Part 1: Why Every Theatre in America Should Have an Active Shooter Plan
Real tragedy lies in the fact that out of all of the moments, and milestones that have occurred in American theatres, perhaps the most noteworthy occurred on a spring evening in 1865 during a performance of Our American Cousin. Despite the centuries of breathtaking performances and soul-revealing cultural revolutions that have characterized theatre history, schoolchildren’s first exposure to theatres historically is as the setting for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Between the passage of time and the cringe-worthy, “But how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” jokes, it is easy to relegate the concept of real-life theatre gun violence to a time when horse-and-buggy was the favored mode of transportation. However, present-day America hardly has the time to process one tragedy involving gun violence before another shooting makes headlines. To wit, the 2012 attack on a Century 16 movie theatre, when a lone gunman killed twelve people and injured seventy others in Aurora, Colorado, was particularly harrowing and shocking to anyone committed to or active in theatres. That shooting, and the hundreds of others that have occurred before and since, serve as evidence that active shooter incidents are unfortunately a disaster for which every American theatre is now at risk. “Active shooter,” according to the FBI’s 2013 Study of Active Shooter Incidents, is a term describing an event in which a shooting is in progress, and “implies that both law enforcement personnel and citizens have the potential to affect the outcome of the event based on their responses.” Theatres can positively affect the outcome of an active shooter event through the creation of a planned response, communication with law enforcement, and the strategic training of staff in a variety of possible scenarios, but to do so, theatres have to be prepared to reach out to law enforcement, do thorough research, and have some very difficult and uncomfortable conversations with staff and volunteers about gun violence.
Going through all of that possible work begs the question of whether or not it is at all likely that theatres would be at any kind of significant risk for a situation involving an active shooter. Theatres are soft targets, which means they are facilities that have limited security, large numbers of untrained and unsuspecting bystanders crowded into a large space with a limited number of entrances and exits. Most theatres, unlike large sporting arenas, theme parks, or major concert halls, do not regularly engage in the process of manually checking large bags with security guards, nor do they generally have metal detectors. Soft targets are prime locations for active shooter incidents, especially when there is a small or nonexistent security force in the area; in the 2013 FBI study, 46 percent of active shooter incidents between 2000–2013 occurred in what they categorized as places of “commerce,” (i.e., businesses and malls), with another 24 percent happening in “schools or institutions of higher education.” In an interview with Lieutenant Ron Heady, Louisville Metro Police First Division, Downtown Area Patrol, and leader of the Louisville Hostage Negotiating Team, Lt. Heady reported that a police presence is occasionally dispatched to an event “when some venues reach an anticipated attendance—larger events, home basketball games, but generally on a case by case basis. Sometimes concerts have 2,000-plus people in attendance. A notification is sent out to police officers who are on patrol that evening, but it is more just something that’s put on the radar for the officers on patrol.” Some performing arts venues have houses that would contain 2,000 or more patrons on certain evenings, but the majority of even the largest American theatres will not meet that threshold, so barring traffic management needs, a police presence is still a phone call and a minimum of several minutes away. Having such a large number of people in a facility with minimum security oversight makes theatres the kinds of places where an active shooter could do devastating harm.
Theatres are also uniquely and specially designed to hide actors and backstage staff from audience members. If an active shooter did enter a theatre space, the complications that any theatre has (trap doors, backstage exits, unexpected hallways and staircases) may inhibit law enforcement’s ability to clear a space and find the attacker, giving the shooter time to find and hurt more people. Marie Tull, Human Resources Manager for Actors Theatre of Louisville, says creating a comprehensive active shooter policy for a theatre is unlike the plans she’s seen in other industries. “There are all these intricate parts to the theatre—production and backstage, front of house, another whole building not attached to the theatre, and we have to make sure that the procedures we create can be applicable to all of those spaces,” she adds. This problem would be infinitely worse if the shooter was someone intimately familiar with the backstage areas of the theatre under attack. According to James L. Swanson’s book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, Booth had performed in Ford’s Theatre most recently as Pescara in The Apostate on March 18, 1865, a month before Lincoln’s assassination, and “knew the layout of Ford’s intimately…the staircase he would ascend to the box; the dark, subterranean passageway beneath the stage; the narrow hallway behind the stage that led to the back door that opened to Baptist Alley,” where he would eventually escape a crowded theatre on a broken leg. Would his escape or that act of gun violence been able to occur if he had lacked the knowledge of the theatre’s complex backstage areas, or would he have been caught if the architecture had been more straightforward? Also, consider for a moment the number of plays and productions that feature onstage gun violence. If an active shooter attacked a live theatre performance of Les Miserables, Dracula, Assassins, or a host of other perennial theatrical favorites, there could easily be a delay in response from the victims under the impression the first deadly rounds were simply part of the show.
Confronting the reality of potential active shooter situations in theatres is extremely disconcerting. Theatres are our sacred spaces, where we try actively to engage with the people around us and connect with stories outside of our own. Experiencing theatre is for many people, audience and performer alike, a communal thing happening in a special space. The idea of an attack happening where we are so vulnerable is particularly upsetting. Watching security footage of such attacks, even in the clinical and remote setting of a training session, is gut-wrenching, horrific, and chilling. Having to form a plan and to take the time to prepare your staff and volunteers for a possibility like a mass shooting is undeniably difficult. Despite the unpleasantness of these conversations, the facts remain. According to MassShootingTracker.org, a nonprofit organization that tracks gun violence data and statistics featured on CNN, MSNBC, and The New York Times, 364 Americans were killed in mass shootings in 2014. There were sixty-five deaths in the US as a result of structural fires in nonresidential structures in the same year according to the National Fire Protection Association. Every theatre has an emergency evacuation plan in the event of a fire. Surely it is just as important that every theatre have an emergency evacuation plan for a situation that kills hundreds more Americans every year.
Part 2: Creating a More Positive Outcome
In an evaluation with The Music Hall’s insurance provider, Zhana Morris, production manager, realized that the theatre did not currently have an active shooter policy, and with that realization came the decision from both the insurance provider and the staff it was time to develop one. At Actors Theatre of Louisville, a policy that had been in place for show conditions was expanded to cover a variety of situations across the theatre shortly after Tull began as the human resources manager; “I came to the theatre after working as a consultant for a few different companies that weren’t theatres,” Tull reports, adding, “I was surprised there wasn’t a comprehensive plan in place already.” Dozens of universities in the US have publicly published their active shooter policies online, and many theatres associated with institutions of higher education have been covered under the umbrella of those policies. The motivation for developing a policy can come from a variety of places, cautious insurance providers, new employees pushing proactive policies, or university administrators who have seen these types of attacks happen at similar institutions. Regardless of the impetus, once a theatre has decided to make an active shooter plan, theatres can create a more positive potential outcome. Some theatres have had great success creating a plan in conjunction with their local police department, which should also have a variety of online resources that can be used to make a plan and train staff. “We did involve the police department in our conversations [at Actors Theatre of Louisville],” Tull said, “so we could know details about how they would respond to an emergency, how many officers would enter the facility, what their recommendations were for our plan.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a number of webinars and videos online addressing how to respond to specific aspects of active shooter scenarios. The theory that seems to permeate many of these materials is known as the “Run-Hide-Fight” response, which according to Marie Tull at Actors Theatre of Louisville, was the most important thing she discovered as she crafted a comprehensive active shooter emergency response plan, adding, “I would have never thought of the second two main components of the plan until I did the research with the DHS.” ). The beauty of the Run-Hide-Fight response lies in its simplicity. If someone finds themselves in an active shooter scenario, the DHS recommends, essentially: run until you are no longer in danger, hide behind cover if you cannot run, and if a confrontation with the shooter is inevitable, fight to defend yourself.
Unlike weather and fire related emergencies, where a theatre’s staff are primarily responsible for the orderly evacuation of patrons and volunteers, Lt. Heady warns, “The idea that your staff can control [an active shooter situation] and guide others to safety while shots are being fired is not reasonable.” Zhana Morris points out the uniqueness of active shooter procedures, offering that in her training, “unlike just about any other type of emergency in a theatre, our job in the moment was to make sure we got out of the building safely, not to make sure the patrons, performers, ushers, etc. did. This was kind of hard for us to take in as it is ingrained in us to help others during an evacuation situation of course, but…the risk increases for people who are obviously trying to help others escape, and that it also then puts the people we are trying to help at greater risk.”
Once a policy has been created, there is preparation for an active shooter incident that does not necessarily look like preparation for a violent attack on a theatre. After a recent training at The Music Hall, Zhana Morris noted, “most of our responsibility as a staff needs to happen prior to the situation (i.e., making sure exit doors are clear and easy to access).” Agreeing with Morris’ response, Lt. Heady offers what he sees as the most important thing to be done in advance of an active shooter attack: “making sure everybody knows where the exits are.” Theatre staff can also help stop an attack before it starts by being watchful and active in their lobby spaces.
Theatres can prepare themselves for active shooter incidents through communication with local law enforcement, and one of the best ways to foster that relationship with police is through a site visit. Having police actually visit a theatre and walk through the backstage and front of house areas gives law enforcement a better idea of how a theatre is laid out; “we don’t want the first time [police officers] see a site to be in a crisis situation,” Lt. Heady warns. Active shooter drills have been conducted in schools regularly since the Columbine massacre in 1999. These drills are not unlike the fire, earthquake, or tornado drills that have become commonplace in theatres and schools alike. Marie Tull hopes that Actors Theatre of Louisville will soon begin scheduling semi-annual emergency response plan drills to make sure they’re “operating at the highest level of preparedness.”
Theatres all over the country are trying to find the right answers to some really difficult questions about how to respond to an active shooter. On the day he was killed, Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that would create the Secret Service, although it would be thirty-six years and two assassinations later that the protection of the president would be included in the Secret Service’s duties. It is neither easy nor pleasant to contemplate how to plan for a physical attack, but planning sooner, thoroughly, and well can help save lives, or at least give staff the peace of mind that comes with being prepared. When asked if she thought her theatre was at risk from this type of attack, Marie Tull paused thoughtfully and said, “I don’t think that we are, and hopefully we never experience it. But we are prepared.”