Vivid White. Photo: Jeff Busby
Vivid White. Photo: Jeff Busby
Feature

Makeshift Chef

Food Onstage

For many people, preparing food is a way to relax, the end result of which – hopefully! – is a delicious and nutritious meal. For stage managers, it’s something else altogether. We take a look behind the MTC pantry door…

By Melanie Sheridan

While playing Johnny in Home, I’m Darling, actor Toby Truslove was required to eat ‘an inordinate amount of cake’ every week. The cake-eating was generally a lot of fun, he noted at the time, as long as the cake was fresh. ‘Otherwise it becomes a choking hazard!’

Truslove said that in jest, but for our stage managers it’s no joke. As part of their role, they become de facto chefs during every show where there’s food involved: preparing fresh cakes and other prop food daily that has to be edible; palatable enough to eat eight times a week for six weeks; cater to varying tastes and allergies; comply with food-handling regulations; and look real – although quite often it’s anything but. All without a professional kitchen, and all the while conscious of not burning, or choking, the cast!

Meg Richardson has been stage managing shows at MTC for around five years. She jokes that she always gets the shows with food in them. ‘Almost all my shows have had at least a small amount of food, drink or consumables in them,’ she notes. ‘Shows with lots of food often mean longer calls for stage management, to account for the shopping and cooking pre-show but also the inevitable dishwashing post-show. I’m sure by now I’d be an excellent café worker!’

Stage ingredients

10,000 x boiled potatoes
46 imitation Peperamis
A dash or several hundred of Parisian Browning Essence
Root beer concentrate
12 dozen cups of custard
Metamucil
Coloured water, to taste

Mix together and heat (using a microwave or a pie warmer only).

It’s not a recipe that Richardson’s had to follow, but it may as well be. All the food onstage during a show has to look real and, if it’s designed to be eaten and not just pushed around a plate or thrown at a wall, it obviously has to be edible. But when you can’t serve your cast actual meat or alcohol, or they don’t want to eat vast amounts of sugar or are unable to eat gluten, you have to improvise. 

 

‘The question that I always get asked is whether or not the alcoholic drinks are real. Of course, the answer is no – we save that for after the show!’

 

‘The question that I always get asked is whether or not the alcoholic drinks are real,’ Richardson begins. ‘Of course, the answer is no – we save that for after the show when our shifts have finished!’ Explaining the various tricks of the trade, she says tea and cordial are popular options. ‘Often whisky or bourbon drinks are cold tea, or I use a product called Parisian Browning Essence. I have also used many different food colourings over the years. Sugar-free cordial is also useful, but wherever possible I try to make it as tasteless or as close to water as possible. Some actors don’t want tea as it dries out their throat; others don’t want the caffeine, so I try my best to basically serve coloured water at all times.’ 

Richardson’s colleague, Props Buyer Jess Maguire, adds that the fake Guinness created for The Weir was a creative highlight. ‘A fair amount of experimentation went into that,’ she says of the stage management team’s collaboration with the electrics department. ‘We had to be very precise with the ingredients to achieve the correct taste and best aeration.’ It took five or six attempts to get the recipe correct (accepted: root beer concentrate, gum acacia powder; rejected: coconut sugar, vanilla extract), and then the set-up on stage with the full keg was crucial to getting the right look. This required its own experimentation: ‘The electrics team ended up creating this keg; and ultimately the pouring and the settling of the head acted like real Guinness – the key to achieving this was being able to use a nitrogen and C02 gas mix. We also had to experiment with reducing the sugar content because of the sheer quantity the cast had to drink during eight shows a week.’

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Peter Kowitz with a fake Guinness in The Weir. Photo: Jeff Busby

Other liquids pose equally inventive challenges. Maguire notes that they are often unable to use real milk, for instance, so instead they create it using white icing dye.

One of the more memorable solid food substitutions Richardson has tried was for the haddock served in Hay Fever, which was actually sliced potato boiled in the microwave. ‘It was supposed to be a disgusting fish served at breakfast – the potato was pretty bland, so I don’t think it was hard for the cast to act as if they didn’t like it!’

She also recalls The Children’s Peperami sticks – a British sausage snack specifically mentioned in the script. When Richardson tried to import a season’s worth, they were caught by customs (as a beef-based product, they weren’t able to be brought into the country from England due to Mad Cow Disease). ‘I had a stern phone call from border security about import laws and the items were sent to the furnace. Oops! So instead, I had to source a new, similar packet, Photoshop and print a label and stick it to the packet, unseal the packet and dispose of the contents, replace the contents with a type of meat stick that the actor liked and re-seal the packet for every performance!’

When food isn’t food

Backstage ‘cooking’ can also involve real food not meant to be consumed. Richardson notes that the brains in Gloria were made from a thickened custard with some fake blood and treacle mixed through for colour and consistency. ‘This one was quite hard to perfect,’ she says, ‘as it was shot through a pipe with hydraulics, so we had to work closely with the electrics department to get the viscosity just right. It was quite a precise recipe.’  

Maguire also recalls the various foodstuffs used in non-food ways in Gloria, and other shows. ‘Blood effects are really fun,’ she says, ‘and I have a great recipe for a fake liver I had to make out of Metamucil for Macbeth! We also ended up using it as “human bits” for Gloria.’

The team have their own recipes for stage blood, but won’t divulge them. ‘The perfect stage-blood recipe can be a highly guarded secret,’ Maguire says, although she acknowledges the potential use of ingredients such as glucose, corn syrup and soluble food dyes, alongside store-bought make-up blood, ‘depending on what it is used for’.

Blood packs, for instance, are typically created in-house, such as the battery-powered ones required for  Gloria, The Beast and Vivid White; the latter packs apparently had a habit of ‘exploding prematurely in the wings – spraying fake blood all over the cast, crew and costumes,’ Richardson recalls. Maguire adds that she had ‘to stand side stage with a spray bottle of blood just in case it set off and we lost our blood and ruined the gag.’

A show in the life of a Chef Stage Manager

On the first day of every rehearsal period, the stage manager will ask the cast to submit any food allergies or requirements they have. ‘There is almost always at least one person who can’t eat gluten, one or more vegetarian and often people who don’t eat sugar,’ Richardson says. But ‘this is where the fun/challenge begins!’

Maguire adds that in addition to the cast’s variety of dietary restrictions and allergies, the stage managers also need to ensure the food they serve onstage is moist enough and easy to swallow so food doesn’t get caught in the actors’ throats or vocally dry them out. ‘The most problematic food items can be when all the cast have to eat from the same bowl or eat the same food (like a salad or cake) and they all have different allergies, diet restrictions and preferences! Vegan stores are sooo handy then!’

Due to the risk of bacteria, even carnivores typically won’t be served meat onstage. As Richardson points out, it’s also tricky to cut and chew while trying to deliver dialogue. She recalls that for Home, I’m Darling, director Sarah Goodes ‘was very attached to the idea that Judy and Johnny were eating lamb chops so we had to find an option that looked like a chop but wasn’t meat. When an idea like that is raised, it’s Stage Management’s job to find an answer that satisfies 1) the director’s idea, 2) the cast’s tastebuds and 3) the designer’s vision.’

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Toby Truslove and Nikki Shiels dine on prop chops in Home, I'm Darling. Photo: Jeff Busby

The team trialled several replica foods, ultimately settling on a meat-free burger that Richardson then had to cut into the shape of a lamb chop. Cooking these chop-burgers presented its own challenges. In addition to there being no stoves at the theatre, there are extra regulations around hot food, especially what can and cannot be cooked outside of a commercial kitchen. The regulations have taught Richardson that almost any food can be cooked in a microwave – ‘although I’m sure it isn’t the most delicious! I’ve learnt to cook microwaved scrambled eggs, microwaved potatoes, microwaved bacon etc.’

Cooking with Gas Contraptions

The team has acquired a collection of ‘weird and wonderful cooking contraptions’ over the years – from pie warmers to microwave bacon cookers and the Breville Eggspert, an egg cooker that looks like a UFO. ‘I often bring so many different cooking devices to the theatre that extra power has to be run to my cooking room due to overloading the power circuit if I plug them all in at once,’ says Richardson.

That cooking room is often the production managers’ backstage office or one of the dressing rooms, repurposed as a makeshift kitchen. You’d be forgiven for thinking that such a set-up could be conducive to accidents but the team is always extra cautious. The only kitchen mishaps Richardson recalls are the multiple slices of toast burnt while trying to multi-task before a show, and a few minor misadventures with the pie that Simon Phillips wanted John Leary’s Henslowe to eat during Shakespeare in Love – primarily when it went missing! 

 

‘It’s really important to make sure everyone is happy with the food choice as the cast have to eat it eight times a week for six weeks ... I never serve food before trying it myself.’

 

‘The cast were always working so hard on that show,’ she explains, ‘that they worked up quite an appetite between all the costume changes and sword fights, and it became a bit of a joke that I would go to collect the remnants of the pie to dispose of at the end of the show only to discover one of the cast members had decided to have a mid-show snack in the wings and it was gone.’

Clearly, the pie was in demand – a testament to the stage managers’ skills. ‘It’s really important to make sure everyone is happy with the food choice,’ says Richardson, ‘as the cast have to eat it eight times a week for six weeks and the last thing you want is for them to get halfway through the season and be so sick of the food that they need a new option. There isn’t really time to start the search again at this point. So I always try to make it as palatable as possible from the beginning. I never serve food to [the] cast before trying it myself.’


Recipes

Props Buyer Jess Maguire shows us how to make non-alcoholic, tasteless, as-close-to-water-as-possible stage drinks.

Kiss of the Spider Woman red wine

‘Wine, champagne and whisky are fairly straightforward recipes,’ says Jess Maguire. ‘Typically how we make them depends on cast allergies and preferences, so we don’t stick to one particular recipe and can change them from show to show.’

Kiss of the Spider Woman red wine

  • 4 bags of raspberry & strawberry or hibiscus tea (you can also use Ribena, but we prefer to use tea; in this case we used a zero-sugar raspberry & strawberry tea. We do our best to accommodate cast taste and preferences, and the teas are a really good low-sugar option)
  • Steep in 250mls of water and then, once dark enough, put into the fridge to cool (we sometimes do this the night before)
  • Add another 250mls of cold water
  • Add approximately 6 drops of red food dye
  • Add one drop of blue food dye (you don’t want to go overboard with the blue food dye as the wine will start to look purple)
  • Stir!
  • Make sure you check the colour of your wine recipe onstage. Adjust water and food dye ratios accordingly
  • Pour into your wine glass or bottle and set for the show!

Home, I’m Darling whisky

‘Again you can make this from a number of different options, such as really watered down cola cordial or weak black tea but in this case we used root beer concentrate. Partly because with the very few drops we use, the taste is very mild; also we had it in stock!’

Home, I’m Darling whisky

  • Add a small amount of root beer extract to a jug with about 500mls cold water
  • Stir and keep adding more cold water until you reach the desired colour
  • Pour and set in your whisky bottle or tumblers

Published on 13 May 2020

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