later scenes

Any and all ideas welcomed with open arms. Thanks!
posted by minervous to Grab Bag (33 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Molasses or other sugar-based "tars" will work okay, be sticky, look about right, not be noxious, and be very simple to clean up. If your theater doesn't have a shower, does it perhaps have a hose or something that you could use to run water over the actor while people help him clean off? Is it possible for the actor to wear some sort of skin-suit that could be peeled off and washed to facilitate easier clean up? I see this as happening wiht the actor standing on or in one tub and the other can be used for clean up. Rinse actor afterwards until tub is mostly full. Put actor in other tub while you empty tub #1, rinse, repeat.
posted by jessamyn at 2:45 PM on September 3, 2008

Just shooting from the hip, but maybe my little brain-fart can lead you (or someone else) in the right direction:

I'm pretty sure there is some kind of substance used for making masks and related items, which you can spread on someone's skin, but when it dries, it pretty much just peels off. The newer kinds of this product dry pretty quickly. Maybe I even saw it used on Mythbusters. (Paging asavage...) Anyway, perhaps that can be dyed black and look enough like tar to work.

Good luck.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 2:46 PM on September 3, 2008

Mix black and brown liquid latex together. Pour over actor. Pour feathers over actor.

Liquid latex can be peeled off actor after about half an hour.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:51 PM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hmm, piggy backing of Fuzzy Skinner, black liquid latex? It would peel off fairly easily (however, he'd probably want to shave all his body hair because apparently, it can be quite uncomfortable to have hair removed along with the latex). My first thought was molasses, but washing that would be a serious pain. Whether or not it's a bigger pain than shaving off all your body hair would be up for debate I guess.
posted by mostlymartha at 2:51 PM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fuzzy Skinner may be thinking of liquid latex -- here's a video segment about it from Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Pros: it comes in black, it's shiny like tar, and once it dries, it peels right off. Cons: it looks much thinner than tar, and it might be pretty pricey in the amounts you'll need it. It looks like it's probably worth a test.
posted by ourobouros at 2:58 PM on September 3, 2008

Could you just sew a bunch of feathers to a black cloth, put that in a bucket or bag or something, and then dump that onto the actor? If you needed a separate tarring and feathering, you could do the black cloth, then some kind of loose netting with feathers attached to it. If you get the cut and texture of the cloth right, it might look convincing.

It might also look kind of hokey, but you'd be able to use the same materials for every show instead of having to have a new batch of latex/whatever and feathers for every performance, and there'd be no cleanup for the actor.
posted by LionIndex at 3:06 PM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by blue_beetle at 3:07 PM on September 3, 2008

I've done special effects makeup with latex. It'll be expensive, and it also sets pretty fast, so you can't mix it far in advance at all. And definitely try it on a small part of him first. I am a girl with light body hair, but when I had to pull an arm piece off myself, I was a completely unhappy camper anyway. How long is your run? If the latex is affordable and it looks like the best solution, he may just want to shave absolutely everything.
posted by booksandlibretti at 3:10 PM on September 3, 2008

I vote for something molasses but less gooey than molasses (thoughts?) and a big tub of hot water and hand towels. Srlsly. I'm thinking of when my massage therapist puts mud on my entire back -- she doesn't shove me in the shower, she uses hot wet towels to remove the mud.
posted by desuetude at 3:23 PM on September 3, 2008

How about chocolate syrup? Hershey's comes in huge bulk cans and it won't be a viscous as molasses.
posted by indyz at 3:24 PM on September 3, 2008

riffing on the mythbusters ideas, how about that crazy water-and-cornstarch mix they used for the ninja walk-on-water episode? dye it black instead of blue, and you have something gooey, nonsticky, nontoxic, and fairly inexpensive.

video here:
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:24 PM on September 3, 2008

You don't *really* want to make a big mess like that do you?

Why not just glue a bunch of feathers onto a black leotard and tights. Then when the moment comes, your cast can surround him, making a lot of noise and fuss while he slips into the costume.
posted by jasper411 at 3:49 PM on September 3, 2008

How about black interior latex paint? It wouldn't be as gooey as tar, but it'll wash off easily. Or how about corn syrup with black food coloring and/or powdered charcoal added to it? That would be similar in texture to molasses but much easier to clean up.
posted by TungstenChef at 3:52 PM on September 3, 2008

How close is the audience to the actor, and how long will he be on stage? I ask because large amounts of molasses and chocolate syrup will have a powerful smell.

It will be a good smell, mind you. But it will break the fourth wall ("Sniff, sniff ... oh, it's chocolate!").

I think you just need to experiment with various green slime recipes and use black food coloring.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:53 PM on September 3, 2008

Don't use liquid latex - it's not the stuff Fuzzy Skinner is talking about (which is a good idea - but it's alginate). Liquid latex, which will stink out the entire theatre, sticks to everything, will not peel out of fabrics, will cause pain for the actor and will take hours to get off.

Alginate doesn't stick to much, which would make it quick and easy to clean up, but it might be too slippery - it might not gum feathers to a person very well. Try some - if it works, it would be ideal... other than cost, it can be pricey.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:14 PM on September 3, 2008

Why not just glue a bunch of feathers onto a black leotard and tights. Then when the moment comes, your cast can surround him, making a lot of noise and fuss while he slips into the costume.

Just like how the Peanuts gang decorated their Christmas tree! :)

This thread makes me want to try and fake-tar somebody. Lots of good ideas here, and of course lighting effects can help mask any flaws in consistency or color.

And, yes, it must be liquid latex I was thinking of.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 4:17 PM on September 3, 2008

Did you see the tarring and feathering scene in the John Adams miniseries a few months ago? It was in maybe the first or second episode, and they didn't so much douse the guy in tar as daub it on him using a sort of... paddle? stick? Anyway, the actor's "shrieking in agony" skills were sufficient that the scene was still compelling even though the mob never held the kettle over his head to cover him completely in tar. I still cringe just thinking about it. Worth taking a look at if you can find it (a quick search on youtube turned up nothing for me). That sort of strategy might allow you to use something on the messier side, like molasses some slime concoction, without the actor feeling like he has to go soak in a tub immediately after.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:22 PM on September 3, 2008

Can you do it more symbolically? E.g., use a stick (it was like a big Q-tip) to wrap him 'round with sticky (on the outside) black tape -- like a mummy, but with his legs obscured and unwrapped if you wish -- while he writhes and moans? Then dump feathers on him, or wrap a second time?

I think you and the actor will be pretty unhappy if you have to cover him with a tar-like solution nightly.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:41 PM on September 3, 2008

Perhaps make the tar-and-feather equivalent of fake dog turds and fake vomit puddles, so the tar looks glossy and goo-like under the feathers, but is really a rubbery solid, with an adhesive underside using something like sheets from those lint-rollers that are "40% stickier!" than the regular ones, so if pressed onto the actor, it will stay in place, but can be removed without much pain.

Apply these tar-and-feather (TAF) fake-patches to the actor via a bucket of paddles (meg murry's description) thus the audience never gets to see that the patches are rubber - each paddle painted to look like it's just been pulled out of tar and prepared each night with a TAF patch on one side (adhesive side out) ready to be pressed on to the actor. After one use the paddle won't leave any more TAF patches, but with enough paddles in the bucket, no-one will realize. Or simply have the actors drop each used paddle and grab fresh ones from the bucket as if too hurried to double-dip.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:48 PM on September 3, 2008

Here I is.

I just reviewed this wiki
and note, like stated above, that victims were as often painted with the tar as doused with it.
Latex is problematic, because of body hair. I've been painted head to toe with the stuff, and missed a 4" square patch on my inner thigh and it sucked and hurt like few things I've endured.

Paint is problematic because of staining, and potential difficulty with getting it off again every night. That kind of scrubbing can get old.

Molasses was my first thought too, but shit, that stuff is sticky, and working with sugar like that will make the entire place like a glazed donut in no time. No good.

When I start to think like a director, I imagine that it's not necessary to show the entire process from start to finish as a long piece is it? Can it be done as more of a quick hit?
I think to myself that paintballs are filled with pretty innocuous stuff. That's glycerin, some kind of oil, and pigment. Get some glycerin, some thickener, maybe guar gum powder (does that work with glycerin? I don't know offhand) maybe cornstarch, maybe flour or fuller's earth. All of this experimentation is pretty inexpensive. And not all powders are going to have the same effect on the glycerin-- try anything, knowing that the color (black or dark brown) is the easiest part, just some straight pigment from the paint store.

See, the nice thing about this effect is that the feathers will stick to anything roughly wet, that has enough body to stay on the 'victim'. So what you're looking for isn't necessarily a perfect 'tar', but a dark pigment floating in a medium that's easy to wash off. Glycerin just means a shower after that scene (a messy shower to be sure, but much less scrubbing than paint or latex)

New Idea:
You start to paint him with something that looks perfectly like tar ( a small dab of paint from a smoking pot-- easy effect) and the actor screams but then immediately gets surrounded by the crowd. He disappears into the middle of the angry throng. They continue to mime the tarring.

Something that the audience perceives as steaming landing on the actors recently bared chest onstage, coupled with the actor's scream, will be very arresting. I've done some props for Grand Guignol plays and that kind of thing works beautifully.

We hear screams, we see a bucket of feathers get raised by someone and dumped into the middle, and then the victim bolts from the crowd covered head to toe. But the covering is a velcro'd bodysuit that he changes into in the midst of the crowd... A problem for the costumer but the feathers will hide a lot of crimes where quick closure is necessary.

Good luck!
posted by asavage at 5:16 PM on September 3, 2008 [6 favorites]

does he have to be right on stage the whole time? could some of it happen in the wings? ie, the audience could hear him scream, and whatever other sound effects you want to throw in, and then he stumbles out on stage covered in, well, tar and feathers? does that make sense?
posted by janepanic at 5:25 PM on September 3, 2008

Yeah, I am thinking you do not want to actually do something sticky here. You have all kinds of things to consider, like whether your costumer will kill you when everything in sight is covered in molasses. :)

I think asavage and others who are talking about giving the initial "looksee" and then surrounding the actor while he pulls on a suit of tarry feathery goodness is the ticket. The audience is going to forgive you quite a lot - and if the crowd and the initial screaming business are arresting enough, they won't notice if the "tar" is a bit baggy 'round the bottom.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:34 PM on September 3, 2008

Response by poster: You people are goddamn geniuses.

I'm going to give several of these ideas a try. It's a small theater, and we're staging in the round (...I know, it's like the Five Obstructions over here - I fully expect the playwright to call me up tomorrow to tell me that he thinks the chorus girls should only use sign language), so that's going to dictate some of my choices, but I have hope! I have hope where yesterday there was only cranky defeatism.

Thanks, one and all. Keep the ideas coming if you've got them.
posted by minervous at 8:02 PM on September 3, 2008

Oh, sympathies for having to pull this off in the round. Well, it'll make you...erm...stronger, and give you some good stories. I like the darkened glycerin idea with a maximum of chaos to distract from the details.
posted by desuetude at 8:42 PM on September 3, 2008

Spoilers for Carnivàle ahead

On a semi-related note, there's a really intense tarring and feathering scene in the second season of Carnivàle, episode #9.
posted by Nelsormensch at 10:10 PM on September 3, 2008

Small theatre plus willing actor probably means that you should 'go for it', rather than try and mask it... and in the round, too... because you wouldn't want to risk your climax looking goofy. You want the audience engaged and horrified, right?

What about white glue or paste mixed with a small amount of dish soap? Dish soap is often used in fake blood to make it easier to clean up. Make it black with powdered paint.

What are you going to do about the stage? Just mop every night? Is the set painted in dark colours?
I knew a show here with a white set (a condo) where characters were shot and bled to death for two hours and it cleaned up fine every night.
Good Luck!
posted by Toto_tot at 10:33 PM on September 3, 2008

As an alternate to 'putting on' a tar suit, maybe a black bodysuit or unitard with feathers underneath a bulkier costume that's velcroed in place, which is then ripped off while the crowd surrounds the 'victim' - incorporate the clothes being ripped off (use color-matched velcro or other fasteners) by having the 'rippped' clothing waved around by the crowd, tossed out onto the stage, what have you.
posted by pupdog at 4:13 AM on September 4, 2008

And after posting, another thought: It wouldn't be that hard to make some sort of latex mask/headpiece that could be pulled over the actor's head while surrounded, if you're looking for the completely covered look.
posted by pupdog at 4:17 AM on September 4, 2008

Forget tar and feathers. How's about a nice old fashioned stoning? Other than that I'd go with a tar and feather suit and some creative lighting effects to trick the audience.
posted by Gungho at 5:11 AM on September 4, 2008

What about plain old tempera paint - the kind used in art classes for young children? It's cheap and water soluble, so washing it off later will be a lot easier than something more viscous. And I'd guess you could mix something into it to give it more of a chunky, tar-like look (maybe even good old potting soil)? It won't be as sticky as molasses, etc, but when wet the feathers should still stick to it.

Just a thought!
posted by AthenaPolias at 10:47 AM on September 4, 2008

Depending on how sweaty your fella will be prior to the daubing, how about a big ol' tub of traditional thick face cream or hair wax, mixed with black food colouring. It'll be sticky enough to hold the feathers for a short time and your actor can just wipe it off with a big towel afterwards. Won't hold up under hot stage lights for long but might be kinder to skin!
posted by freya_lamb at 12:26 PM on September 4, 2008

Stage manager coming in.

My immediate thought is to take your traditional stage blood (which -- hi, asavage -- is indeed largely glycerin-based, so far as I've encountered) and then add some kind of food coloring to darken it to "black". That can stain floors if you're not careful and don't mop up quick enough, but can wash off skin pretty easily. (The food coloring might be more staining, actually, so you may want to do some tests first.)

Or -- wait, try stage blood mixed with a couple spoons of powdered ice tea mix (I just had that brainstorm; the tea provides the color and a little texture, as I don't think powdered ice tea mix would completely dissolve in glycerin). The thing about stage blood and ice tea mix is that they both are also on the cheap side; yeah, you've got the big budget, but it's always good to save money anyway. And stage blood can come in big horkin' bottles and doesn't spoil, nor does powdered ice tea mix, so you can make a bunch ahead and just keep it in buckets.

But anyway, this would in theory be the goop you "tar" the guy with, and then "feather" him with the big bag o'feathers. Some craft stores may have feathers (your biggest problem there would be finding ones that AREN'T hot pink or lime green, though), but you can also find them by the pound at some wholesalers. I don't recommend using an old featherbed or feather pillow, as those feathers may be more of the down kind of feathers and may not "read" as well onstage. On the other hand, those would probably stick easier, so try it and see how it looks.

As to whether to use the tub for the tarring or the cleanup: what happens AFTER the guy gets tarred? Does he stand there, or run off? Run around onstage in general? If he runs immediately offstage, I'd use the big tub backstage for the cleanup, because then you can have it waiting full of water for him to fling himself into immediately to begin the cleanup. Maybe stash the tub IN the room with the slop sink with a couple buckets, so he can stand in the tub, fill the buckets at the sink and douse himself. Have lots of baby wipes and sponges (an actor in one show I worked on had a costume consisting of pants and fire-engine-red body paint from the waist up, and nothing more; he went through two boxes of Huggies wipes a week). If he stays standing there for the rest of the play, I'd stash him in the tub ONSTAGE to help with the cleanup post-show (she said, thinking protectively of YOUR own stage manager).

Speaking of the cleanup, you may want to see if you can find someone who's worked on a production of THE LIEUTENANT OF INNISHMORE, as there are all MANNER of substances strewn across the stage by the end of the show - milk and cornflakes, black paint, stage blood in a Grand Guignol scale -- and a number of the actors are well and thoroughly drenched in blood. They will have many good "how did we clean up after" tips for both actors and stage.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:55 AM on September 10, 2008

Response by poster: Hello again and thanks for all the wonderful responses.

The show is over and we ended up using tempera paint (thanks, Athena Polias!) thickened with corn starch (a lot of corn starch) and a bit of dish soap. The result of jet black, goopy stuff that cleaned up off the actor and off the floor with water a soap.

We brought the lights down on the tarring, so feathers were a non-issue.

And can I just tell you that ... well. The tar as in a metal bucket. It sat there for a few minutes before the actor doing the tarring picked up the stick - its tip wrapped in rags - and advanced towards the actor playing the victim. The stage was lit as brighly as a tv studio. The victim was bare-chested on his knees, held by soldiers. The black tar against his white skin was scary and awful and EXACTLY what I wanted as a director.

Thanks, AskMe!
posted by minervous at 10:04 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

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