How much onstage violence can a theater audience stomach — especially gun violence, and especially now, when we’re swimming in an epoch of mass shootings in the U.S.?
Researchers have debated the severity of the numbers (in part because we, as a country, have not made keeping reliable data on mass shootings a priority), but you’d have to twist yourself in intellectual knots to deny that the consciousness of the nation is keenly aware of the potential for mass violence at public gatherings, from schools to concerts to places of worship to movie theaters, like never before.
Lovers of live theater regularly make the argument that there’s something qualitatively different, more visceral and immediate, about watching a kiss, an argument, or a fistfight between actors on a stage versus the remove of a screen.
Given all that, what are the limits for depicting tense, realistic gun violence onstage — with the emphasis on “tense” and “realistic,” as opposed to the sometimes-poignant-sometimes-comic gore audiences expect from a blood-spattery theater/film writer like Martin McDonagh (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” etc.)?
Bay Area-based playwright Julia Cho tested some of those limits with her 2016 play “Office Hour” (running May 2-26 at ArtsWest), partly impelled by the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. “Office Hour” stars a frighteningly sulky student and his well-meaning teacher — and what transpires between them before a gun appears.
New York critics recoiled. Jesse Green’s review in The New York Times made the play’s gunshots its centerpiece: “I must confess up front that triggers are my trigger … even people less jumpy than I seem to find this a tough watch.” Vulture.com ran with the headline: “ ’Office Hour’ Is a Well-Intentioned Mistake.” Playwright Paula Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive”) wrote a critique of the production and its reviews, which she called “almost hysteric”: “It is difficult to spend 80 minutes under assault. Yes, it is. But let’s rejoice that a writer has spent years living, reenacting, reading under the assault of Virginia Tech, and who has the courage to create the play. Let’s live up to her courage.”
Los Angeles critics, who saw the world premiere of “Office Hour” at South Coast Repertory, were less gun-shy, and more interested in the play and performances than the violence itself.
What does Cho think of all this? Did the gunshots upstage the rest of her play? Does she think mass shootings have changed the cultural ecosystem so much that theater-makers should adjust their tactics when telling stories about violence?
We had a chance to ask over email.
Seattle Times: Critics seemed to focus on the gunshots of “Office Hour.” Do you think the violence upstaged the rest of the work the play was trying to do, at least in the eyes of the critics (and responses by playwright Paula Vogel and others)? If you had the chance to do it over again, would you handle the staged violence differently?
Julia Cho: I cannot overstate how much I myself found the gunshots — especially when live — jarring and upsetting. In rehearsals, in previews, during the runs, it was never easy for any of us — director, actors, designers, crew. Using live ammunition [live blanks, in some previous productions] was not a casual choice. We knew it would be dangerous and upsetting. We thought a lot about what it would mean to an audience to hear live ammunition, smell the acrid smoke, and see the spark of live fire jumping from a gun. But with this particular issue — mass shootings — I felt it was crucial to represent the actual event as accurately as I could. And even with live fire, I knew that the shootings onstage would still come nowhere close to the horror of the actual thing.
In the end, I don’t regret the way we staged it, even if it was too much for some audiences. When you have a play that’s never been produced before, that first production is the place where you need to see what the play is and how far it can go. I wouldn’t go back and redo the play any differently because I learned something from all of it. That said, there have been subsequent productions that have, for various reasons, used recorded gunshots [as ArtsWest does] instead of live ones and I support and stand by these productions just as much. And as the play continues to be produced, I hope new artists will find new ways to stage and approach the text.
Has the heightened awareness around mass shootings changed the way you deal with staged violence in your writing?
It was the heightened awareness around mass shootings that led me to a write “Office Hour” in the first place. I never imagined I would write a play like it. But then the world became an unimaginable place.
Has it changed the way you receive staged violence as an audience member?
The awareness around mass shootings has not changed the way I perceive staged violence as an audience member so much as it has changed me as an audience member period. Now when I go to any large event, the idea of a mass shooting occurring crosses my mind. That is huge. That loss of innocence, that loss of faith in the safety of public spaces, is something I grieve.
A few local directors I spoke with talked about various ways they “soften” stage violence these days — sound cues instead of using live blanks, or lighting cues instead of sound to indicate gunshots. Every production deserves case-by-case treatment, of course, but do you have thoughts about this “softening” trend in general?
Every production has to consider what an audience can bear for a multitude of elements: How loud can the music get? How much nudity? How slow the pacing? How frenetic the action? And all of these things can change from theater to theater, production to production, or even night to night. I generally tend to trust the creative team to decide what a particular audience can bear. But I also tend to think that if audiences can get to the point where they find watching gun violence onstage unbearable, that might be a good thing. Because then maybe we can finally reach a point where we find it unbearable in real life — and maybe something can finally change.
“Office Hour” by Julia Cho; May 2-26; ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $20-$42; 206-938-0963, artswest.org