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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Actors Learn To Fly For North Country Production Of Tarzan

Charlotte
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VPR
Alex Cope takes flight as the title character in "Tarzan" at North Country Union High School in Newport.

For about a week now, students at North Country High School in Newport have been up in the air.

Literally.

For a musical production of Tarzan opening November 7 they’ve been swinging onto the stage from the back of the auditorium. They’re relying on ropes and pulleys installed by a company that also designed the apparatus used in the original Broadway production of Tarzan.

Bare-chested, wearing a short skirt of satin leaves, Tarzan — aka Alex Cope — prepares for his airborne entrance. His coach is Bobby Wilcox, from the stage-flight company called Flying by Foy. Wilcox calls himself an air-e-ographer. He clips Cope into a harness. Two students operate two different pulleys—one to lift the actor up, and another to guide his travel once he’s in the air.

“Are you ready Alex? Okay we’re going to go on three,” Wilcox calls.

Up goes Tarzan. Looking on, coach Wilcox says flying in a theater is harder than it looks. It’s like ballet, he says, without a floor.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
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VPR
Alec Cope, as Tarzan, waits in the hallway of North Country Union High School for play rehearsal to start.

“It’s sort of like any dancer, there’s grace in movement and the awareness of your body in space, and stuff like that,” Wilcox explains. “It’s like now we are in space … it sort of becomes this trio of a dance between the operators here and the performer that is flying. So we all have to collaborate together here to make it be smooth and work well.”

When a graceful Alex Cope lands, the actor talks a bit about Tarzan’s back story. The play begins in the jungle, where his human mother and father are killed. The infant is rescued and raised by gorilla parents.

“At the start I do not fully understand I’m a human, a man, I just think I’m a really weird hairless ape. And then as the show goes on and I meet Jane and the other humans I realize I am one of them and there’s a line where I literally say ‘I am a man,’” Cope says.

Gabby Cogan holds the reins as Cope flies. She’s given some pretty deep thought to this plot line.

“I guess Disney has kind of glorified it and made it this really beautiful thing but the books are actually … say a lot about gender roles and at that time period what gender was saying within society … what the masculine idea might be,” Cogan says.

"It sort of becomes this trio of a dance between the operators here and the performer that is flying." - Bobby Wilcox, stage flight instructor

So Tarzan could be on an English class quiz next week. But for the public, director Michael Chase Gosselin says he doesn’t want this to be just another high school play. He’s a recent graduate from North Country Union High School building a professional career in New York City theater, and he wants these student actors to aim high.

“What I always tell the kids is I don’t want parents to come and to say ‘good job, my kid did a great high school musical,’" Gosselin says. "I want people to leave and feel honestly entertained, honestly amazed, because you know the kids are capable of it. They’re totally able to bring that professionalism to it."

Kiah Caldwell teaches English at North Country High School and coordinates the inter-disciplinary Arts and Communications Academy that’s producing Tarzan. She says this school may be the first in Vermont to teach young actors to fly. That probably motivated some students to audition—and maybe others to sit this one out.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
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VPR
Cast and crew from "Tarzan" at North Country Union High School in Newport practice scenes in the back of the auditorium.

“Well I think we probably had a little bit of both but I think it inspired kids to participate and be involved in this,” Caldwell says.

It’s been an all-consuming project for this rural school, with original costumes, a complicated multi-storey set, and a 13-piece live orchestra playing songs composed by pop icon Phil Collins.

Shannon Smith plays Tarzan’s ape mother, and, in a stirring solo, vows to take care of him “Forever.”

Smith says she’s tried to make her role more deeply felt and complicated than a typical Disney character.

Judging by the spirited applause of students watching this tech rehearsal, she’s hit her mark.

Tarzan opens November 7 at North Country union High School and runs through the weekend.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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