Story by Carrie Beth Wallace
Images by Sonnet Moore
Austin Sargent is an associate producer of the Muddy Water Theatre Project, and the director of Assassins which opens this weekend at the National Civil War Naval Museum. The show, written by Stephen Sondheim, tackles mature themes and encompasses content including the gun violence acted out in the assassinations of several American Presidents.
Due to the nature of the show's subject matter, we reached out to Sargent for some exclusive insight into what audience members can and should expect from Muddy Water's production of Assassins. Read on to discover the way Sargent and his cast have approached the piece and its complex subject matter.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What should our audience know about this show?
I’m really excited to share Assassins with our community. It’s written by one of my all-time favorite composers, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote works like Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, and who worked in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story.
All of the stories Sondheim tackled are dense and complex, and take a very Human issue and extrapolate it by blowing it up to big proportions so the audience can analyze something about themselves.
Into the Woods is all about the sanctity of childhood. Merrily We Roll Along is about navigating adulthood and forming relationships as adults.
Assassins is no different. What Assassins really boils down to is a question that asks ‘what brings people to their breaking point?’ What has happened in your life that has brought you to a crossroads - a moment of decision- where you can choose option a or option b. Stephen Sondheim does this in Assassins by giving new background information and new insight into America’s most famous assassins. Some, you may recognize, and some you may not.
Which assassins are in the show?
Assassins features the stories of John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, "Squeaky'' Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore. Some names are names that our older patrons may recognize, and some that you’ve never heard of before. What Sondheim does in this show, is he allows the characters to speak to their true motivation on why they chose to commit the acts that they did.
Were the characters written to appear crazy?
It’s really important to me as a director that none of these characters seem “crazy” or “ill.” Really, all of these characters are experiencing something, and they don’t know what to do about it. They don’t know how to make their situations easier. Some of these characters are working through immense trouble and grief and issues of belonging.
The show is guided by two main characters: The Proprietor, who is the evil Devil on your shoulder; and The Balladeer, who is the Spirit of good and positivity. Throughout the show, the audience gets to see all of these characters choose one path or the other. Is it easier to go on living in the suffering that I am now? Or, is it easier to make one choice that changes the entire game forever? All of our characters choose to shake things up a bit.
Do you find that this show is relatable?
Although the subject matter is mature and adult, audiences can relate and connect with what it means to be brought to a breaking point. Everyone, at some point, reaches points in life where they get to make a choice. Whether it’s about your future, or a situation, or a life-altering moment, we all know what it means to make a choice.
Assassins calls for weapons, and specifically firearms. How have you addressed this demand on your cast and audience?
Yes, because of the theme, we are featuring firearms in the show. These firearms are not real. They are actually pieces of art that I had local welder and artist Jack Hove make for us. You can’t really have a play about assassinations and assassins without weapons, but as someone who is highly sensitive to guns and gun violence because of the time of the world that we live in, I didn’t want the audience or our actors to ever question or fear that the firearms on stage are actual firearms.
In lots of productions where firearms are present, many directors choose have to have a bright orange safety cap on the end of the barrel. This is a big signal that traditionally says to everyone in the room, ‘This is not real. It does not shoot real bullets. We are all safe.’
I didn’t want to go that route. Not because I don’t take this issue seriously, but because I thought it maybe would bring our audience out of the play, and have them focused on that orange cap rather than the people behind the weapons. I spoke with Jack Hove and explained my concern about safety and maintaining the focus on the characters. Jack and I decided to go with weapons that felt real, but have completely see-through barrels. There is no trigger and no machinery to our production’s “firearms.” They are really just pieces of welded metal with no working functions. We made this decision very intentionally because I wanted the audience to be focused on the people behind the guns. This story is about the people in question. It is not about the guns themselves.
How are the assassination scenes handled? For audience members who are also sensitive to gun violence, what would be helpful to know in advance?
You will hear gunshots in the show, but we never fire at the audience or each other. We are very sensitive to the issue of gun violence, and have put very intentional and historically accurate staging in place to ensure that we are only ever firing at the (unseen) victim of the assassination.
How do you feel this production might lead to important discussions about gun violence in our community?
It’s not great that we live in a world where even I - as the director - jump at the sound of a gunshot in a show that I know is coming. I think this is a very important reminder and message to the audience. It’s a reminder to each of us that we are surrounded by weapons every day. We live in a country that has laws that allow weapons to be carried legally. Some places allow open carry or concealed carry. And it can be hard to navigate. Depending on where you live, it can be hard to know where firearms are appropriate and okay. It’s the world we live in.
Gun violence in schools and in public is a really sensitive issue. It is very real in the time of the world we live in. I didn’t ever want our audience to feel that there was a threat or a danger to them. The danger is all on stage. Everyone being shot is imaginary. No one is playing a president. You’re not going to see anyone be shot on stage. You’re going to hear a gunshot, and you will know through the story who they’re shooting at and why. But you are never going to be seeing a physical act of violence carried out toward another Human being actually on stage in front of you. That was very important to me.
The show really doesn’t have a happy ending. This is not a traditional musical where there’s a narrative and a happy ending. It’s really episodic. There’s a big group number at the beginning, and a big group number at the end, and then slices of life in between where each character gets a scene or two to convey to the audience why they did what they did.
Isn’t there an Army ranger in your cast? How has that impacted the show’s production process?
I am really proud to feature an active duty service member in our cast. Christian Becerra plays a character named Giuseppe Zangara. Christian was incredible when helping us deal with the issue of the weapons. As an active-duty service member, Christian was kind enough to give our cast a quick tutorial on how to hold a weapon accurately and safely. It was a gift to us, and I was so thankful for his willingness to do so.
We are so fortunate to live in this community where there are people of all different backgrounds and career fields that we can bring together through the arts. I certainly did not expect the cast to all have the same political opinion on guns, or presidents, or anything of the sort. I also don’t expect our audience to all align on those issues either. But we are having a very important conversation in a very artistic way. I think we've handled a difficult subject matter beautifully.
What are you hoping people can learn from this show?
It’s been a really great process, and I’m really excited to share this piece with our audience.
When our audience leaves the theatre, I hope they can acknowledge a new part of themselves that says, “These characters up there are not me. But I can relate to them with some empathy after seeing their situations. Whether I would make that choice or not, I now have a better understanding of a part of our nation’s history that I wouldn’t otherwise have known.” If our audience can walk away having learned something more about themselves, we’ve done our job. ◼︎