Hold The Liquor: (Fake) Strong Drink in Touch Of The Poet and Old Times
The champion of dramatic binges, we all know, is Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where for nearly three hours, liquor is swilled in quantities to test the livers of the dramatis personae, and the bladders of the actors who portray them. Whether hearkening to the Dionysic origins of western theater, or simply providing a handy means of exposing emotions, the propensity of playwrights to incorporate alcohol into their scenarios have confronted property masters throughout history with the task of concocting a beverage that replicates the look, but not the kick, of the Old Barleycorn.
Textbooks once recommended cold tea as a liquor substitute—who doesn't recall amateur productions featuring decanters of foam-surfaced "scotch" or "bourbon"? Nowadays, with smaller theaters bringing audiences closer to stages, the better to spot such hitherto-unnoticed details, more sophisticated measures are required.
Loretta Rode, stage manager for Artistic Home's production of A Touch of the Poet has a relatively easy time of it. Though the script repeatedly mentions the innkeeper's generous hand when dispensing whiskey to himself and his companions, the liquid is almost exclusively seen flowing from bottle to glass. "Our whiskey is water and food coloring," reveals Rode, "mostly yellow, except for the wine they drink at supper, which has more red and blue in the mix."
The host couple and their guest enjoying an evening at home in Harold Pinter's Old Times presents a different kind of challenge, however. The minimalism of the text and decor throws every object on the stage under microscopic scrutiny. Though the characters never call attention to their after-dinner coffee and brandy, the slightest break with verisimilitude represents a potentially fatal distraction.
Prop designer Danni Parpan and stage manager Jen Poulin admit to employing decaffeinated tea in their recipe, but only as a coloring agent. "We started out with a light tea and a few drops of yellow food coloring, but that had a drying effect on actors' mouths. Now we use diluted low-sugar apple juice, with only a touch of tea that we've left in the fridge overnight to darken to the desired color."
Touch Of The Poet has a cast of ten and runs a little over two hours, Old Times, three actors and a bare ninety minutes. How much fake liquor is consumed in each performance? "It varies, based on how thirsty the actors are that night." Rode shrugs, but Parpan is more adamant, "LOTS! We went through 48 bags of tea our first weekend!"
The containers are washed out and a fresh supply made up nightly. "Our mixing pitcher is about two liters," Poulin estimates, "The brandy decanter is filled to 3/4 full and they consume almost all of it. They don't drink as much coffee—the pots are only filled to about half. The coffee is also left to darken after being brewed the night before. Sometimes we use a little bit to dye the brandy."
This is still a massive amount of fluid to ingest in one sitting. Do the actors have any special way of dealing with—um, nature's call?
"That's a good question!" exclaims Pardan, while Rode chuckles, "You'd have to ask the individual actors about that!" but Poulin acknowledges the reality of the concern. "Adrenaline probably plays a large part—but just in case, when I give the 'five minutes to places" warning backstage, I also remind them that it's 'last chance to pee' as well."
(A Touch of the Poet closed November 6, Old Times runs through November 12)
Mary Shen Barnidge
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