by Mo Brady
Even before it welcomes its first audience, King Kong is proving itself a massive Broadway mounting. Most evidently, the production features a 2,000-pound, 20-foot puppet as its titular character. In addition, the show features a massive cast of 35 actors, including an onstage ensemble of 11, six offstage swings and ten actors known as “King’s Company.”
The King’s Company is a troupe of artists within the production whose primary responsibility is manipulating the Kong puppet. This team of artists responsible for puppeteering Kong, including Marty Lawson and Lauren Yalango-Grant, come from a variety of performance backgrounds.
One of the theatre industry’s most dynamic dancers, King Kong marks Lawson’s seventh Broadway show. While his previous Broadway shows have featured high-octane choreography by the likes of Rob Ashford and Twyla Tharp, King Kong’s staging relies on a different style of movement: puppetry. While he worked with puppets on Shrek the Musical, it was “nothing as extensive as King Kong.”
Making her Broadway debut in King Kong, Yalango-Grant was a member of Pilobolus Dance Theater for almost eight years. During her tenure there, she helped create shows where dancers worked as group to create shapes recognizable to an audience. “It required a very specific and unique set of skills that I find are serving me well in King Kong,” she notes.
The King’s Company was assembled through an extensive audition process that both Lawson and Yalango-Grant found unique. “It’s not often that I experience auditions as fun and exciting as this one,” reveals Yalango-Grant. “The amount of laughter, joy, and support in the room was pretty unique. It was clear that the energy from (director/choreographer Drew) McOnie and (movement director Gavin) Robbins was one of positivity and great leadership.”
For Lawson and many others, the audition process included a half dozen calls to assess the actors on multiple skill sets. “The creative team gave us a group warm up every morning in either yoga or dance,” he notes. “They spent a lot of time evaluating us for teamwork and willingness to try new things.”
“They were truly trying to see who we were both as individual artists and how we work in a group,” says Yalango-Grant. “‘How do you work in a group when things get tough?’ This was particularly important for the Kong team to discover during the audition process.”
Once rehearsals began in early August, Lawson, Yalango-Grant and the rest of the King’s Company began their rehearsals at 8:30am, ninety minutes earlier than a typical Broadway rehearsal day. Over half of their time in rehearsals has been devoted to acting and awareness exercises with movement director Robbins. Among their daily schedule was a group warm up and twice-daily physical conditioning sessions. “We’ve also gone through some pretty epic workouts together - ones that can only bond you because they are so challenging,” says Yalango-Grant.
This extensive rehearsal process in the theatre has given the actors a chance to practice manipulating the Kong puppet effectively and safely. “In the first week, we were muscling everything and hadn’t figured out how to work together yet,” says Lawson. “Everything was twice as hard in the beginning.”
The King’s Company are not the only actors who are responsible for manipulating Kong. In addition to these ten onstage actors are three “Voodoo Operators” who control the puppet’s face, shoulders and hips. “It was important we built up the ability to work as one unit and could adapt and problem solve like one mind,” says Yalango-Grant. “Everybody has to be working with the same intention and the same state of mind.”
“Our relationships with one another and with the puppet is key to making sure we are keeping ourselves and the puppet safe,” continues Yalango-Grant. “We’ve done a lot of exercises which require a group breath and feel - exercises where there is no one leading or following, so that we become one breathing organism.”
While the rest of the show’s cast was preparing in rehearsal studios, much of the King’s Company’s rehearsal process has been at the Broadway Theatre. “Kong doesn’t exactly travel well so we had to go to him,” notes Lawson.
With previews beginning October 5, Lawson and Yalango-Grant are turning their focus towards how audiences will respond to the production. “I think most people will be very surprised to see the new story that we’ve created around Kong,” shares Lawson. “It was important for our director to create a story for our other leading characters that could stand on its own if we didn’t have a 20-foot puppet onstage. So the utmost care has been taken to tell a new and interesting story in every way.”
“I believe audiences will undoubtedly be blown away by the size and nature of Kong,” says Yalango-Grant. “However, his ability to come alive and emote is something I am completely blown away by. His eyes are alive and draw you in. As cheesy as this sounds, it feels as though you are able to see into his soul and he into yours.”