Actors Fly At Lamb’s Players
Friday, April 8, 2011
The Broadway production of "Spider-Man: Turn Of The Dark" is fraught with disaster. The show’s complicated aerial work has left actors suspended in air and resulted in at least one serious injury. Lamb's Players is doing a show in which actors fly, though on a much smaller – and safer – scale.
At a recent tech rehearsal for the Lamb's Players' production of "The Book of the Dun Cow," actors are preparing to fly. Lance Arthur Smith is wearing an elaborate harness around his hips. A cable (a strong one) attaches to the harness. Smith spreads his arms wide and suddenly he’s lifted off the stage and hovers in the air like a helicopter.
Matt Meads is Smith’s operator, which means he moves Smith around using a control box with a joystick. He stands off to the side, unseen by the audience, but in direct view of Smith. It goes without saying, these two men have to communicate.
"We call ourselves Team Mindmeld," says Smith. He and Meads banter like two who've done some male bonding. Meads laughs, "Yeah, we have a little signature hand gesture." Smith continues, "We do have hand signals and vocal cues. For example, I raise my arms in flight and that’s his cue to raise me up and down."
Meads said the job of operator comes easily to him since he’s been playing video games all his life. Apparently, moving the actors up and down and across the stage takes a delicate touch, the right timing, and practice.
The video game that best prepared him for the fly system's joysticks is MLB Baseball. "Because you have to time everything, you have to time the pitch and hit the ball at the right time," Meads said.
Smith jumped in: "Although I would wager that you’re also very good at Super Mario Brothers, because I go from platform to platform in this." Meads agreed, "Yeah, that definitely helps for the jumping here and there."
It seems impossible to have a conversation about aerial work with anyone in the theater community without thinking of "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark." The disaster-prone Broadway musical has been in previews for months and is currently on hiatus. Its director and co-creator, Julie Taymor ("The Lion King") was recently forced out. The show's complicated aerial work has left actors suspended in the air and resulted in at least one serious injury.
Other than the fact that actors fly, "Spider-Man" and "Dun Cow" couldn't be more different, particularly in scope. "Spider-Man" has a much publicized budget of $65 million (which is likely to grow now that the show is undergoing more changes). Lamb's is obviously working on a smaller scale.
Lamb’s first staged "The Book of the Dun Cow" in 1988. The theater’s artistic director Robert Smyth adapted the script from the National Book Award winning novel. Smyth said that first production also had flying actors. "Back then it was just people swinging in on ropes. Seriously, it was a Tarzan kind of styling."
Since then, technology has made it easier to create elaborate aerial spectacles. Lamb’s rented a fly system from a company called Chicago Flyhouse. The cost of the rental is roughly $10,000, part of the production’s overall budget of $250,000.
Colleen Kollar Smith (none of the "Smiths" in this story are related) is the choreographer "The Book of the Dun Cow." She worked with the actors to create fight scenes in the air. "Once you’re up there, you realize which way the pendulum swings and quickly you realize it's real easy to do flips in the air. It seems like that would be difficult, but it's quite easy because you’re suspended in air and its actually the safest thing you can do."
As rehearsal continues, a narrator steps onto the stage. He carries a staff, and announces to theater: “This is the Book of the Dunn Cow. It is the story of a time long ago, very distant from today. A time when the animals could speak."
When asked what the play is about, Robert Smyth, who's directing this production, gave me the Hollywood pitch description: "It’s “Animal Farm” meets “Lord of the Rings” told by Cirque du Soleil."
He said that despite the talking animals, this is not a children’s play. It takes place in a chicken coop, where a community of animals is led by a proud rooster named Chauntecleer. It explores themes of good and evil and loss and longing.
Walter Wangerin wrote the book on which the play is based. "The difficult thing - which must work for the play - is that the audience must give itself over to - must commit itself to - the animals as if they were human and very near the heart."
Audiences have become accustomed to humanizing animals on stage, just look at "The Lion King." Which brings us back to director Julie Taymor’s most recent project, "Spider-Man."
Since the fly system arrived at Lamb’s, "Dun Cow’s" cast members have joked about "Spider-Man." Smyth explains: "The first time that Lance, who plays Chauntecleer went up on the rigging, it tangled and he suddenly came down and stopped right before the floor and he just went spread eagle and said… Spiderman."
There’s a theater tradition that uttering the title of the play "Macbeth" dooms a production. So actors typically refer to it as “The Scottish play.” The cast at Lamb's joked that they have a new “Scottish play” to deal with.
Despite all their rehearsals and safety precautions, they’d rather not mention that accident-prone spider musical back east.
"The Book of the Dun Cow" will be on stage at Lamb's Playhouse in Coronado through May 15th.