Drama Straight From the Cockpit

Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar

One of New York's most suspenseful off-Broadway shows last year featured lines of dialogue like this: "Avoid large or abrupt rudder inputs. If normal, left hydraulic system pressure available... left hydraulic system available yes, crosswind limit, do not attempt an auto-land."

The performers in that show, "Charlie Victor Romeo," sold out the Collective: Unconscious theater space in Manhattan for eight months straight by reciting genuine "black box" transcripts from six plane crashes. They didn't change a word. And as each of the docudrama's real-life finales unfolded, cockpit conversation gradually shifted from idle chitchat and dry technical jargon--"ILS frequency," "inboard ailerons," "Mach speed trim"--to outbursts of disbelief and panic as crew members began to realize something had gone horribly wrong. Even New York's jaded theater crowd found itself riveted by the chilling performances, which earned Collective: Unconscious a 2000 Drama Desk Award for best unique theatrical experience and another award for sound design.

"Charlie Victor Romeo" opens Wednesday at UCLA's Macgowan Little Theater and runs through July 15.

The show, named for the acronym for cockpit voice recorder, reenacts one close call and five catastrophes, including the 1989 Sioux City, Iowa, crash landing, a 1985 mountain accident that killed 520 Japanese passengers; and a 1994 Indiana crash in which a jet plummeted 8,000 feet in 35 seconds.

Morbid material, or so it would seem. But "Charlie Victor Romeo" is not intended as a sensationalistic death trip, according to co-creator Bob Berger. "There's all these expectations in the minds of the audience," he says by phone from his home in New York. "You say 'air disaster,' they think media circus and giant 'Die Hard' explosions. Somebody who saw the show was quoted in the New York press saying, 'I'll see anything about death.' So people come to this with their own baggage--but none of those expectations are what they get in our play."

For Berger, who performs in the play with collaborators Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory as well as five other cast members, "Charlie Victor" depicts "unbelievable heroism on the part of people who are possibly aware on an academic level that there might not be anything they can do, but are fighting to perform and persevere at a pitch that is just incredibly courageous."

"You'll see a lot of bad behavior--it's not as if every character here is a nice person or successfully resolves something or doesn't make mistakes that cause problems. But I don't think it's about that," Berger continues. "It's about the human animal. What do you do if something horrible happens?"

If "Charlie Victor" has a villain, it makes an entrance during each scene in the form of traitorous machinery, embodied in the play by a battery of sound effects that mimic the whirs, whooshes and thumps of gadgetry gone awry. "Technology is a huge part of the show," Berger says. "The technology replaces Moby Dick. It's the same story, about the hero's struggle to battle this giant out-of-control monster."

The flight crews in "Charlie Victor" respond in different ways to that "monster," to the gauges that lie, the engines that fail, the tails that fall off. Successful pilots, Berger says, were able to admit when they were stumped and relied on teamwork to make the best of a bad situation. The leaders who failed suffered from that staple of classic tragedy: hubris.

"Basically it's the Capt. Kirk syndrome: 'I don't need to listen to what you're thinking; I know what I'm doing,' " Berger says. "Instead of doing this play, I could have just come up with an alarm device that at a certain point would just start going 'whoop whoop--hubris' 'whoop whoop--fatal pride,' 'whoop whoop--hubris.' And you'd put it in operating rooms, in planes, anywhere that somebody tries to exceed their own capabilities."

Berger launched his theatrical career after working for seven years as a news cameraman at CNN. He'd grown critical of his profession. "I was very much of the school of thought that it's all about the media pulling the wool over people's eyes about reality," he says. While browsing in a Manhattan bookstore with Gregory two years ago, Berger happened onto a slice of reality that he could present dramatically without having to add his own "spin."

"Gregory and I had been talking about sex and violence and reality programming, and right in front of me, here's this book by some San Quentin guy on knife fighting, and there's a coffee table book full of giant color photographs of invasive surgery procedures." Gregory then picked up a copy of Malcolm Macpherson's "The Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents." "I looked over Gregory's shoulder as he was reading the transcript and said, 'Maybe we should do a play using that.' Then we ran all over the bookstore, getting as many texts as we could."

Black box recordings are the property of airlines and are supposed to be accessible only to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration. However transcripts of the recordings are in the public domain. Berger and his colleagues assembled their play from documents readily available on the Internet and in such books as "The Black Box" and "Air Disaster: Vol.(s) 1, 2, & 3" by Macarthur Job.

"We really started out dealing with the ethics of doing this," Berger says. "It was really important to treat the material in a way we felt was respectful and with a certain understanding of this actual event's impact."

And so it was agreed: There would be no script doctoring, no prologues or epilogues, no altering of events to heighten dramatic effect.

From the outset, actors were told to disregard "back story" and focus on the document rather than the crews' personalities. Many characters in the script are identified only as, for example, "Cockpit area microphone voice source 1."

"It was important to us to look at who these people were as defined by that document. And that's where, I hope, the lack of editorializing comes into play. We're just focusing on those people in that situation, and their talent and their grace under pressure. Who those people were before the plane took off that day is somewhere we don't want to go. That's not important to the art of doing the play, and that was one of the things we thought of really early on."

Above all, Berger, a self-described "stickler" for accuracy, wanted to devise a show so authentic that aviation industry insiders could watch it without cringing. In that respect, the show exceeded expectations. By serving up the transcripts raw, with every "uh" intact, "Charlie Victor" became the darling of America's aviation community. Each night, pilots would crowd the stage after the show and talk shop with Berger. The Air Force commissioned a training film from the troupe. West Point cadets were required to view the play as part of a course on human error.

And then, one night Al Haynes showed up. In 1986, Haynes landed United Airlines Flight 232, a DC-10, on the Sioux City airstrip after the jet lost an engine and all steering controls. That day, 111 died in the crash landing; 185 lived. Aviation experts say Haynes' resourceful actions prevented what would have been, in lesser hands, an even more disastrous landing. The restaging of Flight 232's black box transcript concludes "Charlie Victor Romeo."

When he first heard that a Manhattan theater troupe was restaging his experience for public consumption, Haynes was skeptical. "I was surprised that they had such a show in the first place. Why would they be doing it? Who would be interested in seeing transcripts read out like that, putting a whole production into it. I had been upset a long time ago that [cockpit voice recording transcripts] had been released; but now that it's out, what surprised me was that they would find an audience to go see it."

Still, Haynes, who lives in Seattle, was intrigued and went to New York to witness "Charlie Victor Romeo" firsthand. "I just sat there, fascinated and watching it being played out. There were friends with me who kept patting me on the leg, and I'd say, 'I'm all right, I'm all right."'

Two moments during the reenactment gave Haynes pause. One came when he said, "Good luck, sweetheart" to flight attendant Jan Lohr. Recalls Haynes, "When, in the play, the flight attendant came in to the cockpit, I remembered Jan coming in, and that kind of touched me, you know, emotionally. And the second of course was the sound of the impact."

Twelve years ago, Haynes quit United Airlines so he could travel the country talking to corporations and community groups about his experience. He sees "Charlie Victor" as another medium to spread the message: Pilots are only human; teamwork can save lives; communication is a two-way street.

"I don't want people to just go watch this show so they can be entertained by the ghoulishness of what takes place," he says. "I think they're getting some good out of it and that makes me feel good."


"CHARLIE VICTOR ROMEO," Macgowan Little Theater, UCLA, Westwood. Dates: Opens Wednesday at 8 p.m. Runs Wednesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m., except dark July 4. Ends July 15. Price: $35. Phone: (310) 825-2101.

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