Asking an audience member onstage and handing them an important role in proceedings always requires careful management and a bit of mutual trust.
When that person is handed a loaded gun and told to point it at the performer’s face, however, the stakes are so much higher.
Having performed his show Bullet Catch more than 100 times without injury, Scottish actor Rob Drummond says he’s become adept at sizing up his hapless co- stars.
“Some of them can get a bit stressed and shaky towards the end of the play but it’s very important to me that they enjoy the experience,” Drummond says. “I don’t force anyone to do it and, to date, no-one seems to have regretted going through with it. But I allow them some decompression time and sometimes I’ll buy them a drink at the bar afterwards.”
Most arrive on stage having never held or even touched a gun before, Drummond says. “It doesn’t matter where you are, when the gun is brought out, you can feel the atmosphere change in the room. It gets a bit colder, somehow. It’s such a powerful object.”
In Bullet Catch, Drummond explores the life and death of a magician, William Henderson, who was killed in 1912 performing the notorious stunt in which the performer apparently catches a bullet in his teeth, fired from a pistol by a member of the audience.
“It’s not an absolutely factual play but it has come from real events and stories of bullet catches that have gone wrong,” Drummond explains.
“Quite a few magicians have died doing it.”
From the mid-1800s onwards, there was a run of fatalities associated with the trick, the best known being American William Ellsworth, who, in the guise of his alter ego Chung Ling Soo, was fatally wounded on stage when the gun malfunctioned in 1918.
After that, Harry Houdini, it is said, refused to perform the trick and advised others in the trade to avoid it.
Drummond regards Bullet Catch as theatre rather than a magic act, but concedes the lines are blurred. “My main aim is to tell an interesting story and make compelling theatre, but a lot of people enjoy it as a magic show. Some don’t even realise it’s meant to be a piece of theatre,” Drummond says.
He says he’s learnt a lot about human nature.
“It can be quite moving when the audience member opens up and answers the questions I put to them really honestly. In one out of every four or five shows, I’ll strike a rapport with that person. It’s something you can’t fake. There’s no acting in that moment on stage and the audience can feel it. I’ve kept in touch with a few people I’ve met in the course of the show.”
The show can take on different flavours depending on the audience, Drummond says. “The first 45 minutes can be whatever the audience needs it to be. If the audience wants it to be a comedy it can be – I do quite a lot of ad libbing.
“Then in the final 15 to 30 minutes it becomes much darker. But the final message is that there is always hope. I never leave the stage feeling anything other than hopeful, even though I know we’ve touched some sour notes during the course of the show.”
Four-star reviews have come Drummond’s way but the show has its critics among magicians.
“I do show how one particular trick is done and they don’t like that at all.”
REVIEW: Bullet Catch
Bullet Catch, Downstage Theatre, today 6.30pm, tomorrow 2pm and 6.30pm and February 25-28, 6.30pm.