To ink or not to ink? Tattoos have become a thing at the Guthrie and other Minnesota theaters

October 9, 2018

f you see a guy ordering a dish of salted caramel ice cream with half of his shoulder-length hair shaved off and enormous stitches on his head, he could be enjoying a post-brain-surgery treat. Or he might be in Frankenstein Playing With Fire at the Guthrie Theater.

The suture marks are a temporary tattoo on actor Jason Rojas, who plays Frankensteins Creature.

Jason doesnt necessarily want to walk around in his life with a suture mark on his head, so he usually takes them off, says Laura Stearns Adams, wigmaster and tattoo supervisor for the theater. Although he did go over to Izzys to get ice cream one day and he said nobody even looked at him twice.

Usually, if you saw someone with suture marks on his head, youd be like, Whats up, dude? But I guess if youre near the Guthrie and you see someone like that, you dont?

Twin Cities theater audiences have seen a lot of fake tattoos recently. Like a waistcoat or wig or other costuming device, they can be a valuable storytelling tool.

In Childrens Theatres current show Last Stop on Market Street, a suburban kid, CJ, is freaked out by a big-city character called Tatted Man.

When CJ sees him on the bus, he is scared of the guy, specifically because of his tattoos, but then he gets to know him and learns [Tatted Man] isnt scary at all, says costume director Amy Kitzhaber.

Thats because the mans tats depict his favorite flowers and ice cream.

To become Tatted Man, actor Dwight Leslie shows up at the theater an hour before the first show, three days a week, for the application of two large tattoos, designed by costumer Trevor Bowen: an ice cream cone on one forearm and flowers on the other.

Similar to the water-soluble, temporary tattoos that kids have pasted on at least as far back as the 1960s, Leslies tats are printed on special transfer paper in a regular printer. If hes careful and touches them up between performances, they last a couple of days.

It takes about half an hour, says Kitzhaber. They prep the area, make sure its clean and doesnt have any lotion on it because otherwise it wont stick. They get the back of the transfer wet its the same process as those ones you had as a kid. To make ours look more real, we paint them in a little bit with whats called illustrated ink, a type of makeup, and then we powder it. Oh, and on in-between days, he has been using a spray to seal it.

Applying stage tattoos may not be as time-consuming as the real thing, but it does challenge theater artists.

In Minnesota Operas Dead Man Walking, lead actor Seth Carico, playing a Death Row prisoner, needed staffers to help remove his tattoos because he didnt love walking around with his chest, neck, arms, face and back covered with guns and swastikas.

A reflection of real life

Plays are getting tattooier because theres more body ink in real life, says the operas hair and makup supervisor, Priscilla Bruce.

Walk around Uptown and youll see a lot, says Bruce, who helped CTC figure out how to make the Market Street tattoo colors pop.

The Guthrie produces a lot of shows set during eras when tattoos werent common but Adams says incorporating them in classics as the Guthrie did for last years Romeo and Juliet helps them speak to today.

In these shows where we want to try to connect to younger audience, designers might use them if we want Romeo and Juliet to have a Renaissance flavor but also a modern connection, for instance, says Adams.

Eagle-eyed theatergoers at the Guthries Playing With Fire will spot a tribal-looking tattoo on the calves of Rojas and Elijah Alexander, who play the Creature in different time frames. The back story is that when Victor Frankenstein assembled his Creature from various body parts, he dug up a corpse with a tattooed leg.

In this case, the tattoo is printed on mesh stockings the actors can slide on and off, held in place by glue at the ankle and elastic at the knee.

For the suture marks on the Creatures face, Rojas uses transfer tattoos. His marks are vivid because hes the more-recently-created version of the Creature but Alexander, who plays the older Creature, paints on his scars, which are subtler. A similar effect happens with the Creatures arm, a transfer that features both a scar and a tattoo that is cut in half, because Frankenstein assembled the arm from two separate chunks.

The characters in Romeo and Juliet had so much ink that staffers dubbed the weekly application day Tattoosday. Costume designer Jennifer Moeller wanted it to look like impulsive Mercutio created her own tattoos, turning every idea that came into her head into body art. So the wig department had actor Kelsey Didion write sayings in her own handwriting, then those sayings were put on transfer paper and applied to her body.

Those kinds of details may only be noticed subliminally by the audience. But they also help actors, who may not even recognize themselves when they look in the mirror, deepen their performances.

Hiding an actors own ink

Adams says the Guthrie which, like CTC, prints the transfers they design in-house gets its transfer paper from Tinsley Transfers. When a more generic tattoo is called for, like the bare-chested Navy guys in South Pacific, theyll order pre-designed tattoos. Another option is to use temporary-ink-stamp tattoos, but theyre messy and Adams is not a fan.

If it seems odd that a wig department is in charge of tattoos, Adams says the answer is simple, with a complication: If it has to do with skin if someone needs a tan or glitter or a tattoo its us. If someone has a smear of blood on their nose because they got punched, thats us. But if its a blood effect [such as a spurting nose], then thats Props.

Adams, Bruce and Kitzhaber also have plenty of experience with the flip side of putting on temporary tattoos: using makeup to cover permanent body art that might not be suitable for, say, Madame Butterfly or King Lear. In fact, Adams could soon find herself intimately acquainted with hiding an actors ink. Specifically, her own.

My character wouldnt have them, says Adams, who also acts and is now in rehearsals for The Last Schwartz at Minnesota Jewish Theatre. Fortunately, Ive got lots of knowledge about how to cover them properly from my work at the Guthrie.

As theatrical tattoos have become more prevalent, Adams has learned some things about them: Temporary tattoos last longer on people with dry skin types. With extra care, some fakes can last a week. They can be good for a laugh (Adams created tattoos from a photo of actor Stan Demidoff, which everyone wore to the Romeo and Juliet wrap party).

And this: Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj is a fan of the stories that tattoos can tell, so its a good bet theatergoers will see a lot more of them.

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