Our first show of the calendar year at Triad was Anna Christie. One challenge that arose was the need for a realistic lager beer. The first scene takes place in a bar, and the bartender pours several beers from a keg onstage. We couldn’t use real beer, because the amount the actress had to actually consume would have laid her on the floor before the scene was through. So I needed a self-contained and consistent means to produce several glasses of a fake frothy beverage on a bar which entered at the beginning of the scene and was struck a vista at the end. I shot a little video showing how I did it:
“As a substitute for tea, wine, whisky or brandy he serves to the actors water colored with a piece of toasted bread to suit the shade of the desired liquid and then strained. This, by the way, is not a device of modern times.
It comes from the days of Shakespeare, according to stage tradition. Sometimes ginger ale or tea is used, but these are not favored generally because they will not suit all tastes.
To one actor the ale is too pungent, to another the cider is too sour, while the third may not be able to take tea without milk, which, of course, could not be used without impairing the color of the drink. So toast-water has been accepted as the regular thing, agreeable to every palate.”
-The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19.
A toast to drinking! Playwrights love to make their characters drink. More popular than eating on stage, drinking on stage can be found even in plays where it is not directed by the text; a bottle of booze or well-concealed flask is a common comedic bit or a way to add layers to a character. It’s not surprising; nearly every culture through the history of civilization has had some form of fermented drink.
Many of the fake drink recipes I’ve come across over the years deal with alcoholic drinks. Very few plays feature characters drinking fruit juices. Further, drinking real beer, wine or liquor on stage is mostly a bad idea for your actor’s health and for the integrity of the show. You can find anecdotes of great stage thespians who drank real spirits while performing in a play, but these are the rare exception rather than the rule. Other drinks need stage substitutes as well. Sweet or syrupy drinks cause phlegm, which affects an actor’s vocal performance, in what some call “frog throat.” Milk or chocolate–based drinks can do the same. Coffee or tea is sometimes used if it does not need milk added, or if a milk-substitute can be found. De-caffeinated versions are preferred because most shows commence in the evening.
A number of other factors can affect your fake drink recipe. The stage lighting of the scene it plays in can alter the look of it; what looked good in the prop shop may look wrong on stage. It is often helpful to have a bottle of the real stuff on hand for comparison. Other times, the director or designer may want to veer away from complete accuracy and request a whiskey which is darker than real whiskey, or a red wine that is redder than real red wine. The recipe you come up with needs to be economical and consistent. It is no good to come up with a complicated method which either takes too much preparation time or results in every batch looking different. You must also consult with your costume department if the drinks are spilled or splashed, or if they are strongly-colored, as is the case with red wine. Some recipes stain more readily than others. Finally, pay attention to the packaging and accoutrements surrounding your liquid; drinking has a lot of accessories and rituals which, if done properly, can help sell the idea more effectively than endless experimentation with your recipe. I should also mention that if a drink starts in an opaque container and is poured into an opaque cup, you may not even need to use anything other than water.
It should go without saying that gin, vodka or any clear liquor can be imitated with plain water. If you wish to serve a gin and tonic though, a tonic water would be better than plain. A vodka and Red Bull requires just Red Bull (or a non-caffeinated/unsweetened look-alike).
I’ve never run across or used the “burnt toast” method mentioned in the quote above, but another old standby in the prop person’s bag of tricks is using cold brewed tea for various dark liquors and even some wines. I’ve seen it mentioned in texts as early as 1907. The varieties of teas available gives you an endless selection of colors and opacities, and further looks can be achieved by varying the amount of time the tea seeps or by diluting the tea afterwards. Whiskey, scotch, bourbon, sherry and others can all be made. We’ve even found “red zinger” teas which can pass for red wine on stage. Though neutral on the vocal cords, some actors dislike the taste. In some cases, this may be preferable, as it forces the actors to sip their drink in a realistic matter, rather than chugging down enough whiskey to kill a horse in a single scene.
Another old trick for these drinks is using a small amount of burnt sugar solution in water. Caramel coloring is a form of burnt sugar; you can buy it on its own or use diluted caffeine and sugar free colas which have gone flat. Some props masters have even diluted these ingredients enough to make a white wine substitute. You can also find cola concentrates for use in home soda makers, like a Sodastream, though be aware that the plain versions will still contain sugar and caffeine. A small amount is all that is necessary for a convincing whiskey, while a few drops may be all that is needed for a white wine.
Cheap and/or watered-down apple juice has found its way as a substitute for whiskeys and white wines as well. I have also heard of cranberry juice, blackcurrant juice and cherry juices used for red wine, and diluted grape juice or weak lime juice substituted for white wine. Experiment with combinations of ingredients; many a prop master has found success by mixing one of the above fruit juices with a bit of flat cola for the perfect blend of color and translucency.
Food coloring can be an economical solution, particularly when crafting fake beverages in great quantity. A bit of red and a touch of blue can appear to be red wine. One drop of green may be all that is needed for a convincing white wine. Again, success may be found by adding a touch of food coloring to one of the above recipes.
Champagne is a bit tricker, especially when the director wants to see the bubbles, or worse, when they want a bottle to open with a convincing “pop”. The mechanics of pressurizing and corking a champagne bottle are beyond the scope of this article, but in many cases, ginger ale is the closest substitute. I’ve run across some older recipes that call for using either charged water or a bicarbonate of soda with similar coloring as the white wine recipes above, but this may be adding a layer of complexity which is unnecessary.
Beer can be even trickier. Often, the only convincing substitute is a low-or-no alcohol beer if your actors are okay with that. A convincing head can be achieved with cocktail foam, such as Frothee Creamy Head. You can find recipes to make your own using egg whites (or powdered egg whites if you are squeamish about consuming raw eggs) and an acid such as lemon juice, but again, this adds to the complexity of preparation.
Milk can be tricky as well. I mentioned above that milk fat can lead to frog throat, so skim or nonfat milk can be substituted. Some actors are lactose intolerant, so a non-dairy alternative is called for. Some prop masters have used powdered non-dairy creamer in water, others have used baking soda in water, though I imagine that must taste unpleasant. Diluted milk of magnesia has been used in the past, though if too much is consumed, it can have, er, dire side effects. Unsweetened coconut or rice milk may also serve as suitable substitutes. These days, your health food store may have all sorts of convincing, albeit pricey, lactose-free milk-substitute drinks.
For our upcoming production of The Book of Grace by Suzan-Lori Parks at the Public Theater, we need beer. Technically, we need about ten beers per night.
Unfortunately, in most legitimate theatres, you cannot have the actors drinking beer during a performance. You need to figure out a way to have a beer can filled with water or something equally innocuous. One way to do it is by emptying a beer can and refilling it. This can be tricky if you also want to crack the lid as part of the stage action; the sound is made because the contents are under pressure, and unless you re-pressurize the can when filling it, you’ll lose that satisfying crack noise. Your other option is to cover a can of non-alcoholic liquid with another label. You can either cut the label out of a real beer can, or manufacture one out of paper. We’ll take a brief look at both methods.
To cover one can with the label off another, you need to start by cutting off the top and the bottom. Aluminum cans cut easily with an X-Acto blade, snap-off blade, or box cutter. You don’t want to use a power tool like a band saw or jig saw, as the movement of the blade will shake the can and tear it uncontrollably. Once you remove the top and bottom, you can slice down the side to make a flat rectangle of metal.
Once you have the label cut out, it’s time to attach it to your other can. Many actors prefer not to drink soda or anything too sweet during a show, as it snots up their throats. They may also have special diuretic needs that may preclude using certain drinks. Your best bet is canned carbonated water. Whether you choose seltzer, club soda, tonic water, or sparkling water depends on personal preference, but also on what the cans look like. The club soda I’ve used here has a very non-descript can that does not make itself known after it has been covered.
Budweiser cans have the advantage of using white as a background color; you can use white electrical tape to attach the label. If you use a different brand, you need to experiment with other types of tape. Clear packing tape is a great option if you want to avoid a colored line along the top and bottom. Make sure whatever tape you use is strong enough to keep the sharp edges of the aluminum from cutting through.
Wrapping a can of carbonated water with a paper label is another way to go. This is a good idea if your printing costs are less than the cost of acquiring beer cans. The most difficult part of this is generating the artwork. Photographing or scanning the labels can leave unrealistic shading. If you are uncomfortable using a computer graphics program to assemble and even build parts of the labels from scratch, this may not be the route for you.
You can use tape to attach the labels on the paper ones as well, or an adhesive on the back (please excuse the messiness of the tape job in the photograph below). You may find the paper label is a lot duller than an aluminum one, so you can spray it with your favorite glossy or semi-glossy clear coat.
Whichever method you decide depends on the specifics of your production. There are many variables which can effect the look of the can from the audience, such as the lighting or distance to the stage. The production may have other peculiar blocking that will affect your prop choice. If the actors crush the cans, you may not wish to cover it in a second layer of aluminum, as it may make it harder or even more dangerous to pull that off.
Just remember, whatever your show needs, you “can” do it!
If you ever needed to know the difference between a white wine and a red wine glass, I’ve put together a handy reference chart for all sorts of bar glassware.
For more information on their uses and sizes, you can visit the Wikibooks article on Bartending/Drinkware/Glassware.