Making a Broadway directorial debut was “as scary as it comes and as exciting as it comes” for Bob Crowley. Fortunately, the director of Tarzan worked exceptionally well with his seasoned scenic and costume designers, who were available to him day and night and did whatever he asked. Sometimes, though, “at the end of the week, I would have answered so many thousands of questions, it was hard for me to switch my brain off,” says Crowley, who, yes, played all three roles: director, scenic designer, and costume designer. Lighting designer Natasha Katz and sound designer John Shivers filled out the creative team.
Although he had been involved with the show for over four years and had thought it out for an arena and a two-sided space as well as a proscenium house, Crowley couldn't finish his design until after rehearsals began. He was able to make some decisions in a workshop at SUNY Purchase last summer. “By then, we knew we were going to the Richard Rodgers, and we tried as much as we could to replicate it.” In New York, dress-tech rehearsals alternated with preview performances, doubling normal tech time.
“I had a basic outline of the set and a clear idea of large sections. But I had no idea of what Meryl Tankard (aerial choreographer) and Pichon Baldinu (aerial designer) would come up with. There were actors flying through the air where I would normally put scenery, so I had to set the flying time before I finished,” he says. “It was a chicken or the egg question.” How would Crowley create a set structure around the aerial performers?
With safety an issue, the breakable egg won easily. Some scenery that he would elect to fly in under normal circumstances had to come up through a trap. “The scenery I flew is all lightweight and made of fabric,” Crowley says. He knew early on that the set would have to be soft and safe as well as out of the way where actors flew. “The box of the theatrical set is a huge, inflatable bouncing box,” he says, noting that silence was also an issue. Actors enter through plastic balloon-like doors.
“When actors fly into walls, it had to be fun, not painful,” Crowley adds. “I wanted actors to feel liberated rather than threatened, to have the freedom that children have when they play, to want to crash into walls. They're jumping off great heights and being delivered inches off the floor. We developed an ecology of flying and safety etiquette, and actors check each other all the time.”
As the costume designer, Crowley selected fabric for its light weight and durability. “Costumes get an incredible amount of battering each night,” he says. For the apes, tiny, individually dyed, black Lyrca strips sewn onto a base of net resisted destruction. Harnesses, cut to follow the lines of each actor's body, had to be hidden beneath period Victorian dresses.
Crowley says flying created opportunities as well as problems. The director was able to play with perspective, allowing the audience to look down on a couple of birds, for instance. “When you've got people in the air, you can completely look at a space and use every square inch.”
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