Tag Archives: weapons

Top Prop News of 2010

With the end of 2010 fast approaching, I thought I would take a look back on some of the major news stories which have affected the world of props. The world of props is not really a fast-changing industry, so changes in the world are slow to impact all of us working in props. Still, a few stories this year have enough of an impact to be worth mentioning here.

SPAM website relaunches – The Society of Properties Artisan Managers is the largest organization of props masters and directors in the United States, with members from most of the major regional and educational theatres and operas. In the past, information about them or how to contact them seemed shrouded in mystery (though not on purpose). That changed in March with the launching of a new website, www.propmasters.org, which is more geared to props people seeking information on them and how they can get involved.

StageBitz software enters beta testing – This story just squeezed into this past year, and I don’t have much to report on it. StageBitz is a new (and possibly the first) online tool for professional props management. We’ve seen several minor attempts at software aimed toward the props master, though many of us end up adapting more general software, such as Microsoft Office, FileMaker Pro, or Google Docs for our needs. I’ll be beta-testing StageBitz through next March, and letting you all know how it is.

E-cigarettes – E-cigarettes continue to be in the news. As one of the few viable alternatives for on-stage cigarettes in many venues, prop masters and directors should be interested in the current legal state of using them. This past year, I summarized their current situation, which began with a July, 2009, report by the FDA on the potential health hazards of e-cigarettes. They were attempting to classify them as a drug-delivery device, which would allow them to enact a ban and prevent their importation, as opposed to a tobacco product, which would be regulated similarly to regular cigarettes (and not banned). Last January, the FDA attempted to block the shipment of e-cigarettes into the US, but a federal judge ruled against it. In September, they again attempted to classify e-cigarettes as a drug-delivery device rather than a tobacco product; a drug-delivery device, such as nicotine patches or gum, needs to be “proven safe and effective”, and so e-cigarettes can be effectively banned unless they underwent rigorous (and costly) testing to prove their efficacy as a stop-smoking aid. As a tobacco product, they are subject to far less regulation (a major problem is that many e-cigarette manufacturers insist on marketing their products as “safe alternatives to smoking” and helpful in quitting cigarettes, yet argue in court that they are merely recreational tobacco products. They’re trying to have it both ways). The court stopped the FDA from banning e-cigarettes. Finally, this past December, an appellate court withheld this ruling, and as of the end of this year, e-cigarettes remain legal in the US and most likely will be regulated as a tobacco product.
What’s most frustrating in all of this is that, as a prop, we are only interested in the zero-nicotine versions of e-cigarettes. In other words, we don’t need either a drug-delivery device or a tobacco product; what we want is something more akin to a mini–theatrical fogger.

Donmar Warehouse actor shot in face – David Birrell, an actor in a West End production of Sondheim’s Passion, was injured in his eye when a blank-firing replica flintlock rifle misfired, and taken to the hospital. He nearly lost his eye. This incident reinforced to prop masters and directors everywhere that when it comes to blank-firing weapons onstage, you can never be too safe.

Original Stargate auctioned off – Now, props from television and movies are constantly being auctioned off, so I’ll admit this one is included in the list due to my own personal excitement. Still, it does have some more significance than your average prop auction. Stargate SG-1 was the longest-running American sci-fi series, and when it ended, they began auctioning off most of the props and scenery. This past September, the actual Stargate used on location (not the one used on set) came up for sale. It had been created for the pilot episode and was used throughout the entire ten-year run of the show.

Reoccurring prop newspaper – This wasn’t so much a 2010 “event” as it was a thrilling series of investigative journalism that broke this past June. Starting with a compilation of images from TV and film that showed characters reading the same newspaper, the following day, an article in Slashfilm expanded on this and went viral. A few days later, Slate Magazine had tracked down not only the source—the Earl Hays Press in California—but also the reason: getting clearance to use real newspapers takes time and money.

My list ends here. I’ve covered all of these stories on either this blog or on my Twitter, so if you follow each, you’ll always be up-to-date on news that affects you as a props person. I’m sure many other stories happened in 2010 which are relevant to the props practitioner, so I leave it up to you: what are your favorite events, tools, materials or anecdotes that came out of the past year?

NYC Theatrical Weapons Permit

This week, The Great Game is playing. We had to rent a number of guns for the show, including some blank-firing ones. Now, New York City has some of the more strict gun-control laws in the US, and even blank-firing replica firearms require a “theatrical weapons permit” to rent and transport to the theatre. We’ve had a bit of turn-over in our production staff since the last time we had a show with such guns, and it turned out none of us were currently licensed. So I volunteered to be the one to bare my personal life and barter my soul to the New York City Police Department in exchange for permission to make a sound effect from a replica firearm.

As a caveat, what follows is not a “how-to”; using weapons on stage requires so much more than just having a certain license or permit. Your situation would certainly differ from mine, information becomes outdated quickly, and if you do not live or work in New York City, then this is all fairly irrelevant. As I was going through the licensing procedure though, I could not find much anecdotal information about what it’s like, so I thought I would share my tale. For those of you working in theatres outside of New York City, you may find it interesting to see what we have to go through here.

The first part was relatively easy. When we sent the list of firearms we needed to Weapons Specialists, one of our preferred–weapon rental vendors, they told us that whoever would pick-up and sign for the guns would need a theatrical weapons permit. They gave me the relevant information to get started and even have links on their website to the official instructions and forms from the NYPD. This is one of the benefits of using a supplier like Weapons Specialists; they will make sure you have all your legal ducks in a row. The kinds of prop and replica firearms that require a license to rent and transport are registered and tracked by the NYPD just like real guns, so you should never have to “guess” whether you should have a license or not; your supplier will tell you if you do. Still, it is a good idea to know what kinds of weapons require a license going into a new production so you can let the team know whether a gun they are requesting will require a license, which entails either hiring someone with a license, or allowing enough time and money in the budget to apply for one.

You can view the form here and the special instructions for the theatrical permit here. As you can see, you fill out the exact same form as if you were applying for a rifle/shotgun license; this might be confusing and even scary for the first-timer, but rest assured, you are getting an entirely different license. When I got mine, it was $140 for the license. You also have a number of forms you need to have notarized. We have our own in-house notary, so those costs were absorbed by the institution and did not come out of our budget, but otherwise you would need to be prepared to budget for those costs as well.

The proof of address was one of the trickier and more confusing parts. You need to bring your Social Security card and your passport or driver’s license, but you also need additional documentation for your address; they will not accept your driver’s license itself as proof. On the website, it says that can be a recent copy of a gas, electric or land-line telephone bill. If those are in someone else’s name, like a roommate or family member you can use a copy of their bill along with a form that is also notarized stating that person knows you are applying for a license.  I called the rifle/shotgun office to see what else they would accept. They’ve updated their rules as less and less people have land-line telephones; they will now accept a cable or internet bill in conjunction with your driver’s license, provided the addresses on each are the same. They will also take a notarized copy of your lease.

It took quite a while to get all the paperwork and documentation together, as there is a lot of pieces and parts, and you need to have other people fill out parts and write letters and what-not. Eventually, I had it all ready. I gave the NYPD permission to check my arrest record, as well as checking with mental institutions to make sure I was never officially crazy. I even had my supervisor agree that he would be responsible for my guns if I should die—on a form he had to sign in front of a witness. I felt like I was only one step away from having to gather three selectmen of good repute to forswear my strong character in front of a judge.

I left for my permit early one Friday morning. I needed to go out to a courthouse in Kew Gardens, Queens, where the NYPD’s rifle/shotgun division is located. It’s quite a distance from the Public Theater, but not terribly far from my apartment, so it made sense to do it first thing in the morning. Though the office says it is open from 8:30am to 4:00pm, the courthouse itself says it doesn’t open until 9:00am. Like every government building in New York City, I had to go through a metal detector upon entering—good thing I remembered to leave my work-knife at home! The office itself is found in the basement, where apparently nobody goes. Having dealt with jury duty, the DMV, the FDNY records department and other bureaucratic departments in the city, I was expecting more activity. Even when I got a copy of my birth certificate in Brooklyn, I had to wait in line. This place, on the other hand, was practically deserted. I struggled to follow the signs leading the way through the winding hallways underneath the courtroom. Finally, I saw the words “Rifle/Shotgun Licensing Division” in big block letters on a closed door at the end of a long passageway.

The woman looked through all my forms and paperwork one at a time to make sure they were complete and correct. She photocopied my passport, social security card, and utility bill before handing them back. Once she seemed satisfied, she asked me to wait outside for a few minutes.

The makeshift waiting room was actually just a vestibule created by various hallways joining together. I sat on the only bench in the small area, which was so long it covered half of one of the doors. I waited for about twenty minutes, completely alone except for the two times a janitor passed through. Eventually, I was called back in.

When you get a permit for a real rifle or shotgun, you hand in all your paperwork, get fingerprinted, and then come back three to six months later once your fingerprints have cleared all their background checks. For the theatrical permit, you walk off with the license on the same day. The woman had gathered all my paperwork into a single folder which I assumed they would keep on file there for eternity. She had me stand in front of a blank background, and a camera mounted to the wall took my picture. I signed my name on an electric pad so my signature showed up on her computer. The chain for the pen had long disappeared, and it had been replaced by a string of rubber-bands tied together. Finally, I placed my thumb on another device which scanned my thumb-print and saved it to the same computer. After the woman typed through a few more options, I heard the printer kick into action printing up my permit card. A few moments later, she showed me the card to check for accuracy. Satisfied, she photocopied the card and had me sign that copy, which she placed in my folder. All told, I was at the courthouse for about an hour.

The day came to pick up the guns from Weapons Specialists. We looked through the guns and checked to make sure everything was complete. For the three guns which required the license, he had to write down their serial numbers for another form. I had to fill out another form as well; this was a federal from from the ATF for the actual transfer of the firearms. This was similar to forms I had already completed, but it included a series of additional questions, some quite bizarre—I had to swear I had never renounced my citizenship to the US and that I never threatened a child, for example. Once the form was complete and my license was photocopied, he had to call in to the rifle/shotgun division and check my license against their records. All in all, I don’t think I’ve ever had my legitimacy as a law-abiding citizen so closely scrutinized.

Part of the application process includes getting a notarized letter from an officer of my production company listing the types of guns being used and for what purpose. The license itself is valid for a year. I asked Weapons Specialist whether the license is only valid for the guns I listed on that letter. He said that you need a specific reason to apply for the license, but once you have it, it can be used to rent and use other guns for other productions. Also, the license allows me to rent, buy, acquire, transport and possess special theatrical guns, but once at the venue, anyone can load and operate them.

Blank-Firing Guns

On October 2, 2010, David Birrell was appearing in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion at the Donmar Warehouse in London.  During a performance, one of the blank-firing guns used apparently had a problem, and Birell sustained an injury to his right eye. He may lose his sight in it. According to a spokeswoman for the theater, “It appears that during the duel scene in ‘Passion,’ David Birrell’s licensed replica stage gun misfired causing some debris to enter his eye.” Further sources claim it was actually an antique flintlock gun.

Accidents happen. Equipment malfunctions. Because blank-firing guns are so inherently dangerous, it is vital that even more attention is spent on following all the best practices of safety with them. I would go so far as to say that prop masters should not handle them: pyrotechnicians should handle the loading and handling of blank ammunition, experienced handlers should be in charge of selecting and maintaining the weapons, and skilled fight choreographs should block the scenes in which they are used. Of course, a prop master can also be a licensed pyrotechnician or be qualified to handle weapons (at the higher levels, many are); I am not saying being a prop master precludes one from using blank-firing guns, I am saying the title of “prop master” is not the sole prerequisite.

On April 15, 2010, Darrell D’Silva, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company was rehearsing a scene with a prop gun. He accidentally shot himself in the hand. It was during tech rehearsals for Antony and Cleopatra. He underwent surgery and returned to rehearsals with his arm in a sling. Apparently when it was handed to him, he thought it was unloaded. It took a big chunk off of his finger and blood spurted everywhere. Here is an incident where the accident came not from bad or malfunctioning equipment, but from bad communication. The actor was not told the gun was loaded, but more importantly, he disobeyed the cardinal rule of stage guns: treat every gun like it is a loaded weapon. An actor should never pull a trigger on a gun until the fight director commands him to.

November 15, 2008. Tucker Thayler, a 15 year old student at Desert Hills High School kills himself with a gun intended to be used as a sound effect for their production of Oklahoma. Apparently it was a real pistol with blanks. Apparently it was allowed as long as a parent was there to fire the gun. And I’m not sure how some schools still allow actual working firearms to be brought on campus. In most municipalities, you need a pyrotechnics license to fire blank ammunition for theatrical purposes; it is different than a standard gun license. After all, there are any number of firecracker and fireworks that average folk can use in their backyards legally in certain parts of the country, but once you want to fire them off inside a crowded theatre, the rules become much more stringent; the same is true of blank-firing guns.

Having a license means you have used blank ammunition before, the government trusts you to use blank ammunition in accordance with all safety standards and laws, and you are held liable for any accidents that may occur because of your negligence. If your area does not require licensing, you should still act as though it does and follow the same guidelines. Anyone handling or discharging blank ammunition should be familiar with it and know all the standard practices. Just because you can run out and buy it and “see what it does” does not mean that is in any way safe.

On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee was filming a scene in The Crow. One of the thugs had a gun loaded with blanks to shoot at him. Because the blanks used were not correct and the gun was tampered with (stories are mixed), the gun had enough primer to push the cartridge out. Lee was hit in the abdomen and the bullet lodged in his spine. Several hours later, he died at the age of 28. A lot of the analysis of this tragedy points out that the thug should not have been aiming his gun directly at Lee. This goes back to the need for a qualified fight director; it’s not enough to know how to acquire and setup blank ammunition. Once also needs to know how to choreograph the scenes in a way to maximize safety.

On October 12, 1984, Jon-Eric Hexum was filming a scene in “Cover Up”, his first big role. He had a prop .44 Magnum loaded with blanks, and apparently was unaware that it could still expel paper wadding. Bored during a delayed scene, he began playing with his gun. It was loaded with 2 blanks and 3 empty cartridges. He held it to his head, quipped, “Let’s see if I’ve got one for me”, and pulled the trigger. The paper wadding hit hard enough to dislodge a quarter-size piece of his skull and push it into his brain. Six days later he was pronounced dead from the massive bleeding in his brain. This event is just screaming with its lack of safety protocols. Why was an actor left with a loaded pistol for such a long time when it was not needed? Why was he unaware that it was loaded, or that blank ammunition at point-blank range can be just as lethal? And whether it was loaded or not, he should not have pointed it at his head; he broke the cardinal rule where one treats every gun like it is a loaded weapon.

I, for one, find it absurd that one would want to put so many people in potential danger (by using blank-firing ammunition) for, essentially, a sound effect. I mean, do we drop stage weights from the grid to the stage where actors are because we like the sound it makes? Why is that ridiculous, but igniting gun powder is acceptable? Regardless of your beliefs, you will probably face the situation of dealing with blank-firing guns at some point in your career as a prop master. When one is faced with the situation of having to use them, all the appropriate safety precautions should be followed to the letter.

Make a Switchblade

Here’s an old prop chestnut which we’ve used during our current production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Let’s say your play requires a switchblade or two. Real switchblade knives are fairly illegal; even if you can find a place that sells them, you often need a special license to purchase it. However, you can buy switchblade combs at many novelty stores.

Switchblade Comb
Switchblade Comb

You can fill the gaps in the comb part with Bondo (or whatever your preferred brand of auto body filler is). Sculpt it into the shape of a blade, but be careful not to get much thicker than the comb; if you add too much thickness, the blade will no longer pop out.

Fill the gaps of the comb with Bondo
Fill the gaps of the comb with Bondo

Finish it off with silver-leaf. Again, silver-leaf will add no thickness to the blade (which some paints might), and it will give it the ability to glint and gleam from the stage. It will also be less likely to rub off during frequent usage.

Switchblade comb, or knife
Switchblade comb, or knife?