by Jena VanElslander
“Jena, don’t forget to release the safety!” was the running joke as I headed into my Broadway Debut in King Kong. As a swing for the King’s Company (our team of incredible athletes who do the puppeteering for Kong), this show has taken the role of ‘swing’ to a whole new level..
Working on Kong is not something that can be rehearsed on your own, and though I’ve watched, tracked and visualized the scenes a hundred times over, there is nothing like being in there, breathing with Kong and the other nine puppeteers, remaining calm while adrenaline is pumping in order to rig, de-rig or launch off Kong’s shoulder. Or knowing the precise moment to get your wrist out of the loop before Kong goes from standing to laying down, otherwise you’ll head straight up to the gantry dangling by your wrist (Yes, this happened to me.) There is just no preparing for what it feels like, knowing our lives rest in each others’ hands, and one mistake could be super dangerous or stop the show.
“Safety, launch, go” is what Jacob called (our incredible Kong Captain) as I released the safety, took a breath and launched off Kong’s shoulder during Airwar (what we call the final Kong scene in the show).
Three days prior to my debut was my first time rehearsing this scene before I’d perform it. I was feeling pretty confident. I thrive off any physical challenge or rush of adrenaline, so I was pretty pumped. I caught the launch line that was flicked into me, wrist through loop. “Launch, Go” and I jumped - definitely forgetting to release the safety! I shot right back and dangled by my wrist alongside Kong’s face, the only thing crushed being my pride. All I have to say is that I will never forget to release the safety again. It’s a damn good thing that happened in rehearsal and not the show!
Something about King Kong was so magnetic to me from the beginning. Maybe the combination of artistry and athleticism I knew would be required: the unique set of skills, tumbling and aerial work. Then there was director and choreographer Drew McOnie, whose choreography was so grounded and raw and resonated so deeply within me. It just fit and felt so right, and somewhere my superhuman strength could be utilized!
I auditioned late May for the project and was brought onto the team June 18. As a King’s Company swing, I cover the only two fierce warrior Women on Kong, as well as our five beautiful women ensemble members, and also two men just on Kong and loving every second of it!
Going on for the first time was completely thrilling and pretty sure the hardest I’ve ever sweat in my whole life (and I workout hard). A planned swing-out was generously offered the week before which enabled my parents a chance to fly in from Canada! It was a really proud moment. The entire Kong team was so completely supportive and excited for the debut. I made sure to soak up every flash of a smile, giggle of excitement, all the hugs, kisses, words of encouragement and mega love that day both on and off the stage.
To top it all off, after the cast had taken our final bow, Marty Lawson (my fellow King’s Company member) lifted me right up and the cast celebrated while the curtain came down. Talk about a dream made - and I even remembered to release the safety!