Early in her professional acting career, Joyce Guy from Dover, who recently appeared in the new Netflix thriller “Clickbait,” was dying to make it in Hollywood. And she did just that.
Guy portrayed a nameless cop who gets knifed in the tummy by a murderous TV repairman in legendary horror director Wes Craven’s 1989 blockbuster “Shocker.”
According to other Delaware thespians, sometimes there’s more to the art of dying on the big screen, or onstage, than meets the eye.
At the time “Shocker” was being filmed, Guy assumed she knew enough to successfully fake a stabbing death on camera.
Then Wes Craven approached her and basically said, “Hold my beer.”
“We begin to rehearse the scene with the retractable knife and my first instinct is to double over like someone punched me in the stomach,” Guy told Delaware Online/The News Journal.
“Wes Craven, who was very soft-spoken like a librarian, informs me that when a person is stabbed in the stomach, your body, instead of doubling over, lunges straight up from the shock of the knife piercing into your body.”
But that’s just the tip of the knife when it comes to getting killed on screen or on stage.
Here are some other examples of ways performers can die in productions, and what it takes to properly pull it off.
Strangled, shot and stabbed
Kerry Kristine McElrone, artistic director for City Theater Company in Wilmington, has tasted death onstage multiple times. But she’s bitten the dust more from the “internal dying” actors’ experience when they’ve missed a cue or forgotten a line, she giggled.
Strangled! This occurred in the Shakespeare tragedy “Othello” where McElrone’s character, Desdemona, was smothered to death with a pillow. To pull that death off, she relied more on “body movement than facial expression, since my face was obscured by said pillow.”
Stabbed! In the short comedic play “Scene 42,” her character was a struggling actress determined to make the most of her big break as slasher victim #42 in a B-horror movie. Because the play is lighthearted, McElrone’s character slumps to the ground and the death is punctuated by one line, “Why?” aimed at getting one last laugh from the audience.
Although it’s a silly show, McElrone said she had to inject some realism into her character’s death, which meant her final moment depicted more gentle confusion and shock than stereotypically depicting herself with flailing arms and legs.
Shot! McElrone was killed twice onstage in the rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” The first was as a soldier shot in the Battle of New Orleans. That scene was in slow motion, so the death featured “very exaggerated and elongated movements and expressions running the gamut from surprise, annoyance, pain, realization and acceptance,” she said.
Her second death was as the wife of newly elected President Andrew Jackson, who crumples in Jackson’s arms. “The acting there was to look as heartbroken as possible, while gracefully collapsing into a position I could lie in for the length of a song.”
Serious death versus silly death
Matt Silva, managing director of Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington, pointed out the context of the fictional death has a big impact on how a character’s final moment is portrayed onstage.
“If it’s more farcical — it can be intentionally quite melodramatic in order to elicit laughter,” Silva said. Sometimes in these cases, audiences will get the “things are funny in threes” routine.
This happens when “the person appears to be dead, pops up for one last gasp of air and appears to be dead again, and then pops up one more time to say their last words and then die once again, then pops up for a third time and reaches up and then falls back down and is finally, at last, dead,” Silva added.
If the play is heightened in realism, the trick around how to die onstage is dictated by the given circumstances of what the script calls for.
Where the person dies on stage also has an impact on the audience when being staged.
Are they alone? In someone’s arms? Draped over a piece of furniture or just lying on the floor?
Since there isn’t a camera right on the performer and there’s some distance from the audience, Silva said, an actor doesn’t have to be overly concerned with stopping their chest from moving, because the audience suspends their disbelief in a way that they won’t when they’re watching someone on the big screen.”
Steven Haber, vice president for the Second Street Players in Milford, discovered theater audiences are more forgiven of performers in death scenes than moviegoers.