I’m not a fan of gunplay on stage. And this goes beyond the safety considerations, because for the purposes of this discussion let’s assume everyone has their heads on straight and knows how to handle the safety issues with weapons on stage.
My problem is that the stage can’t compete with film and television on this kind of reality. The sound department alone on TV and film can make that gun sound like a cannon, and the use of editing and blood effects and squibs and the like can bring the dramatic reality of gunplay to life on the screen in a vivid way. But even then, I’d bet actual cops would tell you gunshots and their effects are not at all like they are portrayed on television – so you also have the dramatic factor in there as well. There’s real gunshots and then there are the gunshots we accept as real for entertainment. Just as in real life fistfights are usually awkward, haphazard affairs and a single punch will ruin someone’s hand at the same time it breaks someone else’s jaw, but that’s never how you see it on television…..
So you have three realities:
1. The actual reality of gunshots, how they sound, what firing a gun does to both shooter and victim. Gunshots can often sound like a benign fire cracker and a single bullet anywhere can kill you by severing an artery, and at the very least it’s a huge deal to be friggin’ shot.
2. The accepted dramatic reality of gunshots as drummed into us by decades of film and television. The guns always fire (unless it’s the shot that will absolutely, positively kill our hero, in which case the gun misfires or there are no more bullets), they always sound very badass, and if you’re the hero and the bad guy’s gun didn’t misfire, you always get shot in the shoulder and somehow all it requires is a bit of minor first-aid to patch you up nicely.
3. The unacceptable reality we often see on stage, where the guns clearly are fake, the blanks are pathetic (when they work at all), and you rarely are seeing enough detailed execution on how bullets affect the victim, even when given the higher threshold for bullet wounds usually afforded us by dramatic convention.
So when I see a gun drawn on stage, I believe it’s actually anti-suspenseful. Why? We know damned well it’s fake. In film & television, we know we’re going to be in good hands, we’re gonna really believe this shit. But on stage, to make us believe it’s real, you’d have to do a hell of a lot of technical work so make the gun’s firing authentic, the bullet wounds authentic, and we’ve been betrayed too often by a lack of this work. This is particularly the case in classes and small theatre productions where there is rarely time enough to solve the technical issues that come up, so everyone goes back on the playground, ten years old, playing cops & robbers and acting up a pretty bad storm. Or you get the ol’ let’s make everyone wince by pointing the gun out towards the audience – yuck. We’re not involved in your story when you do that, we’re just freaked out and praying you’re sane and/or competent, and even when you are we remain pissed off that you made us worry.
A million years ago I participated in a scene from Pulp Fiction in class, where the director really busted his ass to get this right. I was the victim of the famous Samuel Jackson character’s biblical speech and gun firing. We put a blood pack in the palm of my hand, and covered it in flesh-colored makeup, which sat there undetected by the audience for 15 minutes prior to the big moment. When the guy finally shot me, he had a .357 handgun with a half-load blank. That thing was loud. I slapped my hand against my shoulder and the bloodpack exploded all over me, and I knocked back in my chair to the ground. It was awesome. But then we hit the other problem of gunplay on stage: Even when you get it right it took the audience completely out of the story! It was so real that several people in the audience stood up and completely freaked out because they thought there had been a horrible accident and I, the actor, had actually been shot.
So there’s this weird dynamic on stage whereby if you miss the mark, we roll our eyes and there’s just zero suspense at all, and if you hit the mark we’re freaked out that we’ve been witness to a dreadful mistake. It takes a shitload of work to hit the right balance whereby the audience willingly suspends reality to believe that these actors are actually shooting at each other 20 feet away, but still feels in good directorial hands and aren’t angstified about whether everyone (including the audience) is safe.
Writers are often no help here. I’ve seen umpteen new stage scripts, from one-acts to full-length, both comedic and dramatic, where the writer is getting their Tarentino on and guns are firing everywhere as if it’s the movies. The best case scenario is that even if the story is good, the situation believable, the execution brilliant – it still will rarely compete with what the audience sees every day on television or the big screen. So why go there? The potential of gunplay is so much more rewarding to craft and execute than the real thing. In terms of a class setting, unless you’re going to do all the requisite work, my advice is to skip the gunplay altogether.