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Guns are Dangerous

posted by Michael Barrett Austin on Fri, May 1, 2009
in Backstage buzz

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In The Lieutenant of Inishmore, we are firing real guns with full loads of ammunition.

YIKES.

It is not rare for guns to rear their ugly heads in plays. They’ve been a useful and exciting dramatic tool for playwrights since their invention, I’d guess, and I’ve encountered a fair amount of them in my past acting experience—but it’s never been like this.

In my experience, when a script calls for pistol fire onstage, the theatre seeks to rent, borrow or buy revolvers which have been either modified or specifically built not to fire real bullets, but rather, to just to make a loud bang—something like a starter’s pistol, or a louder version of a kid’s cap gun.

But this is a big stage at a big theatre, and this is Les Waters, and so we rented real automatic pistols (a Glock and two 9mm Tauruses are used in each show). Don’t worry--we have a multi-check system to make sure they're never loaded with real bullets. But they are loaded with real blanks, which use just as much gunpowder as a real bullet cartridge. That means that when fired, the guns kick in your hand, get hot to the touch, and emit a deafening report, physical shockwave, and stream of fire from the barrel. Furthermore, the guns need to be cleaned and oiled by our incredible crew after every use, they spit empty shells out all over the stage, and they occasionally jam or misfire, just like real guns--because they ARE real guns.

That said, I feel surprisingly safe firing my gun and being so close to all the other gunfire onstage in this play. The entire cast and much of the crew attended a mandatory “gun class” with our special effects expert Stephen Tolin and Berkeley Rep's fight choreographer Dave Maier, during which we had the basics of loading, firing, and gun safety explained to us carefully, were given ample chance to ask questions and express concerns, and eventually all cast members who fired guns were allowed to practice firing. Throughout the rehearsal process, everyone involved treated the guns with the utmost caution and respect, and we dealt carefully with each issue as it arose: choosing when to put in our earplugs and figuring out which kind of plugs worked best for each individual, choreographing shots and movement to keep actors away from where guns were aimed and ejected shells were flying, learning how to clear gun jams safely, etc.

MBA with gun

(Blake Ellis, who plays Padraic, took this photo of me practicing during the gun safety class.)

Even now, a week into the run, we mark through all our shots every night at fight call, and practice firing and clearing jams outside of the show once a week. The cast and crew follow careful routines with the weapons, and trust each other to keep each other safe. I’m so happy and excited that we have this opportunity to present such a uniquely realistic, effective and frightening gunfight for the Berkeley Rep audience. But the fact is that for most of us, real guns are never something we can truly get comfortable with.

And that may just be good thing…

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