“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking about firing it.”
Writer Anton Chekhov made his famous declaration in an 1889 letter to a friend — and liked his own advice so much, he repeated variations of it several times during his life. He meant guns both literally and metaphorically, and the dramatic principle (don’t put anything vivid in a story you don’t plan to use later) stuck, now known as “Chekhov’s gun.”
But what about all those guns offstage? The ones permanently lingering around the edges of our imaginations in this era of mass domestic shootings — when flashing a gun in a theater charges the atmosphere in a very different way than it did before Columbine and Sandy Hook?
“In 1955, a gun onstage was like a brandy snifter — just ye olde prop,” said Mathew Wright, director of “Office Hour” at ArtsWest. “Not anymore.”
The play, by Julia Cho, concerns a teacher, a sullen and disturbed student, and an act of onstage violence the play swivels around (and around again) to ask a series of “what if … ?” questions.
“The gun is a signifier, a symbol — a very real and ugly symbol, but still a symbol in a poetic matrix,” Wright said. “What level of poetry and abstraction are we dealing with in this case, as opposed to balls-to-the-wall theater of cruelty and violence? And who knows who’s going to be in the audience and seeing this?”
Wright, who is also the artistic director of ArtsWest, said “Office Hour” caught his attention with its questions about how we treat the unwanted and alienated. His artistic team, with advice from a consulting Seattle Police Department detective, treats the prop gun very carefully (keep it locked up, never point it at the audience) both to reinforce basic gun safety and to avoid ruining the play by jolting viewers out of its story. As a precaution, the theater will warn audiences about the prop with lobby signs and program notes.
“A feeling of cruelty or alienation is not something we want to inflict on the audience,” Wright said. “Because then they’ll stop paying attention to the play, stop listening to the devastating and beautiful conversations Julia [Cho] has written.”
Like Chekhov said, bringing a gun onstage must be a careful and deliberate choice — and more so today than in 1889.
“It was the heightened awareness around mass shootings that led me to write ‘Office Hour’ in the first place,” Cho said. “I never imagined I would write a play like it. But then the world became an unimaginable place.” Now, she added, when she attends any large event, the specter of mass shooting flits through her mind: “That is huge. That loss of innocence, that loss of faith in the safety of public spaces, is something I grieve.”
Directors around Seattle say mass shootings have changed the way they think about plays with gun violence, and how they handle it.
This March, John Langs directed “Romeo + Juliet” at ACT Theatre and wanted to build a menacing atmosphere. “One thing that inspired doing that play was these school shootings and the courage of young people in the face of violence,” he said. “I wanted a dangerous room to articulate that Verona was not a picnic, that it was a place of violence.” So he had actors before the show circling ACT’s Allen stage (a theater in the round) with weapons.
One day, minutes before a midweek matinee, Langs was sitting in his office and saw six school buses pulling up to the ACT sidewalk. He immediately walked out of his office, found the stage manager, and said: “Please cut the guns.”
“I think young people are really smart and would get the idea,” Langs said. “But when young people come in to see the show — my gut feeling is that it would be a little more frightening and triggering, given what our country has been through.”
Langs has recently passed on great new plays with realistic gun violence, like “Gloria” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which involves an office shooting. “It’s a really well-written, tightly crafted, horrifying play,” he said. “To do it right, it wants to be graphic — there may be a future season that balances the right way for us to do a show like that.”
Some theaters, locally and nationally, have also begun active-shooter trainings for its staff and volunteers — in case an audience member comes with intent to shoot, or is carrying a weapon and, confused by choreographed gun violence, pulls out a personal weapon. The main message to artists, Langs said, was: “If there is any fear at all, just walk offstage.”
Other directors have also been talking about how to lean into or away from gun violence.
Annex Theatre, for example, happened to have a season-selection meeting the day after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando — and decided to skip a few plays they’d received about school shootings. “The general consensus was that we were not emotionally equipped as a company to produce work about this topic,” said artistic director Catherine Blake Smith. Intiman’s next show (“The Events”), on the other hand, begins in the aftermath of a mass shooting.
“I am appalled at gratuitous use of handguns onstage and the lack of sensitivity to point guns at the audience, whether they are fired or not,” said Greg Carter, artistic director of Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Just a few years ago, Carter said, he walked out of a performance because an actor handled a gun in a way he found viscerally unsafe.
“I have dismissed several plays from consideration at Strawshop because the playwright could not find a more sophisticated way to find a conclusion than senseless violence,” he said. “That’s not to say I don’t want to talk about guns onstage.” Strawberry Theatre Workshop has produced work with guns (“Accidental Death of an Anarchist”) and plays about gun violence (“Control,” “9 Circles”) that didn’t require guns. Carter’s favorite play, in fact, is “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which needs its protagonist to fight enemies to the death: “Otherwise, you’re producing Steve Martin’s ‘Roxanne,’ a charming comedy version with almost no stakes at all.”
The question, for all the directors, is how to treat guns in a way that makes sense now. “I believe in a theater that can scare you, take you to the edge of an experience,” Langs said. “But we’re waking up in a society that has different tolerances and demands — as an artist, you have to think about what’s going to keep people in a story or take them out of a story.”
Over the years as a theater critic, I’ve seen both extremes of the gun question. In 2003, one director staged Chris Jeffries’ musical “Vera Wilde,” featuring Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich — and replaced every onstage gun with a banana. It was a memorably ridiculous, woefully distracting choice. Thirteen years later, members of local company Saint Genet re-created “Shoot” (Chris Burden’s 1971 performance-art piece in which the artist was shot in the arm with a .22-caliber rifle) at dawn in a nearby forest: real gun, real marksman, real bullet fired into the arm of the director, real blood leaking out of him as he walked several miles to the theater where he’d perform that night. When people found out what had happened that morning, some were outraged. Others were galvanized. Guns onstage, like guns offstage, are dangerous, tricky tools.
“Office Hour,” Wright said, needs its gun — and he hopes it adds to, rather than distracts from, Cho’s play. “You’ve always got to be making art for the times,” he said. “It’s all about asking questions and being very, very thoughtful in your approach.”
One suspects Chekhov would approve.
“Office Hour” by Julio Cho; May 2-26; ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $20-$42; 206-938-0963, artswest.org