How to Die on Stage

No Method Acting

Many characters suffer and die in plays and films. Some actors consider it to be the most fun scene, others think it’s the most challenging. How do you play a realistic death?

Well, you don’t do it like that scene from Enter the Ninja. So how do you research? I would not recommend Method Acting this one. You don’t need to experience dying to portray it for an audience. Instead, you can read about it from New Scientist.

Science and Speculation About Morbid Events

The researchers at New Scientist took evidence from various sources to create subjective descriptions of the events leading to death for a number of scenarios. The information came from known medical processes, accounts from near-death survivors, and autopsy data.

Death: Scientists Reveal What It’s Like To Die | Sky News:

Victims first panic and try to hold their breath, typically for 30 to 90 seconds. Survivors have reported a “tearing and burning” sensation as water enters the lungs – but it is quickly followed by a feeling of calmness and tranquility. Oxygen deprivation results in loss of consciousness, the heart stopping and brain death.

Heart attack:
A “squeezing” chest pain, or feeling of pressure, is the most common symptom as the heart muscle struggles for oxygen. Disruption of the normal heart rhythm effectively stops the heart beating. Loss of consciousness can occur in about 10 seconds and death can follow minutes later.

Loss of blood:
Marked by several stages of “haemorrhagic shock”. Anyone losing 1.5 litres of blood feels weak, thirsty and anxious. By the time two litres are lost, people experience dizziness, confusion and eventual unconsciousness.

A household electric shock might stop the heart, leading to unconsciousness after around 10 seconds. Higher currents through the heart or brain can produce almost immediate unconsciousness. However, it has been claimed that prisoners executed with the electric chair may actually have died from heating of the brain or suffocation.

Fall from a height:
Survivors of great falls often report the sensation of time slowing down. A study of 100 suicide jumps from San Francisco’s 246-ft-high Golden Gate Bridge found numerous cases of instantaneous death involving collapsed lungs, exploded hearts or damage to organs from broken ribs.

Hanging suicides and old-fashioned executions cause death by strangulation. This can lead to unconsciousness in 10 seconds but a poorly placed noose may result in many minutes of suffering. “Long drop” hangings are designed to break the neck. But a study of the remains of 34 prisoners executed in this way found that four-fifths died partly from asphyxiation.

Burns inflict intense pain, and boost the skin’s pain sensitivity. As superficial nerves are destroyed, some feeling is lost – but not much, according to experts. But most people who die in fires are actually killed by inhaling toxic gases and asphyxiation.

Beheading can be swift and painless but consciousness is believed to continue for a short time after the spinal cord is severed. Experts have calculated that the brain might remain functioning for seven seconds. Reports from guillotine executions in France cited cases where movements of the eyes and mouth were seen for up to 30 seconds.

Death From Combat

For those who die fighting (my speciality), whether in battles or duels or assassinations, take a close read of the section on Loss of blood. It mentions haemorrhagic shock, and here’s a reference table:

Classification of Hemorrhagic Shock (adapted from SOGC Clinical Practice Guidelines, #115, June 2002):

  Compensated Mild Moderate Severe
Blood Loss (ml) ≤1000 1000–1500 1500-2000 >2000
Heart rate (bpm) <100 >100 >120 >140
Respiration Normal Mild Increase Moderate tachypnea Marked tachypnea: respiratory collapse
Mental status Normal or agitated Agitated Confused Lethargic

I would describe this to an actor as a whole body progression (mind, breathing, and physical strength) from Elevated to Irregular to Depressed, then unconsciousness and death. At first, breathing is faster – even faster than when fighting – the mind is racing as well, which might be shown as darting eyes or faster speech. Next, everything gets messy: Breathing is irregular, speech may be halting or stuttering, and if the person is not already on the floor, they will fall down from weakness in the legs and dizzyness. In their final moments of consciousness, play the slowing of the breath, slow speech, slow movement.

For wounds in general, remember that almost everyone tries to cover a puncture or cut of any size. Wherever the character was injured, put your hands there and push. This will also focus your mind on the source of your pain while the audience clearly understands what’s going on. As a bonus, we can conveniently use less stage blood (or no blood), and still have a believable death scene. For added detail, remember that the loss of blood is a loss of fluid, so the character will be thirsty.

If you’re lucky enough that your director gives you a lengthy death scene, I hope these tips help you sell it.


  • and poison?

    KellyAugust 19, 2009
  • being shot?

    KelseyJanuary 20, 2010
  • @Kelly: Poisons all behave differently, so portraying a specific poison will require you to do some specific research. Beware of looking like you’re choking. Poison does not work by blocking your windpipe. Clutching your neck is just amateurish.

    @Kelsey: Depends on the bullet. In most cases, just use the blood-loss guidelines in the article, since being shot is just like being stabbed if blood loss is the cause of death.

    adminJanuary 31, 2010

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