Inside D.C. entertainment

Flea Bites: The Piss Chair

February 17, 2011 - 11:52 AM
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TBD is following Forum Theatre's production of One Flea Spare behind the scenes, from start to finish. Previously: The First Read, Come. Sit. Stay, This is How Germs are Spread, Fight Night and This is How Pants Used to Be.

In a show filled with a lot of icky liquids — the perimeter of the stage is covered in "filth texture," the actors are covered in dirt, and there's also brief appearances of blood and spit — the bucket of fake urine is by far, the grossest-looking thing backstage at One Flea Spare.

In Forum Theatre's grimy play about the Great Plague of London, Naomi Wallace's script calls for a 12-year-old girl character to wet herself during an emotional moment. Production staff considered deploying a faux-urine bag that the actress could empty at the right moment, but the apparatus would have been too uncomfortable, and presented problems for costume design. Instead, Forum production manager and props designer Christina Smith and technical director Patrick Wallace invented a urinating chair.

To be clear: It is both amusing and disgusting to watch a chair urinate (and so far in this job, I have written about more than my share of gross props, including severed heads and an antique vibrator). During a recent rehearsal, I watched the chair pee itself at least seven times, and each was more appalling than the last. That's because stage manager Stephanie Junkin was testing urine colors to see which ones could "read" from the audience. With a wooden stage, realistic coloring couldn't be seen at a distance. But up close, water trickled down the raked stage in slow motion, and actor Andy Brownstein, who referred to the prop as "The Piss Chair," turned away, disgusted.

The Piss Chair
The urinating chair of One Flea Spare. (Photo: TBD)

Smith and Wallace created the effect by hiding space for two giant syringes of fake urine — just food coloring and water — inside the legs of the chair, There's a hidden bar that actress Sarah Taurchini, who plays Morse, can push down with her foot to trigger the release of fake urine from under the chair. Because the stage is slanted, the water rolls towards the front of the stage, instead of pooling up under the legs of the chair, making it more visible.

"You should patent it," says Brownstein, as Smith and Junkin are inducing the chair to urinate, again and again.

"Do we like this color?" asks Junkin.

"It needs to be darker," says director Alexander Strain. "From here it doesn't look like anything."

She adds more yellow and red food coloring to a bucket of fake urine.

"I know this sounds crazy, but even darker," says Strain.

"She has not been drinking enough water," says Cliff Williams, the show's fight coach.

"She has not been drinking any water," says Junkin. "She's been trapped in a house. She's been drinking vinegar."

Taurchini, who has just arrived for her fight call, walks onstage, sees the puddle of chair urine, yells "AAAGGGH," and quickly departs. Strain asks for more red in the urine.

Though the formula isn't yet perfected, Junkin must take steps to ensure that when the chair wets itself, it will do so on cue.

"There is no way that the chair will accidentally urinate during the show?" asks Brownstein.

Junkin has taped the lever up so that it cannot fall at the wrong time. Nevertheless, cast members practice moving the chair very carefully — just in case.

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