"Assassins," a Stephen Sondheim musical featuring nine would-be presidential killers from American history, puts guns center stage in its look at pursuit of the American dream.
The guns are almost another character in the show, said Robbie Jones, who is designing the University of Nebraska at Omaha production that opens Wednesday.
But UNO's performance space is so intimate, front-row patrons are just four feet from the actors. Most theatrical guns are too crudely made and too loud for this small space.
That sent Jones and a half-dozen others scrambling to research the actual guns used to kill Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy, plus others used in attempts on the lives of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Ford, Nixon and Reagan.
Jones and tech-theater student Bob Hokasen are using the research to turn .22-caliber starter guns, which shoot blanks (but not too loudly), into facsimiles of the assassins' weapons.
For Lee Harvey Oswald's much-photographed rifle, used to kill President Kennedy, they're building a replica from scratch. In the case of John Wilkes Booth's small pistol, which killed President Lincoln, safety will take precedence over historical accuracy in what you see.
"They're hard to find," Jones said of .22 starter guns in particular shapes. "Everything is made in Italy, for some reason, and customs can take anywhere from four days to four weeks to clear them. Nobody in town stocks this kind of stuff."
Hokasen began by whittling dummy models from wood for rehearsals. Next they ordered domestic starter guns as close to what they wanted as possible.
"I've always had an interest in gunsmithing," Hokasen said. "What we're doing isn't gunsmithing, but the important thing is attention to detail."
Lengthening barrels with epoxy, shaping new wooden grips and repainting the faux weapons has been a monthlong trial-and-error process. Since several starter guns are fired during the show, they have to remain operational — and safe. The law precludes use of actual guns onstage.
"We use safety procedures as if handling actual weapons," show director D. Scott Glasser said. "They're handed to the actors by people designated to be in charge of them. Nobody else touches them, and they're loaded only when necessary to shoot."
The biggest pistol of all, Jones said, was chosen by one of the meekest characters: Sarah Jane Moore, who intended to shoot President Ford. Charles Guiteau, who shot President Garfield, chose his gun believing it would be on historical display. And it was, for a time.
Jones said the gun-replica project cost upwards of $1,000, which came out of his $3,000 production budget for the show. UNO hopes to regain some of that money by renting the guns to other theaters staging "Assassins."
Costwise, it helped that UNO's set, a carnival shooting gallery, will be mostly made of canvas and recycled materials from the scene shop.
Glasser said the show is about an American culture of assassination, and how we respond to it as a public. That includes what the shootings do to our trust in each other, and how we make decisions for our children's futures, he said.
"The more I delved into the play, the more I liked it," Glasser said.
After short runs off Broadway and in London in 1992 and 1993, the show was retooled in 2004 and won five Tony Awards. It's that version UNO is using. Glasser said Sondheim encouraged using weapons that fire onstage, rather than recorded gunfire.
"I like detail work," Jones said of the gun project. "It brings a lot to the play the audience might not be aware of, but I think it influences their experience quite a lot."
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