something has gone horribly, horribly wrong in this country ...

Gunplay photo (c) The Bacchanals

by paul rothwell
Tuesday 20 - Saturday 24 August 2013
BATS Theatre Out of Site, corner of Cuba & Dixon Streets, Wellington

The Bacchanals return with a brand new show exploring that most hallowed of American traditions: the mass shooting. Ever since John Billington became the colony’s first murderer in 1630, guns have played a vital role in their international identity, as America pulls out all the stops to ensure each new gun massacre is bigger and better than the last. Join the award-winning producers of Coriolanus and The Clouds this winter on a heart-warming journey as the sole survivor of the slaughter of a cheerleading squad turns her tragedy into triumph!


Gunplay starred
Salesi Le'ota as the Narrator
Joe Dekkers-Reihana as Cody Garcia (an everyman)
Michael Ness as Dale Campbell (local sheriff)
Uther Dean as Melvin Campbell (Dale's brother)
Jean Sergent as Dawn Cooley (former Miss America contestant)
Hilary Penwarden as her daughter Savannah (a cheerleader)
Ellie Stewart as Skyler McLain (the most popular girl in school)
Aidan Weekes as Connor McLain (Skyler's brother, basketball champ)
Jonny Potts as Chuck Larrimore (gunstore owner)
Alex Greig as Jeff Fuller (the town's once-great All Star)
Michael Trigg as Noah Schwartz (a youth pastor)
Kirsty Bruce as Mallory Gilmore-Billington (a post-grad student)
Brianne Kerr as Kara Bowman (eighth runner up in American Idol 2005)
Alice May Connolly as Gracie-Luellen Peed (state rifle shooting champion)
David Lawrence as Beau Babbitt (ham radio enthusiast)
Julia Harrison as Georgette Drotz (a cocktail waitress)
and introducing Langdon Cobbe as DeShawn Washington

Stage Manager Dasha Fedchuk
Lighting Design Uther Dean & Charlotte Pleasants
Sound Design Walter Plinge
'Welcome to Fairview' Lyrics Rothwell, Music Harrison/Lawrence/Le'ota/Rothwell/Pendwarden
'Devastated' Lyrics Rothwell, Music Lawrence
'Trigger-Finger' Lyrics Rothwell, Music Bruce/Kerr/Lawrence/Le'ota/Rothwell/Stewart
'The Devil's Prayer' Lyrics Rothwell, Music Lawrence
Lighting & Sound Operator Charlotte Pleasants
Uther Dean dressed by Charlotte Simmonds
Publicist Brianne Kerr
Graphic Design Santa's Little Helper
Directed by David Lawrence

We were all drinking at BATS after a show in 2012 when James Holmes shot 70 people during a midnight screening of the new Batman film in Colorado. I remember it as the first time I'd ever watched a tragedy like this unfold in real time on social media instead of as a more complete event on the evening news or the next day's newspaper. As we heard they'd arrested the shooter, we mused, "Odd—they usually kill themselves rather than get taken alive," and I thought, "Hang on—when did mass shootings become usual and why am I so indifferent to this?" When the number dead was confirmed as 12, I thought, "One less than Columbine (13), & nowhere near Virginia Tech (32) - Cho Seung-Hui still wins!" & then I thought, "Hang on—when did mass shootings become a competition to outdo past levels of atrocity?" I had known for a while I wanted to make a show about guns and gun culture—I'd had the epic title Gunplay, or Happiness is a Warm Gun, or The Complete History of Firearms & High School Shootings for a long time but no show to go with it—and it took that night in July 2012 to get it off the long-list and onto my pile of 'active' projects. Eleven months later we premiered Gunplay at BATS and in that time it went from just a title to one of the maddest shows we ever made, and the show that I still get the most frequent inter-company petitions for us to one day remount.

Where did my fascination with gun culture and Americana come from? Well, it was impossible to grow up in New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s and not have American popular culture everywhere—television, music, film, fashion—and the US was held up as an ideal until the 1984 Labour Government and their nuclear-free policies reframed America as a corrupt capitalist superpower rather than the land of the free/home of the brave. I had a very conflicted family holiday in California as a 16 year-old in 1992 where I kind-of loved the tacky excess and self-delusion of the place. The transformation in television at the turn of the century where the US was suddenly producing incredible TV—instead of that bland Hollywood network drama sheen, there were shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Justified painting a completely different picture of modern American life—made me reconsider my feelings about the US, and taking up the banjo and mandolin in my 30s opened up for me whole new worlds of American folk, country and bluegrass music, and through those a reconsideration of what I knew about American history and culture. As for guns and mass shootings: Charlton Heston had visited London with a play when I was living there in 1999 and when asked about Columbine (in his capacity as NRA figurehead) he said "Guns didn't kill those teenagers; it was bad parenting!" which I thought a bizarre viewpoint. I'd seen plenty of "this person was driven to murder by death metal/video games" bullshit in my time and Dave Cullen's excellent 2009 book Columbine disproved everything about the narrative of that shooting that we'd been told by the media. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, there had been a frankly silly conversation within the Wellington theatre industry about us all being on the lookout for 'warning signs' of mental instability in young playwrights' work lest Paul Rothwell or Eli Kent or whoever should turn out to be the next Cho Seung-Hui. The argument was that surely anyone who'd read Cho's play Richard McBeef, written for a theatre class assignment and widely available online, should have been able to detect that he was a mass-murderer-in-waiting. Me, I'd read it and just concluded "This writer has no talent." My experience of guns themselves was limited but in my capacity as a venue tech at BATS I'd had to supervise shows that wanted to use replica firearms or even blank-firing pistols, so I was aware of how to allow such things to happen safely in a theatre. And Todd Houston, BATS' technical and facilities manager from 2011-2016, had served in the army and was a passionate—and absolutely safe and sensible—firearms devotee. When I listened to Todd talk about guns, it was for me like how other people described listening to me talk about Shakespeare. It was very easy for me to see guns and gunpowder as an amazing human achievement and that the US problem with mass shootings wasn't as simple as 'guns are bad'.

There were two significant moments that led to Gunplay being the third Bacchanals production in 2013, my favourite year in the company's history. The first was, as documented elsewhere on this website, a company meal after the penultimate performance of Coriolanus in January when I talked about the kinds of ideas I wanted such a show to explore, and those of us at my table tried to break a story. We must have settled on the basic premise then, which was that it would be set in a small town that kept on experiencing mass shootings, and that it might employ a documentary/verbatim style parodic of The Laramie Project. Morgan Rothwell had been an active part of that conversation and it must have awakened the sleeping Paul Rothwell, his Tyler Durden playwright alter-ego, because the second significant moment was during the last week of The Clouds a few months later when, after a show, he pitched us some characters and scenarios he'd been working on based on both that January conversation and his experience of working with us as actors in Coriolanus and The Clouds and trying to imagine what sort of characters he could see everyone as in a play about the small town we'd talked about in January. It was suddenly pretty clear that we had some momentum around the project and the thought Morgan had put into it was enough for me to talk to Cherie Jacobson, who had at the start of 2013 succeeded Martyn Wood as BATS programme manager. The problem was that it had to either happen before I left NZ at the start of September, or it would have to wait until 2014 and Cherie was already talking about March 2014 as the first available slot for us to do Once We Built A Tower, a play Dean Parker was writing for election year and had already sent me the first act of, with a note saying "If you think it's good, I'll write the second half!" So Gunplay very suddenly found itself scheduled to run at BATS in August, four months away.

There was a bit of confusion before things got going, because I had never anticipated that I could go down the route of asking the playwright Paul Rothwell to turn my idea into a play and even when Morgan outlined his ideas—Jamie could be a cheerleader whose entire team were slaughtered while she survived; Jean could be her Mom, a faded beauty queen; Brianne could be the town's local celebrity, a fifth-runner-up in American Idol; Alex could be the lone-wolf-vigilante up in the hills preparing to defend his town from the next mass shooting; the local sheriff could have a reclusive shut-in brother obsessed with Shirley Temple—I didn't realise he was volunteering/intending to write it himself. I had hoped, as with The Clouds, that the deadline of suddenly having an opening night scheduled would spur me to stop procrastinating and start turning all those bullet point ideas and conversations into an actual script. So for a month after The Clouds closed, Morgan and I were both, unaware, working on our own versions of the play. Once we'd realised, there was a very short period where we tried to see if the different scenes and scenarios we had both worked on might be able to fit together, but it was soon very clear that Morgan was well on his way to writing a proper play while what I had were sketches and fragments that at first seemed like they could be grafted into his play. But our voices were so different, and while I can emulate all sorts of styles, no one else in the world can write like Paul Rothwell and his voice and vision were strong enough that I was more than prepared to abandon my original conception of what Gunplay would be and go with his.

That said, allow me a tangent to explain what my version of the play would have been because it's very different from what we ended up with and while many of the characters and the concept of the all-American small town are the same, the Paul Rothwell version abandoned what was the main premise of mine: that, instead of further enduring the futility of trying to prevent mass shootings, one small town decides to legalise them. Rather than live with the constant fear of wondering when the next disenfranchised weirdo might strike, the town of Greenville instead nominates one day every year where anyone who wants to express themselves with a handgun or an assault rifle can do so. Week-long festivities every year lead up to the special day, called Die-o-rama, on which any citizen of Greenville aged between 16 and 65 could be chosen by special ballot to shoot as many people as they can. A documentary crew follows local teenagers turning 16 that week as they anxiously wait to see if theirs will be the lucky name this year; the mayor and parish priest both argue that Die-o-rama is about Greenville taking on the sins of the world for the good of the rest of the country; the local theatre group are presenting their 15th annual production of a Cho Seung-Hui play outdoors in the municipal park, the very finite canon reinterpreted every year in a variety of ways to advocate for Cho as America's greatest and most infinitely-reinterpretable playwright. Vox-popped about his role models, a teenager argues that Harris & Klebold are the Lennon & McCartney of mass shooters while Mark David Chapman is scorned as a talentless one-hit-wonder. Looking back on it now, it seems unsubtle and extreme to say the least, without much in the way of nuance or balance or credibility—that said, I'm writing this reflection in January 2021 in the wake of the capitol being stormed by exactly the kind of un-credible characters I was trying to write back in 2013. Only one element of my version of Gunplay made it into the Paul Rothwell version: my notes say "The cheerleader should have a dead decayed friend who keeps visiting her and creeping her out"—I would have been thinking of Jack Goodman in An American Werewolf in London and of Lily Kane in Veronica Mars—and Morgan did keep the scene I wrote where the beautiful mean vapid best friend who has attained sainthood in death, now a nightmarish sight of rotting flesh, proudly says "I look like the real me, at last." A thing I've always noticed about teenage death (you'll have to forgive my openness; when I was an undergraduate every summer someone I knew committed suicide) is that when someone dies young, they're immortalised with all their potential unrealised instead of it squandered. In the final scene of Paul Rothwell's Hate Crimes the bullied Gareth says "Not everyone can be special. Some of us are just weird, meaningless people" and that was something that really stuck me seeing Cho Seung-Hui's final video diary in 2007 and the way he scoffed "Some life" before leaving to carry out the shooting: he knew that he was meaningless and talentless.

That was a tangent, wasn't it! Back to the play.

Morgan's town was called Fairview rather than Greenville, and he wrote Gunplay in accordance with the kinds of characters he wanted to see us play and also in accordance with the practicalities of our schedules. Joe and Ellie were both working on shows that were in production through a big chunk of our rehearsal process so their limited availabilities were written around—so Joe had one big scene as Cody Garcia, the troubled teen shooter, but wasn't in any of the ensemble sequences sparing him from being at group rehearsals, and the reason the ghost of dead cheerleader Skyler McLain doesn't show up until halfway through the play is because Ellie wasn't with us until halfway through rehearsals. Michael Ness played the local sheriff, Dale Campbell, a lovable but bumbling law-enforcement officer frustrated at his inability to prevent yet another mass shooting. Uther played his brother, Melvin, an eccentric shut-in obsessed with watching old Shirley Temple movies. Jonny played Chuck, owner of the local gun-store, forced out of business by his own conscience after the latest mass shooting. Alice May and I played Gracie-Luellen Peed and Beau Babbitt, avid NRA members and local shooting enthusiasts paranoid that the government might use the tragedy to take our guns away. Michael Trigg played Noah, the local youth pastor, ostracised by his friends for being the man who brought Cody to the shooting range in the first place. Julia played Georgette Drotz, the world-weary manager of the local bar frustrated that Sheriff Dale still hasn't done anything about finding whoever shot her boyfriend DeShawn in a hit and run a year ago. Kirsty played Mallory Gilmore-Billington, the only really left-wing resident of Fairview, a grad student who wants the town to understand Cody's displacement as a human being rather than write him off as a psycho murderer. Jamie played Savannah Cooley, the sole-survivor of the cheerleading squad and the nearest thing the play had to a central character—Savannah's journey through the play goes from traumatised kid on crutches to avenging angel as she learns to fire guns and is determined never to feel victimised again. Jean played her mom, Dawn Cooley, the town's former Miss America contestant and faded beauty queen, always cheery and optimistic. That said, the Dawn and Savannah scenes had a bit of an air of the mother and daughter scenes from Brian De Palma's Carrie to them. Aidan played Connor McLain, basketball star and twin brother of the dead Skyler, unable to process his grief. Brianne played Kara Bowman, the town's local celebrity for coming eighth one year in American Idol, who capitalises on the tragedy by releasing a 'Candle in the Wind'-style hit single about the town's grief. Alex played Jeff Fuller, the town's once-great All Star who befriends Savannah and teaches her how to defend herself as he trains himself to be a one-man vigilante army. And Salesi played the Narrator, a kindly gentleman who held the whole play together like the voiceovers Waylon Jennings used to do in The Dukes of Hazzard. Uther, Alice May and Aidan were all making their Bacchanals debuts, although Uther had lit The Clouds and Other People's Wars. Aidan had been a cast member of Public Service Announcements and had been petitioning for a while for a chance to work with us, and I had absolutely loved Alice May Connolly's solo show Vampimple in the 2013 Fringe Festival and her poetry-reading in Jean's Corner Diary show and had asked her the night she saw The Clouds whether she might want to join us (she thought she was being asked to join a band).

Stylistically there were three distinctly different worlds to Gunplay, all dictated by the different groupings of characters—although some characters (especially Sheriff Dale Campbell) crossed between all three worlds depending on where the various plot threads sent them. The people most directly affected by the shooting (Savannah, her mother Dawn, Connor, Kara, Mallory) were in a grief-driven Laramie Project-esque parody with verbatim monologues and scenes full of the sort of po-faced earnestness we were all prone to scoff at in such kinds of shows. The peripheral townsfolk railing at how the shooting affected their jobs, reputations and livelihoods (Chuck, Gracie, Beau, Noah, Georgette) were in scenes and sequences that were more like a modern western or hillbilly TV show—Alice May and I based our characters on the likes of Boyd Crowder, Dickie Bennett and Dewey Crowe from Justified, one of the most deceptively-brilliant shows of the new golden age of US television. And the world that eventually came to dominate the play was a surreal space in which people had dream sequences and paranoid monologues and where the lines between reality and fantasy were blurred—the sense that, as people like Dale or Jeff or Melvin or Georgette went off on their own journeys or as Savannah or Connor had more interaction with the dead Skyler, they were in an episode of Twin Peaks. I've never asked Morgan about it but I suspect Twin Peaks and the work of David Lynch was a primary influence on how he approached a lot of Gunplay. What Morgan and I did talk about as we approached opening night and a mostly-locked off script was his idea that it wasn't so much a play as an episode of an HBO television show—that what you were seeing in Gunplay was the equivalent of someone tuning in mid-season to an ongoing drama like where some plot threads were already well underway while others were yet to be fully established; where some characters in the ensemble cast were getting that week's A- or B-story while others were only getting a few scenes in the C- or D-story that week. For example, by the end of the 13-episode TV show Alex's character Jeff Fuller ("he coulda been one of the greats if it wasn't for his knee!" says the Narrator) would have clearly been one of the most important characters, but in Gunplay we're seeing him as he might have appeared in episode 2 or 3, as the weird quiet guy on the periphery shrouded in mystery that later episodes will unpack. My character, Beau Babbitt, got to do a couple of paranoid ham radio broadcasts from his trailer and appear in a couple of scenes at the local bar and at the shooting range, but he had a whole character arc across the 'season' that Morgan had explained to me in detail so I knew what his story had been in previous episodes and where it would be going in subsequent ones. Some might have seen Morgan's approach as a cheat—getting himself out of having to write a standalone play with a resolved and satisfying conclusion—but what he was doing was really ground-breaking and atypical for theatre. It was more, I think, that as the world of Fairview grew in front of him, there were too many stories to tell so out of hours and hours of material he picked what would be the most interesting bits for a 90-minute play. Do you know the season of Curb Your Enthusiasm when they embark on making a Seinfeld reunion show? Larry David says that on the show-within-the-show they just wanted to write the great scenes and great jokes, rather than the whole reunion episode, and that's kind-of what Morgan was doing with Gunplay. But the idea that it was one episode from an HBO show was the overriding one: we even finished with an end-of-season musical montage of the kind you'd see in The Wire or Sons of Anarchy making sure you knew where every character was left at when the show came back in a year's time.

While much material was fully Morgan's, some parts of Gunplay relied on the whole company to turn fragments of ideas into proper sequences. Morgan's plan was for an introductory song that introduced Fairview and its population—he had some lyrics and a vague tune, but turning it into a proper musical number was the result of a long evening at my house where Salesi, Julia, Jamie and I, armed with guitars and piano, tried to translate Morgan's outline into a full-blown number reminiscent of 'Welcome to Denton' from Shock Treatment or 'Life's a Happy Song' from The Muppets or 'Downtown' from Little Shop of Horrors. We applied similar ensemble effort to the dance number for the Hallowe'en party and I had a good time writing a pop anthem for Kara's 'Devastated' cash-in single, and a Johnny Cash-esque murder ballad for 'The Devil's Prayer' for the musical montage at the end of the show.

We had 22 firearms onstage in the play. Many of them were props, but many of them were also decommissioned actual guns or rifles. I knew from the outset it would be too difficult and too terrifying to be dealing with real ammunition but the original plan was to have one live blank shot fired, for the central scene where Jeff teaches Savannah how to shoot a gun (reminiscent of the scene from Hate Crimes where Ace teaches Marlene how to punch—I love the Rothwellesque device of showing blossoming trust/connection/love through acts of violence). I thought it would be a great counterpoint to all the otherwise fake sound effects to have one moment that reminded you of the ferocity and volume of a real gunshot. But there were complexities around what sort of blank-firing weapon it had to be and the time it would take for us to get the right ammunition approved, so we left it as a sound effect. That said, the health and safety paperwork for a show with 22 firearms in it was enormous. Alex and I, in coordination with Todd, prepared an add-on document to the usual risk assessment paperwork, in which we outlined for the NZ Police all 72 instances in the play where a gun would be used alongside of a description of the action, whose hands it would be in, which gun it would be, which direction or directions the gun would be pointed, and a fairly precise estimation of how long the described action would take to carry out.

The short season was a great time. By the preview we were so immune to the effect of having a gun in front of you and desensitised to how politically incorrect some of the characters' opinions and language were that it was exhilarating to see audiences tense up at actors pointing prop guns in their general direction and to hear uncomfortable laughter or even gasps of shock at lines of dialogue that had lost all shock value to us in the rehearsal room. Me, I personally will never forget having to say, as Beau Babbitt in a dream sequence of Georgette's imagining, "A black man has no business being with a white woman!" the night our dear friends Tony Hopkins and Moira Wairama were grinning at me from the centre of the front row and not knowing if I could actually get the line out. "I could see you squirming at having to say that even though you knew that I knew it was your character saying it and not you!" laughed Tony afterwards—as a man who had known towns like Fairview all too well growing up in the US and had lost a brother to gun violence, he took a lot of the material in Gunplay with great grace and humour.

And with that, Gunplay marked the end, in August, of an extraordinarily good year for The Bacchanals and off I went to the UK and US on sabbatical. As I've said above, 2013 is my favourite year in the company's history. I felt great personal satisfaction that year as well as pride in the work we were making as a company; I had shaken off all the concern I'd had during the two-thousand-and-noughts about awards and industry recognition and financial/commercial success—I just wanted to make good work with good people and feel like I was surrounded by likeminded friends. By Gunplay we had a really solid core of people who'd been with the company since No Taste Forever! at the start of 2011 and were now so familiar with each other that the rehearsal room became a place of endless hilarity. I can't even begin to describe the levels of banter that happened—all hierarchies seemed to have dissolved and I likened the atmosphere to a game of volleyball: once a joke was in the air, the whole room kept it up there being batted back and forth between players until it finally hit the ground. It was a great shock to me a few weeks later to be in a rehearsal room at Shakespeare's Globe and being shut down when I tried to keep a joke in the air, having forgotten that most directors don't care about collective ownership; they want to be the smartest and funniest person in the room. In The Bacchanals in 2013, we wanted the whole room to be smart and funny.—David, January 2021.

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