When the Actors Are Students, and They’re Armed

Somerset Berkley Regional High in Massachusetts had already cast its spring musical, “Miss Saigon,” when the February shooting in Parkland, Florida, renewed the specter of gun violence in U.S. schools.

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RESTRICTED -- When the Actors Are Students, and They’re Armed
Naveen Kumar
, New York Times

Somerset Berkley Regional High in Massachusetts had already cast its spring musical, “Miss Saigon,” when the February shooting in Parkland, Florida, renewed the specter of gun violence in U.S. schools.

Samuel Bianco, the choir director at the Somerset, Massachusetts, school, where active-shooter drills have long been routine, considered how to handle the numerous guns called for in this wartime story. The show would go on, he decided, but the production would avoid realistic portrayals of guns by using props like white color guard rifles, commonly used by marching bands.

It was one way Bianco tried to stay true to the text but minimize what he called triggering images. To him, there was ultimately value in teaching students to connect to characters in tragic situations.

“These kids are practicing being empathetic and feeling other people’s pain or pleasure through acting,” he said. “You can’t always avoid the evil in the world — and what are you going to do when it happens?”

High schools and colleges across the country license shows from an enduring catalog of stage favorites. Firing a gun, whether into the air or at the heart of a young lover, is integral to a surprising number of them, including “West Side Story,” “Les Misérables” and “Oklahoma!” But as school shootings increase — more than 200 have occurred since the one in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 — educators face the question of how to portray gunfire on stage amid students’ fears that their school could be next. While some teachers might avoid these plays altogether, many are turning the challenge of depicting gun violence into a learning opportunity.

“Theater is a safe environment to talk about subjects that can be very difficult to discuss,” said Douglas Berlon, deputy executive director of the Educational Theater Association, based in Cincinnati. Arts educators have seemed increasingly drawn to material, he added, “that will help their students and their community process these kinds of raw emotions.”

According to Berlon, discussions about prop guns have grown on the association’s online forum and at its national events over the past two years. The association counsels schools to tweak prop use, staging and sound effects as they see fit, but not to make unauthorized changes to a text, like cutting a death scene.

At Venice High School in Los Angeles, a starter pistol that fired blanks was used in “West Side Story,” which ends with Chino killing Tony, then Maria waving the gun, desperately asking the others onstage, “How many bullets are left?”

Guns designed to fire only blanks can be subject to complex firearms regulations that vary by state. Even debris discharged by blanks can cause fatal injury. Safety protocols around prop guns are determined by schools or their districts, and often include securing them so they are not mistaken for real weapons and never pointing them directly at someone or within close range.

Jesse Fabian, 15, who played Action in the musical, is president of #NeverAgain Venice High School, a student group he said has sent more than 400 handwritten letters to Congress urging action on gun control. Even in the context of a play, he was unsettled having a gun pointed at him, he said. “It’s terrifying because although it’s a prop, it looks so realistic.”

Traci Thrasher, director of the school’s drama department, said that because she believes people have become so desensitized to gun violence, she wanted the play’s use of a prop weapon to resonate in a visceral way. “It looks and sounds like a real gun,” she said. “It’s a tad bit jarring.” Still, J & M Special Effects, a leading supplier of theatrical weapons to Broadway and amateur productions, said schools seem to be moving away from using prop guns that closely resemble real ones.

Bohdan Bushell, a special effects coordinator for the company, noted that unrealistic prop weapons can often replace more authentic-looking ones with little harm to the play. “There are things that take us out of the story, and that’s not always one of them.”

For the arsenal needed in “Assassins,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical about killers who have taken aim at presidents, a student-mounted production at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, armed the cast with a mix of Nerf guns and more lifelike prop firearms, including a historical replica of a derringer. The characters whose assassination attempts were most successful used the most realistic props.

“There was an awareness of the delicate ways in which firearms need to be treated onstage before the Parkland shooting,” said Alexandra Pozniak, a senior and one of the show’s producers. The attack only served as a reminder of why the theater group already had an extensive list of rules governing the use of prop weapons.

“The actors have been very, very careful,” Pozniak said. “They want to make sure the audience and their fellow actors feel safe.”

Not everyone agreed with the production’s abundance of caution, which included not aiming even colorful Nerf guns toward the audience. (During the show’s finale, the characters are meant to open fire from the stage.)

“I understand why these rules are in place, obviously,” said David Bellovin, 19, who played the foiled Nixon assassin Samuel Byck. “But I also think that there are certain moments, especially in theater, when the audience is not necessarily supposed to be comfortable.” Fishers High School in Fishers, Indiana, had planned to present “Bullets Over Broadway,” a musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s gangster comedy. But when John Colby, a theater teacher there, stepped in to direct, he swapped it for the less-trigger-happy “Seussical,” based on the stories of Dr. Seuss. He even armed the hunters in that play with nets instead of guns.

“Theater gives us the chance to take a break from reality,” Colby said. Citing the grim contagion of school shootings since the Columbine attack in 1999, he added, “I just didn’t want to go there.”

In areas of the country where real guns abound, there may be fewer concerns about using prop weapons. At Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, Jim Smith, a theater teacher, said, “There was really no feeling one way or the other” about gunfire in the school’s production of “Oklahoma!” “The students knew it was a prop.”

Smith opted for a historical replica paired with sound effects rather than having students pull the trigger on the gun, which fires blanks, because it gives off sparks. (Smith recalled a Utah student who died in 2008 from injuries after a blank was discharged from a gun to be used in a school play.)

Still, recent school shootings didn’t register as cause for special sensitivity. “It’s just the way the culture is here,” Smith said of the predominantly Mormon farming community. “They would be more upset if we swore than if we used a gun.”

At Somerset Berkley, which organized a walkout assembly in February to honor the Parkland victims, Bianco chose to restage the scene in which Kim’s fiancé, Thuy, threatens her young son at gunpoint. Instead, the actor grabbed hold of the child (played by a 5-year-old) but pointed the prop — a squirt gun painted black — at Kim.

“It’s important to the story that we use weapons,” said Zack Almeida, 15, who played Thuy. “But it’s not a toy, so we don’t aim it at people or mess around with it.”

Molly Sullivan, who alternated in the role of Kim, agreed that students should engage with plays like “Miss Saigon” as a way to address gun violence head-on. “You can’t just run away from it and try not talking about it,” she said.

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