fbpx Ten Years of The Gun Show | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Ten Years of The Gun Show

In 2016 I was an emerging director in Portland, Oregon, fresh out of a directing apprenticeship at Third Rail Repertory Theatre. I was looking for work, and a designer friend told me that Shawn Lee, a producer at Artists Repertory Theatre, was directing a production of a “really good, really hard little play called The Gun Show” and might be interested in some help. I reached out to him about assistant directing, and we chatted for a bit before he sent me the play with a note: “It’s a doozy. Let me know if you’re up for it.”

Working on The Gun Show would prove to be a formative theatrical experience. The play is a series of stories, all true, from the life of Ellen (E. M.) Lewis, a playwright and librettist based in Oregon. The stories are interwoven with commentary about the political and social discourse on guns in America. The stories build from fairly mundane, almost sweet stories about growing up around guns in rural America to a devastating final story that recounts the loss of Ellen’s husband. In a unique twist, the show is performed by an actor who speaks with Ellen’s voice as Ellen herself sits in the audience and witnesses her stories being recounted. After the performance is over, the audience are invited to share gun stories from their own lives, to occupy the space of absolute vulnerability that Ellen has crafted.

Along with our production of the show, which tallied over one hundred performances in 2016 and 2017 through its initial run at Portland’s CoHo Theatre, a scrappy black box run by the late, beloved Philip Cuomo, and subsequent tour, the play has had more than fifty other productions since Ellen first wrote it in 2013.

Last fall, I assigned The Gun Show to my first-year undergraduate students at Northwestern University and invited Ellen to come speak with them about the show. We realized it was almost a decade to the day from when she originally completed the script, and to my pleasure and honor, Ellen asked if I would be willing to do a look back at this extraordinary little doozy of a play with her.

Ellen Lewis and Nate Cohen pose for a picture.

Nate Cohen and Ellen Lewis. Photo by Nate Cohen.

Nate Cohen: It's been ten years since you wrote The Gun Show. What led you to start writing it when you did?

Ellen Lewis: For ten years after my husband died, I didn’t talk about his death. I didn’t even talk about his life, actually. I’d found my way into the Los Angeles theatre world, and most folks I met didn’t even know I’d ever been married. I don’t fault myself for this sin of omission. Not much anyway. My silence on the subject of my husband was a defense mechanism. Something ruptured inside me when he died, and it took a decade before I was ready to start knitting myself back together. I was strong enough, then, I guess, to open the box of memory and darkness, and see if I could make something of it.

Nate: There’s such a profound necessity there.

I remember being really struck when I read the play the first time about how vulnerable and present it felt. How does it feel to have now had hundreds of artists poke around inside this hugely complex and challenging part of your life?

Ellen: It’s been… not such an easy thing. Playwrights have to be just as vulnerable in their work as actors, but usually not so publicly! We get to hide in our garrets when we’re spilling our guts out onto the page.

But there is no hiding in The Gun Show. From the very beginning, I understood that my job in any production of the play was to remain absolutely open to the actor who was telling the story and to sit in my assigned chair with the rest of the audience as they figured out that the story that was being told belonged to me.

Universally, the actors and directors who have chosen to do The Gun Show and invited me to be part of the process have been tremendously kind. They’d picked this play about guns and loss for a reason. They’d said yes to it, frequently, because they had their own experiences with guns and loss. We all shared our stories, and their willingness to meet my stories with their own helped me be braver about the whole thing.

I also drank a little.

I feel a lot of love and gratitude toward all the artists who went there with me, to those dark places. We held each other’s hands.

I guess that what’s changed in my relationship with the show is me.

Nate: How has your relationship to the show changed over the last ten years?

Ellen: I wrote the play when I was living in New Jersey, with the support of my little Passage Theatre playwriting group. It was really frightening to write. Thank goodness for my fellow playwrights (always!). It’s easier to be bold when you feel safe

The first productions were pretty intense. We didn’t know what to expect. You know? What the audience's reactions would be. The play is a little raw, and a little punchy, and a little close to home for almost everyone who sees it. I don’t think there’s a single person in America who doesn’t have a personal experience with guns.

In the very first production in Chicago at 16th Street Theater, directed by Kevin Christopher Fox, we worked together to craft a conversation with the audience that followed the show, inviting them to share their gun stories, in the wake of me sharing mine. And they did!

The play has had more than fifty productions over the last decade. I’ve been part of at least half of those, sitting there and waiting for the actor telling my story to point his flashlight at me, and say those words: “...and when I say my story, I mean hers.” It didn’t really get easier to be part of those productions of the play—open myself up to the intimacy of working with a new actor and a new audience. Being present. Being absolutely present. And open. Not hiding. Not anymore.

I guess that what’s changed in my relationship with the show is me. I wrote it because I needed to write it. I wrote myself into it because, I guess, I somehow knew that the writing alone wasn’t going to do the trick—give me that gift of transformation that I yearned for, though perhaps I didn’t know if I deserved. And it worked. I’m here, my whole, messy, honest self, on the other side of hundreds of performances. I’m not doing the duo version as often anymore. Maybe… maybe I’m ready to let it go

Nate: I love all that. Watching you watch the play was always the most fascinating part of it to me. When we were working on it for close to a year and a half, it was really powerful to see how your engagement with it changed. For the first week or two of our initial run in Portland, I remember feeling very protective of you. Shawn and I talked about both wanting to be there because we had the impulse that we wanted to be able to stop the show at some point if it was going a certain way.  By the time we were touring in Europe, it felt like you were sharing the emotions out instead of fighting them off.

What the play does, which I continue to believe in and feel is necessary, is reject mindless, simplistic, binary side-taking in favor of thoughtfulness, complexity, storytelling, story listening, and embracing the fact that we’re all in this together.

Ellen: I’m grateful for your protectiveness, even if you never had to fight anyone for me.

No one ever has come after me for talking plainly about guns. We had a guy in West Virginia who shared that he had his gun on him at the post-show conversation, which TJ Young, our moderator, took in stride with remarkable aplomb. I remember a couple coming up to me one night and telling me I hadn’t changed their minds one bit, and they were keeping their guns. A few folks—in different cities, different productions—told me that my husband would have found another way to kill himself if he didn’t have a gun. That… hurt.

But what happened much more frequently was someone putting their arms around me and telling me about the person they’d lost to gun violence—suicides and accidents and murders. I’ll never forget the woman sitting beside me during the show in Chicago one night, who reached over and took my hand during the fifth story.

What the play does, which I continue to believe in and feel is necessary, is reject mindless, simplistic, binary side-taking in favor of thoughtfulness, complexity, storytelling, story listening, and embracing the fact that we’re all in this together. That seems more urgent than ever.

Nate: This was something my students brought up. A lot of them felt really uncomfortable in a good way, in the way I think the play is trying to achieve, with some of the “pro-gun” talking points. I hesitate to call them that, since I think a huge and fundamental purpose of the show is to move past the binary of “pro-gun, anti-gun”, but the talking points that stem from the “pro-gun” side of the political spectrum. One of them talked about the fact that she had grown up in New York City, had never seen a gun in her life, and didn’t know anyone who owned one. The girl sitting right next to her, who was a friend of hers, said, “Oh, my dad has six,” and she was totally shocked.

This was something I know I struggled with hugely in my own relationship to the piece. I have pretty strong feelings about gun violence in the United States and have done a substantial amount of activism work around gun control, so having to sit with this play was something that took some concentrated effort on my part.

As part of our original production in Portland, we collected “Gun Stories” from people in our community. One that really affected me was something a carpenter (John) at Artists Rep in Portland told us. He’d grown up on a farm in rural Idaho (I think it was Idaho?), and he and his younger sister had to walk almost a mile to get to the main road to catch the bus to school. One winter when he was ten or eleven years old, his parents started noticing cougar tracks in the snow in the mornings following him and his sister out to the main road. This is a part of the world where cougars are a major safety concern, and a hungry full-grown cougar could absolutely attack and take down a couple of elementary school kids. But because of their work schedules, his parents weren’t in a position to walk him and his sister to the bus stop every morning, so they called the school. The solution they came up with was for him (John) to carry a shotgun with him as they walked out to the bus. When they got to the bus he would hand it off to the bus driver, who would in turn give it to the vice principal to lock up in his office during the day. When they got back off the bus at the end of the school day the bus driver would give him back the shotgun, and he’d carry it across his chest as he and his sister walked back up the road to their homestead.

This story blew my mind. It was so far removed from my own lived experience growing up in the vast urban sprawl around Chicago that I sort of didn’t know what to do with it.

Two actors stand in a dimly lit space with one shining a flashlight in the others face.

E. M. Lewis and Juan Villa in the world premiere production of The Gun Show at 16th Street Theater in Chicago.

Ellen: Because more theatres are in urban places than rural ones, I’ve had a lot of city folks who were surprised by some of the rural perspectives in the play. I think it gave some people who couldn’t fathom any reason why anyone would ever have a gun in their house an idea of why some rational, relatively sensible people do. One thing I wish, though, is that somehow I could share the show in just as many rural places because I think that one of the most important things it raises for people who do choose to have a gun in their house is to consider that the person most likely to misuse it or use it against themselves is someone who lives in their house.

Nate: See now you’ve got me wanting to do a rural American tour of the show.

My students all felt it was relevant and spoke to an issue they care about, but also felt like somehow the show is almost dated. To be clear, this is not a critique of the play feeling dated, but their feeling that gun violence has gotten notably worse in the United States since you wrote the play. Working with young people and performing the show in schools was a huge part of our touring production's work. I'm curious how you've experienced conversations around the play with young people and if anything has surprised you in those conversations.

The “all or nothing” arguments don’t help them. Don’t help any of us. We can’t figure anything out if we can’t talk to each other about it.

Ellen: I remember one of our first audiences that was made up entirely of high school students—and quickly coming to understand that every one of them had a gun story of their own. I had naively assumed that maybe they wouldn’t yet. Not all of them. But America is filling up with guns faster than it’s filling up with people. There’s a line in the play: “If you have a gun, your tendency is to use it.”

One of the things about guns that the play discusses, which I think young people are particularly aware of, is that the “good guy protecting himself with a gun” story is not the actual experience that most people have with guns and gun violence. Most people who die from guns die in accidents, in suicide, and the murder of family members. If you have a gun in the house, it’s more likely to be used against you than to protect you.

Nate: This feels like such a huge part of the “sacred narrative” of guns in America that is so clearly refuted by all the statistical data that exists.

Ellen: Something that came up when we did our tour of Portland high schools, when you were leading our discussions, was that a surprising number of young people had guns in their houses and knew how to get their hands on them. And young people who grew up in more rural places, like I did, don’t feel like they can talk about guns with either their fellow classmates or their families. The “all or nothing” arguments don’t help them. Don’t help any of us. We can’t figure anything out if we can’t talk to each other about it.

Nate: Another really striking thing that has shifted for these young people is how lockdown drills have become a rote part of the high school student experience. I asked my students this past quarter how many of them had done “lockdown” or “active shooter” drills. And out of my seventy-one students, sixty-seven said yes (and three of the four noes were international students). I graduated high school in 2008, and I can’t recall ever having done one. 

Ellen: The lockdown drills themselves are traumatizing. We never had them when I was in school either. Is it helping? These drills? Or is it normalizing something that seems like it should be unthinkable? The murder of school children. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Two actors stand on stage in front of a projector screen as they receive a standing ovation

Vin Shambry and Ellen Lewis after a performance of The Gun Show at CoHo Theatre in Portland, Oregon.

Nate: Shouldn’t the solution be making the world in such a way that these drills weren’t necessary? It feels like adults are looking at what young people are dealing with and saying “See? They’re fine!” instead of saying “I can’t believe they have to do this!”.

The duo version of the show, with you present in the audience, has always been performed by a male actor, often an actor of color, despite the stories being your own stories from your life. What led you to that casting choice, and have your thoughts about it changed?

Ellen: The duo version of the play came first and involves a male actor telling the story with me sitting in the audience interacting with him occasionally but never speaking. It was always a male actor that I envisioned doing it. The “voice” of the play is a little punchy and funny and macho in places, in a way that seems more traditionally masculine—even though it is my story, and I tend more toward the feminine. Part of it might be that having a male actor tell the story with me in the audience represents, in some way, the two halves of my own married life, which is a major part of the play. I do know that people are more accustomed to men having and talking about guns than women, so I think having a male actor do it and reveal very quickly that it’s a woman’s story that he’s telling is oddly subversive. It slips under people’s radars in a different way.

Race has been an interesting thing to add to the mix, and it’s been added since the very beginning. Juan Villa, who did the world premiere of the duo version in Chicago, is Latino. Chuma Gault, who did the world premiere of the solo version in Los Angeles soon after, is Black, as is Vin Shambry, who was the actor for our CoHo production. Many other actors have tackled the role, notably Andrew Smith, who is white, who did a long run in Pittsburgh and performances in New York City, Vermont, and West Virginia. The role of the actor in this play is to tell my story, but they bring themselves to the story—their own experiences and history and bodies and spirits and perspectives. The audience can see that and feel that. One of the things I love about being a playwright is that in every production of my work, the story being told is bigger than me, because every artist involved is bringing themselves and their abilities to it.  I remember the fourth story having particular resonance when Juan and Vin told it, because it’s about an encounter with a police officer that involves a gun—and there is no separating that from the history of violence in America between police and men of color.

I hope this play makes room for everyone’s stories about guns—and room for us to hear each other’s stories.

It doesn’t feel right to me, somehow, to be in the duo version of the play with a female performer, but I’m very glad that the solo version of the play makes room for women and non-binary performers to do the show. I think the solo version is a little less weird than the duo version, but just as valid—and allows the show to go on without me, which I want.

Ellen Lewis, Nate Cohen and Vin Shambry take a slefie in fornt a poster for The Gun Show.

Ellen Lewis, Nate Cohen, and Vin Shambry at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland with The Gun Show. Photo by Vin Shambry.

Nate: When we ran the show for a month at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, I was struck by two big talking points that came out of our audience interactions. One was that Europeans are just absolutely mind-blown at how out of control gun ownership and gun violence is in the United States. The other thing was how little concept Europeans, especially folks from the United Kingdom, had about how big the United States is and how rural rural American communities are compared to many in Europe. A part in the show that often really surprised those audiences was the discussion of the nearest police station being over an hour away. Europe in general is so much more compressed than the United States. I'm curious if you had similar responses.

Ellen: It really was a culture shock, doing the show at the Fringe! It was remarkable talking with folks from Scotland, England, and France, but also farther afield.

It’s not that guns aren’t part of their cultural heritage. Hunting has been a “thing” there, like it has been here, more in the past than the present. But they haven’t gone the way that we have, toward an overwhelming escalation of personal gun ownership.

I’m afraid that things now feel even more polarized than they did when I wrote the play. I want to fix that. I don’t know how to fix that. We are each other’s neighbors, not enemies—and we have to figure out how to live together. The only way I know to make that happen is talking with each other and listening to each other.

Nate: Do you ever think you'll perform the show yourself? Does that feel like an important eventual part of your relationship to the show, or are you less invested in that?

Ellen: I think about it, sometimes. Might it be the final step in allowing myself to move forward? Maybe. Maybe. Or maybe, in these years of wrestling with it, with others, that has already happened, without my even realizing the moment that it did.

Nate: For what it’s worth, if you ever decided to, I’d be first in line for a ticket

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today