Tips on Pretending to Die on Stage for a Play or Skit
In many plays, both tragedies and comedies, there are characters who die. Actors often dream of playing the classic roles, such as Shakespeare’s Mercutio, Hamlet, or his mother, Gertrude. Often these sought after roles are for characters who die spectacular deaths. Although they are sought after, these roles are not easy. Some of the hardest moments an actor has on stage occur when the actor has to pretend to die. A death scene, often the climactic moment of the play, can make or break a performance. Following are my tips and anecdotes about pretending to die on stage for a play or skit.
Stages of Death
When a company is creating a scene on stage, the actors and director should consider the images that a scene creates. For a death scene, there are important moments before, during, and after the actual “death.” Consider what each moment should look like, as if it is going to be captured in a still photograph, and create those moments on stage.
The Lead Up to Death
As I stated earlier, a character’s death is often a climactic moment in a play. Being a climax, there must be action that leads to the death. Often the conflict that causes the character’s death has been active throughout the play. That conflict should build as each scene leads up to the death scene. The moments just before the character’s death should be emotionally charged. These moments can be played in many ways, and the mode of the imminent death should be considered. Is the character about to be shot or stabbed? Is the death natural? Is the character poisoned?
Before a character dies, especially if the character is shot or stabbed, there is often a fight on stage. The fight scene should be choreographed to ensure the safety of the actors, but also to inject the emotions that will lead up to the death. Actors should answer the following questions for their characters.
- In the fight, are you agressive or defensive?
- Are you out for blood or do you just want to survive the scuffle?
- Are you fighting with a stranger or someone close to you?
- Is it a fight between two characters or several?
- What are you fighting for? Love? Revenge?
Actors should make a list of adjectives about how their character feels about the murderer. It is important to show that range of emotions in the scene leading to a character’s death.
An Example of Death
For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Queen Gertrude dies after she drinks poisoned wine, which was meant for her son. In the scene leading up to her moment of death, she starts out in a jovial mood. She is a proud mother watching her son show his sword fighting skills. She drinks to his health, even though the King protests. Moments later, she begins to feel ill. It dawns on her that there was something in the wine. The actor must show that realization and the progression of emotions that follow. She feels shocked and surprised as she realizes that her husband poisoned her son’s drink. She feels out of control as she realizes that she can’t undo what is already done. She feels horror and anguish, as she wonders what will happen to her son. She feels helpless. She is likely in horrific physical pain.
The Moment of Death
If the character commits suicide, then the actor must show the audience the depth of the despair that has brought the character to that place.However, I think it is safe to say that most dying characters don’t want to die.As an actor, rather than showing the audience death, you may want to consider showing the audience the character’s attempt to hold onto life.
- Does the character reach out for help? If so, to whom?To a loved one who is witnessing the death?To his murderer?To one person or a crowd?
- Does the character resign himself to death or fight against it?
- Is the death quick or slow and agonizing?
- How much physical pain is the character experiencing?From where in the body does that pain come?
In the moment of death, an actor generally has lines to say.Making decisions about how to say those lines is important.The actor needs to know to whom the lines are directed, as a line directed to his enemy and murderer will come out differently than lines directed to his lover who is attempting to hold him back from death.
Often, people will advise actors not to play a death “over the top.”However, I believe that decision depends on the death.Nothing is worse than the emotional climax of the show falling flat on its face.Death can be messy and loud.If the show is a comedy, a death scene can be slightly fake and over the top.In a serious tragedy, the moment of death should feel real, emotional and heart-wrenching.An actor can be “over the top” if the moment and emotions are true.
The Moment After
The moments just after the character dies are possibly the most important. The characters who are still “living” on stage need to react appropriately. However, the audience also needs the chance to react. With any death scene, the company wants to leave a moment or two for the audience to hold their breath and take in the loss.
The actor who is dead needs to stay dead. In staging a play, the company needs to suspend belief. They need to believe that the character is actually dead. Therefore, the actor should breath shallowly. Choreograph the death so that the actor is face down or has his back to the audience, so that he can hide his breathing. Have other characters remove the body, even if the body is removed during a scene change when the lights are dimmed. Even in a “blackout,” the audience can see the shadow of the dead guy getting up and walking off stage. Don’t do that, as it ruins the moment.
Mask the Death
Sometimes, the best death scenes are not directly seen by the audience. A death scene can be played off stage, masked (or blocked) onstage, or not seen altogether. I have used this technique in staging Into the Woods and The Crucible.
Staging Death in 'Into the Woods'
In Into the Woods, the giant kills both the narrator and Rapunzel. To create these deaths onstage would be difficult, as it is hard to create a giant on a high school theater budget. Instead, we staged these deaths out of sight of the audience. To do that, we “placed” the giant off stage left. When the characters were speaking to the giant, they faced down stage left. In the scene, the characters sacrifice the narrator to appease the giant, and Rapunzel, who has gone mad, runs toward the giant to her death. We staged both deaths off stage. The two characters are dropped to their death by the giant. To create the illusion of both deaths, I placed five actors backstage. For the narrator’s death, the characters on stage watched as the narrator was flung off stage left. They moved their heads to look up in unison, showing the giant picking up the narrator. Then, as he was dropped, they quickly moved their heads to watch and mimic his fall. To complete the illusion, the five actors backstage jumped in unison. As their feet hit the wooden stage, they clapped their hands once. The sound created by that back stage action created the sound of a body hitting the floor. We repeated the creation of that sound and movement for Rapunzel’s death. With Rapunzel, however, we had her partially fall back onto the stage. It took a full company coordinated effort to create both deaths, and the story of the deaths was told mostly through the reaction of the actors on stage.
Pretending to Die On Stage
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Interpreting Death in 'The Crucible'
For The Crucible, we created the illusion of the hangings at the end of the play. Although they would have likely been all for it, I couldn’t even consider putting nooses, even fake ones, around the necks of high school students. To create the hangings of John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey, we used lighting to create an illusion and represent the hangings. We hung three fake nooses from a fly rail and lowered them in for the scene. The characters were marched on stage and placed on top of three tall boxes underneath the nooses. The other actors in the company gathered in front of them with their backs to the audience. They represented the gathering crowd. As the moment of hanging approached, the lights faded to blackout, as if we were ending our play there. We played a sound cue of bodies being hanged. At the same time, the three “dead” actors jumped from their boxes and hid behind them. We removed the nooses by flying them out. As the lights came up again, the crowd actors had moved from a cheering stance to a mournful, pious stance. We brought up blue lights at the back of the stage, leaving the crowd in shadow with their backs still turned to the audience. As the emotional music played and got increasingly louder, the frozen crowd actors moved into two more tableaus, or frozen scenes. Then, we faded the lights back to blackout. It was a moving, emotional way to represent death.
To pretend to die on stage takes more than fake blood and loud, heart-wrenching screams. Actors, and whole companies, need to prepare for the death scene by making many decisions before the moment of death. Actors need to understand the events of the conflict that lead to the death. A “dying” actor needs to decide what emotions and reactions he or she wants to relay. The actor pretending to die needs to find the truth of the moment. The scene needs to be choreographed, rehearsed and polished. A grand, emotional, and sometimes beautiful, death scene that leaves the whole theater in awed silence is the ultimate goal.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt.
© 2013 Donna Hilbrandt