Culture Magazine

King Kong on Broadway: Operating the Puppet

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Michael Paulson, Broadway's Biggest Debut, The NYTimes. King Kong is coming to Broadway this Fall. At the center of the production is a large animatronic puppet of Kong. It's operated by a small crew, most of whom are visible to the audience. How do they coordinate their actions so that Kong appears to be a living creature making coherent movements? Obviously timing is almost everything, as it is in jazz improvisation.

"Everybody will be impressed by the weight of him and the scale of him and the versatility of him, but the thing that really smacks you in the teeth is that his eyes are so powerful," said Drew McOnie, the musical's director, who flew from London to Melbourne to meet the puppet in a warehouse before taking the job. [...]

Despite his heft, Kong can run, ski across the floor, and leap into the air; he also appears to lift Ann Darrow and scale the set walls.

It takes a team of 10 onstage performers, dubbed the King's Company, to manually move his limbs. They push, pull (via rigging ropes), and even use torque exerted by jumping off the beast's back to force his fists upward.

"I feel like we are him - it wouldn't work if we were individuals," said Lauren Yalango-Grant, a Pilobolus alumna making her Broadway debut as a member of the King's Company, often working Kong's right back foot, and sometimes his right elbow. "He feels like he's alive," she said, "and when he's suffering, you want to fight with him on his team." [...]

Three offstage "voodoo operators" control some of the action from a soundproof booth in the theater's balcony, manipulating Kong's hips, shoulders, neck, head and facial expressions using joysticks and pedals that operate motors and hydraulics inside his body.

At the same time, an automation operator lifts and lowers the ape's entire body using winches connected by steel cables to a giant gantry crane in the theater's fly space overhead. (Kong is too big to fit in a theater's wings, so he spends his offstage time hanging over the action. One night during an early developmental workshop in Australia, a Kong prototype crashed onto the empty stage; since then, the production has redoubled safety measures, and there have been no major gorilla mishaps.) [...]

Kong is voiced, live, by one of the voodoo operators, Curt James, who creates Kong's (heavy) breathing, as well as his growls, moans, cries, sighs, sneezes, grunts and barks. Mr. James's voice is digitally modulated - processed and mixed with sampled sounds - in real time to make it deeper and more animalistic.

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