"Guns can be objects of terror or symbols of love." It's with those thoughts in mind that playwright Kyle Schmidt wrote The Secretary which is on stage at Main Street Theater.
The play takes place in a small town and centers on a gun company there. Guns start going off all over town which wouldn't be surprising in itself except that no one seems to be pulling the trigger.
Six female actors navigate the proceedings of this comedy conceived by Schmidt after the horrible tragedy of Sandy Hook. That's when he started writing it, but as he did so, in the front of his mind was his own mother, a devoted gun owner.
"I started thinking about what guns mean to me and what they mean to people that I know," he says adding about his mother: "All of her adventures with guns are kind of ridiculous." While Schmidt doesn't own a gun, he says he has shot one. Most of his knowledge about them he attributes to his mother, other relatives and friends.
"One of my friends when her and her husband were going to buy a house, her dad offered to sell one of his guns; it was a very expensive antique gun and for her the gun represented this symbol of love. They're for protection and they’re for sport. For me when I was thinking of guns they took on this kaleidoscope of meaning. That’s where guns have a life of their own.
"So OK if guns have a life of their own and they exist beyond the agency of their owners to take on these different meanings, what other meanings can they have? Can they be these things that act on their own? In the play there's always the question if they are acting on their own, or if they are agents of the people operating them."
Schmidt arrived in Austin by way of Chicago and Iowa. He thought he was coming in out of the cold and arriving in a land of tumbleweeds and desert to find a green Austin. "It looks exactly like Iowa," he says. It wasn't until later that he visited his sister living in El Paso that he found the Texas topography he expected.
His mother grew up on a dairy farm where the family always had guns, Schmidt says. But it was when she was in her mid-50s that it became more important to her (sparked by a visit by an Olympic marksman to her town) as both the sport of shooting at a target and as a means of protection. His father had already retired and moved to Texas and she spent a year alone in Iowa before moving down herself. She has never shot anyone, he says, adding she says she would if her children were being threatened.
Schmidt says he wanted to present a nuanced view of the gun debate. "I don't think all gun owners are crazy. I don't think my mom is crazy. She was an elementary art school teacher." While there are still a lot of heated public debates about guns, there hasn't been much movement to find any common ground, he says. "There's a lot of frustration, a lot of anger. There are lots of instances where people are getting hurt, getting killed. I'm an idealist and I'd like to think we could come up with really smart solutions."
Cast members include Alice M. Gatling as Ruby, Bree Welch as Lorrie, Celeste Roberts at Shirley, Elizabeth Marshall Black as Janelle, Skyler Sinclair as April and Briana Resa as Brandy. Julia Traber who directed RFK for Main Street is directing.
In crafting his story, besides his mother's influence, Schmidt drew on his knowledge of the gun company in his town. While he didn't know a whole lot about the people who ran the plant, he did know about a woman who ran a model airplane company and drove a hot red car around town. "I had a very clear image of this woman in this town of 1,400 people. I’m going to write this person."
Having an all-female cast wasn't what he had in mind when he began writing the play, Schmidt says, but that's how it ended up. In a way, it changes the framing of the argument, he says. "There aren’t as many preconceived notions about women and guns. It also makes it palatable for different groups." The cast is also intergenerational, so it's not just gender, it's ages, he says.
"I wanted to challenge people from both sides," Schmidt says. "I always say this play is for people who like guns, people who don't like guns and people who liked Steel Magnolias but wish it had more guns."
Update: Two additional performances of The Secretary have been scheduled for February 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Opening night for The Secretary is January 19 and it continues through February