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Chicago theaters say guns on stage are here to stay

Use of guns in Chicago stage productions comes with strict protocols, safety training

The cast of Theater Wit’s production of “Mr. Burns, a post electric play” has been trained in the safe use of the “many, many guns” utilized in the production.
The cast of Theater Wit’s production of “Mr. Burns, a post electric play” has been trained in the safe use of the “many, many guns” utilized in the production.
Charles Osgood Photography

Days after cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed and director Joel Souza was injured after actor Alec Baldwin fired a gun on the set of “Rust” during the filming of the movie in New Mexico, some Chicago theater workers say their procedures are safe and have no plans to stop using guns in stage productions here.

While they note one large difference between film and play production — real guns, meaning guns that have the ability to fire live rounds, are rarely used on theater stages — they say that blanks pose dangers as well, but point out that solid protocols are in place to ensure the safety of the actors and the audience.

“In theater, I never use any guns that can discharge anything from its barrel because they are dangerous,” said Rick Gilbert, partner in R&D Choreography, a Chicago based fight-choreography company that works with theater and film productions.

“The muzzle flash is a real important thing for movies so that’s why films often use real guns that are loaded with blanks. But nowadays there’s no reason for that because it’s easy to add muzzle flashing in after the fact,” Gilbert said.

“It is a rare occasion that a real gun is used on stage,” said Jim Guy, properties director at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Real guns are usually only used on stage for productions that are period pieces where a replica blank gun is not available, he added, noting also that using CGI effects to insert gun muzzle flashes can be cost-prohibitive for movies with lower budgets.

Guy, who served as president of the Society of Properties Artisan Managers for 16 years until this year, also has taught gun safety classes at theaters and universities since the 1980s. He said although the incident in New Mexico appears to have been the result of the use of a real gun, there are real dangers in using “blank guns” — defined as a gun that has a blocked barrel — because a blank gun still produces an explosion and discharges a cartridge and gas that can injure.

“There’s different types of blank-firing weapons,” Guy explained. “There’s front exhaust, top exhaust and side exhaust. For instance, with a top exhaust gun, you can point it straight at someone and pull the trigger and the shooter and the victim are the safest people in the room. If the exhaust goes to the side, the people in the side can potentially be in danger, but you have to run extensive tests to see how far that exhaust goes and then work according to those parameters.”

As on movie sets, blank guns used in theatrical productions are kept by a trained weapons master who gives the guns to the actor right before a scene calling for one, and then collects it as the actor comes off stage, and locks it away.

Theater companies in Chicago such as The Goodman, Theater Wit and others say they have no plans to stop producing plays that require the use of guns — pointing to the fact that they use only blank guns and follow strict protocols already.

“One of Goodman’s priorities is the production of new plays — and many plays emerging today address important topical societal issues, including those involving gun violence,” Scott Conn, director of production and operations at Goodman Theatre said in an email.

Gilbert said he just finished training the actors and crew at Lookingglass Theater for its production of “Her Honor Jane Byrne,” which opens Nov. 11 and includes the use of guns.

Ensemble member Christine Mary Dunford stars as the title character in the Lookigglass Theatre production of “Her Honor Jane Byrne.” 
Ensemble member Christine Mary Dunford stars as the title character in the Lookigglass Theatre production of “Her Honor Jane Byrne.” The play, which opens Nov. 11, features the use of guns.
Liz Lauren

At Theater Wit, which is currently running “Mr. Burns, a post electric play,” a play that director Jeremy Wechsler said has “many, many guns,” there is no hesitation to stage plays with guns.

“The drill is the same for every show. One is hiring a violence designer who is certified in firearms,” Wechsler said. “They come in and train the cast and crew. They choreograph things like where you can point the gun, and it’s really about where the cartridge ejects. The barrel is filled with lead — it can’t shoot to the front — but the cartridge can eject and can do that with some force.”

Wechsler said to protect against ear damage actors can wear skin-colored earplugs, and actors rehearse with rubber guns that cannot fire. He noted that there has never been an injury at Theater Wit from a blank gun, but confirmed that there have been a few actors injured from swords, due to contact. Swords and knives, often used in live productions, follow similar safety protocols, Guy said.

“Everything is meticulously rehearsed. There is no such thing as improv when you’re swinging a sword or pushing a knife toward somebody,” Guy said. He added, however, that there will always be the potential for slip-ups. “Theater is essentially a living thing. Even if it’s always the same lines and same blocking, it’s human beings doing something live in front of you and there’s always a margin of error. But good fight choreographers make sure to eliminate as much of the margin of error as possible.”

Don Beltrame, co-owner of Suburban Sporting Goods in Melrose Park, agreed that just because a gun fires blanks, it doesn’t mean it is safe.

“ It’s not just an audible noise; there is an explosion happening,” Beltrame said. But he believes non-lethal injuries are much more likely than fatalities from a blank gun.

“I don’t think a blank in most situations would kill. It might burn someone or hurt their eyes or ears,” Beltrame said.

David Wooley, a Chicago-based freelance fight choreographer who worked with the “Mr. Burns” cast and heads Columbia College’s stage combat program, said his main task is to protect the actors and the audience.

“The danger is from the ejecting of the cartridge and the venting of the gases. As a fight choreographer I’m looking at fields of fire to figure out where your evening is going so that you don’t hit actors on stage or audience members,” said Wooley, who also is a member of the Society of American Fight Directors, a group that promotes safety and teaches filmmakers and play producers stage combat skills.

Ken-Matt Martin, artistic director at Victory Gardens Theater, believes show producers will up the ante going forward when it comes to safety protocols involving weapons.

“Every producer needs to pay closer attention to the working conditions around the entire scenario. Whether it’s using fake cigarettes or guns, oftentimes it’s a matter of people moving too fast and not taking the time to put the proper safety precautions in place,” Martin said.