Hello all my friends! Thanks for coming back. I’ve been working hard at my next career move. Exciting, exhausting, exhilarating, and time consuming. I appreciate you checking back in. Spread the word that I am back online. I’ll do my best to post regularly, but I can’t promise anything, since I don’t know exactly how much time this new career will eat up.
But to the point at hand!
Weapons are very cool.
I say this as a diehard pacifist, as someone who was never allowed to have or pretend I had guns or any other kind of weapons in play, and required the same abstention of my own kids. However. The reality stands that weapons are very cool, especially when you know that they are fake. The stakes are lower, there’s a whole lot less pressure or aura of mystery surrounding the weapons.
Unfortunately, that is absolutely and frighteningly untrue.
Not that weapons are cool- that is true, and that is exactly why they are SO incredibly dangerous. ESPECIALLY when they are fake. We are likely to not take the same care, precautions, healthy respect and fear of the weapons if we believe that we cannot actually hurt anyone with those fake weapons. This is exactly the wrong way to think.
Which is kind of a bummer, since weapons are so cool. And if you are especially interested in theatre because of the great fights and weaponry that you get to mess around with in Shakespeare, in Peter Pan, in all kinds of amazing shows. No worries- you can still do all that thrilling and fabulous and chilling combat. You can fire guns, swordfight, cloak and dagger, switchblade fight (think West Side Story), clubs, sticks, whatever. But you are going to be able to do this in such a way that is safe and brilliant.
That I’ve already spoken about. That’s back in the safety post. Go read that if you need a refresher.
What I really want to talk about here is the care and feeding of stage weapons in general, and the proper respect and handling of them. Knowing this stuff makes you a head and a half above the amateurs who grab the first weapon they see from the prop table and run around playing with it until the stage manager catches them and either grinds them into submission with the Stage Manager SuperStare, or fires them from the show. And believe me, the SM is well within their rights to do either. So don’t be that actor. Be the one that knows the rules below. You want the roles that let you work with weapons, so you want to be the actor that can be trusted with weapons. Simple, right? Like everything else in the business…
- IF IT’S NOT YOURS, DON’T TOUCH IT. This should be a no-brainer at this point. As with any prop, if you have not been blocked to use it, don’t even think about it. The stakes are higher with weapons, as they are much more tempting than other props, and you can’t get fired for touching someone’s rubber fish.
- IF IT’S YOURS, ONLY TOUCH IT AFTER YOU’VE BEEN TRAINED AND BRIEFED. In all professional and semi-professional companies, and most community theatre groups, the stage manager and/or the director and/or the weapons master and/or the fight choreographer will have a specific time in which they will instruct you in the use of the weapon. They will tell you how to hold it, where to point it, where not to touch it, how it attaches to your costume, and what to expect when you are using it. If they don’t, if you are expected to just pick up a weapon and shake it at another actor, REFUSE TO DO THIS until someone who knows about it takes the lead in helping you.
- DO NOT ASSUME THAT YOU KNOW HOW TO USE A WEAPON, EVEN IF YOU HAVE USED ONE BEFORE. Every firearm, every sword, every knife, every stick and rock is different. They are different weights, lengths, sizes. The same starter pistol you used in Oklahoma last year may have been loaded with a .22 caliber blank, and now there’s a .32 in there. Until you’ve been walked through it, don’t go there.
- ASK WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW. Ask ALL questions you have, even if you are in the middle of a rehearsal, in the middle of a line, in the middle of a word. Your safety and the safety of the rest of the company takes precedent over anything else. If you get to the point where you are even supposed to drop the gun, and you realize that you’re not positive that that’s something that you were walked through, STOP. Call for someone to help you. It does NOT make you look stupid or wimpy or weird, it makes you look professional. Dropping a gun and having a blank accidentally go off and burn or injure someone will make you look way worse, believe me. ASK.
Those are the basics that go with all stage weaponry. Here are some of the weapon-specific things you need to know:
Guns are extremely tempting, and extremely dangerous. Even the fake ones.
- ASSUME THAT EVERY GUN CAN KILL. You need to treat every stage gun as if it is a live and loaded firearm. It’s just a safe and respectful habit to have. This includes squirt guns, plastic guns, guns that are falling apart in your hands, guns that have no holes for bullets and no triggers. Guns that are carved out of wood. Guns that are cut out of cardboard. Every. One. It’s a fine thing to be laughed at for, for treating all guns as if they are deadly weapons. You can handle it.
- GUNS CAN HARM WITHOUT BULLETS. In two major ways.
- First, a blank, which is the little thing that is loaded into a prop gun or starter pistol that makes the loud noise, is basically everything but the bullet tip itself. The gunpowder, the shell casing, and the cotton wad are all there, and they really do go off when the trigger is pulled. For this reason, you NEVER POINT A PROP GUN DIRECTLY AT ANOTHER PERSON. Even the one you are on stage with, that you are supposed to threaten or shoot. You will always be aiming to the side or above them, a specific point determined by the director or fight choreographer and that is rehearsed in every fight call. If you are asked to point a prop gun directly at another person, REFUSE. You can come up with a thousand reasons, not the least of which can be “I’m not comfortable pointing a gun at someone.” Not just actors- make sure you are not being asked to fire a gun that is pointed into the audience, sometimes an issue when you are in the round or 3/4 thrust spaces. Not your problem to solve. Your responsibility is to be sure you are not pointing it at someone else.
- Guns are a trigger (no pun intended) for traumatic responses in many of the people you are going to be working with. Artists, as I’ve mentioned, have often been through hell and a half, and you may not know someone else’s hell until you see their reaction to a gun. You could come into rehearsal one day, see the gun you have been waiting for to do your big scene with; you say, “Heck yeah! It’s finally here!” And you grab it off the prop table and do your best James Bond pose with it pointed ahead of you just as someone walks in whose brother was shot in a robbery two years ago. They pass out, or become fetal, or vomit, or beat the living crap out of you before they realize that it wasn’t real. I’ve seen it, you don’t want to. Trust me. Let someone else introduce the gun to the cast, and you are just a person entrusted with something incredibly dangerous on many levels. Respect that trust. Earn and keep it.
- GUNS NEED CARE. You should not be the one caring for the gun. The actor should NEVER be the person loading, unloading, cleaning, oiling, setting, or retrieving the gun. All of that should be stage management or weapons master. Again, if you are asked to do any of those things, REFUSE. You absolutely can. It’s not safe for an actor who is not a weapons master to be taking a weapon apart and dealing with it. Besides the fact that it’s not physically safe, it’s not artistically safe. If you put the thing back together backwards (easier than you might think), you could destroy it the next time it’s fired. And prop guns are expensive. Not that you couldn’t do it, but that you shouldn’t. If you want to become a weapons master, do it! We need more of them. But as an actor, let someone else be responsible for that. You have enough to think about.
Swords are cool. Swords are very, very cool. I am possessed of a very high opinion of steel and especially great stage swordfights. They are also extremely dangerous, and here’s what you need to know about swords:
- ASSUME SWORDS CAN KILL. Because they can. Even the old rattly ones, the beat up ones, wooden ones, and the ones with little buttons on the ends. Especially those, in fact. The plastic ones or the foam ones… ok, they pretty much can’t, but still treat them like they could. It’s good practice, and it can’t hurt. The number one cause of people getting injured or killed by stage swords are the swords breaking, and the actor wielding the broken weapon is out of control. Again, I’ve seen this really happen, so I’m’ begging you to trust me.
- SWORDS ARE NOT TOYS. Even the toy swords. When I was in The Nutcracker, the Toy Soldiers had little wooden swords. Two young Soldiers were playing with their swords in a pretend swordfight backstage, and one of the swords snapped off and one of the two young dancers ended up with several stitches in her cheek. The safest swords, in fact, are the well-made fightworthy swords and foils that are used by the high-level company. But even those are known to break or fly out of control when their actors are not careful and respectful. Another company I worked with had an unbelievably professional weapons corps, who trained for years together and really knew their stuff. They did everything right, and still, in one weekend, their fight choreographer lost an earlobe during fight call; one fighter was stabbed in the leg because he was out of alignment with his partner; and one fighter lost her grip on a weapon which flew into the air and cracked the skull of another actor. If that’s what can happen in a super tight, everything-right weekend, imagine what could happen in a place where people who don’t know what they are doing just play with swords.
- DON’T TOUCH THE BLADE. Unless you are specifically blocked to do so, don’t touch the blade with your fingers or hands. The oil on your skin can cause rust and weakening of the blade. Also, if you are on stage and you grab the blade of your sword, the audience just thinks, “OUCH.” Because if it was a real sword, you would have just cut your hand to ribbons.
OK, you get the idea. I’m not going into knives, sticks, rocks, bottles, etc. You can pretty much apply everything I’ve written here to any weapons.
Weapons are still cool. And you are WAY cool when you know how to approach weapons like a pro.