Lending a hand to A Behanding

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I’ve heard of prerecorded music and sound effects that come packaged with scripts when you pay the royalties for producing a show at a regional or community theater. I’ve even seen scenery sold in kit form that’s dedicated to specific shows. But when you come to the climactic scene of Martin McDonaugh’s A Behanding in Spokane, where the hyper-eccentric Carmichael’s suitcase is opened and 75-100 severed hands scatter around the stage, theater companies are on their own.

You can’t just ask people whether they have that many spare hands on hand – and you’re not likely to get permission from local department stores to lop off seven or eight dozen hands from their manikins. Even if you promise to bring them back after tossing them around for over a month. Carolina Actors Studio Theatre not only faced the dilemma of rounding up all those hands – preferably left hands, if you’re true to the script – but when they replaced Popcorn on their 2010-11 schedule with McDonough’s dark comedy, they also faced a time crunch.

So an email went forth from CAST inviting members of the theater community to lend their members to the cause – including me. As it happened, I had just returned from my 19-day furlough to DC, New York, and Winston-Salem where I’d managed to take in 18 jazz, opera, and theater events. Catching up on what I’d missed – and what was now opening – obliged me to schedule six more shows during the first three days after my return. With If You Take a Mouse to School, Ella the Musical, and Sweeney Todd all on my calendar for February 12, I simply couldn’t lend a hand to the mass hand-casting at CAST that day.

I grabbed a rain-check from artistic director Michael R. Simmons, giving me a chance to arrange for photographic backup. Simmons asked me to bring a favorite pen. The plan was to pose my hand holding one of those pens, replicating the ancient ritual of writing. I was asked to maintain that writing pose as steadily as possible while Simmons slid the pen out of my grasp.

That wasn’t the hard part. Into a specially formulated container – pay no attention to that peanut butter pretzel label! – I was asked to suspend my hand while Simmons poured a specially prepared lavender goop around it, mixed on the spot with a KitchenAid mixer and scrupulously kept at 73ºF. If my hand touched either of the sides or the bottom of the container, the mold formed by the goop would leak, making it useless. Even moving my hand while the liquid hardened could mar the result. Using my right hand helped keep me steady as the lavender formula hardened over the next 10-15 minutes.

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The stuff didn’t get rock solid, but Simmons invited us to photograph the whole caboodle upside-down. I was feeling a little give from the goop as I lifted the container above horizontal, so I held it right there. It took some assistance to reclaim my hand without spoiling the mold, and Simmons was pleased with the initial result.

A second solution was poured into the cavity, where it coalesced into a finely detailed replica of my hand over the next 45 minutes. Our photographer, Angus Lamond, apparently has a life of his own, so he didn’t stick around. Instead, Simmons handed me a hand – chosen at random, to be sure! – that had been cast the previous Saturday. It belonged to somebody named Lawrence Toppman, if I remember correctly.

My hand was better than Larry’s in one respect. As he continued to perfect his process, Simmons discovered that he could mix coloration into the plastic before pouring it into the mold. Then the CAST tech team discolored and otherwise distressed my new-made hand to simulate the normal wear-and-tear of a severed hand that’s been carried in a suitcase by a maniac for up to 25 years.

My wife Sue had her cell phone with her when we attended the show on March 4. Putting all doubts and rumors to rest about whether I still have my writing hand, she photographed me onstage holding my stage hand.

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