New Play ‘Shooter’ Aims to Make Mass Shootings Non-Partisan

What if the person -- and the gun -- kill people?

Troy (Michael Gnat) instructs Jim (Ean Sheehy) on how to fire a gun. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

What is the nature of the relationship between human and firearm? No one would confuse a human arm with an assault rifle. A hand and a handgun have little in common. And yet, with each school shooting, the juncture point between person and weapon is, once again, the continuum along which we debate. Does fault lie with the trigger or the trigger finger? These are the questions being grappled with in Shooter, currently receiving its world premiere at Theaterlab where it runs through March 31.

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Anti-gun liberals believe removal of the gun renders the finger harmless, while gun rights activists proclaim “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Shooter takes these opposing opinions out of the realm of bumper-sticker slogans and investigates the questions that split the polemic.

Does fault lie with the trigger or the trigger finger?

To delve into these questions, Shooter playwright Sam Graber followed the smoking gun of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre back to the arm that held it. “I actually went to a firearm range and started training with a former Navy Seal,” he recalls. “While I was there, I took stock of the number of shooter-massacre happenings… When you go back to the Camden spree shooting in New Jersey in 1949 all the way up to today, the heavy majority are perpetrated by men, and I started to think of the play in terms of the destabilization of the male identity in today’s world and how shooter massacres are correlated to that fragility.”

Graber then began to formulate a script tweaking the slogan of the National Rifle Association to become “Guns don’t kill people, but men with guns can’t stop killing people.” What if the person and the gun kill people?

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Anton Chekhov is attributed with this principle of drama: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” In Shooter, the gun is both introduced and fired in the first act. Graber sets a scene with particular immediacy in the wake of President Trump’s recent call for arming teachers. High-school student Gavin (Nicholas Tyler Corbin) intends to carry out a mass shooting at his suburban school, but he is preemptively killed by armed father Jim (Ean Sheehy) just outside his intended target. The scenario might sound like a dream come true for the most loyal NRA devotees — and, indeed, Jim is labeled a hero by the conservative right. The NRA raises millions of dollars for his legal defense.

The concept of the gun becomes something of a character in and of itself, fired repeatedly over the course of the next 90 minutes. The presence of so many firearms, and the fact that they are often pointed directly at the audience — by director Katrin Hilbe’s order — is potent. It is hard not to flinch when facing down the barrel of an assault rifle, even when you know it’s made of plastic. Such semiotics make Shooter‘s audiences violently uncomfortable, but in a necessary way. These guns on stage are the power of theater at its most fundamental: the ability to take a representative object and imbue it with the power of the real thing.

Perhaps in response to this discomfort, sound designer Andy Evan Cohen eschews naturalistic gunfire, distorting the shots into something of a psychological echo. Cohen’s “Bang!” feels less like a physical act and more like a cry for help, the resonance of real-world trauma manifested.

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Graber, in his script, doesn’t shy away from the paradox he presents: If a shooter carries out a massacre, we can’t blame the gun; when a shooter intervenes to stop a massacre, there is plenty of talk of the integral role played by the gun. But the playwright goes well beyond the arguable role of firearms. He delves deeper into an examination of the shooters themselves, using the vehicle of a preempted school shooting to explore larger questions of the destabilized male identity. Which leads, in due course, to more troubling questions than answers.

When the Parkland shooting took place on Feb. 14 of this year, director Hilbe noted how parallels in current events affected the show. “We have two people in our cast who come from the vicinity of the Parkland school, so it really resonated,” she explains. “We felt at least we’re participating in the conversation as artists with what we can.”

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Yet Shooter resists the instinct to be liberally dismissive. It interrogates both liberal and conservative points of view in earnest by focusing on the humanity of the issue. While “liberal theater” might condescend to gun culture, resembling the parent in A Christmas Story (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”), Graber and Hilbe reject a patronizing tone. They stand by their work as political, but not partisan, though this stance may leave them at odds with the current NYC theater climate.

“Shooter” looks at conservative and liberal points of view.

When a play dealing with firearms is presented in NYC, many in the audience already have in mind exactly what they expect to (and want to) see. They are already evaluating the play not on its merit, but on some standard of what a firearms play should accomplish. This does not make it easy to write outside the echo chamber of Off-Off Broadway.

In fact, there are many ways in which Shooter is not a quintessential NYC play. Graber is actually stationed in Minneapolis and is keenly aware — proud, even — that he is not cowing to the stereotypical visions possessed by local audiences. Hearing that I was located on the Lower East Side, he playfully offered up a geographical lesson: “If you look west, and you’re on First, and you keep going to Ninth Avenue, then Tenth Avenue, and then there’s the river, and I swear to you, the other side of the river, it’s called America.”

I checked the map. He’s not wrong.

Shooter certainly does not feel conservative, but it points to the reasons that conservative art remains fairly invisible within a medium and industry where liberals not only consume most of the product but largely control the messagingShooter’s current run raises the question of whether a liberal-leaning NYC theater scene can accept non-partisan plays on political issues. The investigation of that relationship may require as much nuance as that of finger to trigger.