Heroism in Flight
'Charlie Victor Romeo' puts audiences in the cockpit as pilots face emergencies
Planes in crisis. Flight crews wrestling with equipment failure. Pilots struggling to avert an imminent crash. It's the stuff of airline passengers' worst nightmares, and not what you'd think would be the stuff of great theatre. But when the New York stage company Collective: Unconscious took transcripts of Cockpit Voice Recorder tapes from six real-life airline emergencies and performed them on stage, they created a theatrical sensation: sold-out houses for eight months, praise from the aviation community and the U.S. Air Force, which taped the show as a training video for pilots, national tours, and an international production in Japan. What has generated all this attention -- and inspired the UT Performing Arts Center to book the show this season -- is its testament to the strength and spirit of humans in crisis. Bob Berger, who created Charlie Victor Romeo with Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory, discussed the show with the Chronicle.
Austin Chronicle: How is your show different from other documentary work?
Bob Berger: In fiction or art, when you're depicting something that actually happened, there is a tendency to accent every heroic act with music or something that beats the audience with the idea that this person has done something heroic. Some of the things that people depicted in this play did are so powerful that to surround them with the trappings of crisis would do them a disservice. To see someone facing a crisis without those trappings -- they keep telling jokes right to the end -- to see them or to see someone present that before you live is very powerful.
AC: I had thought that, because it deals with plane crashes, the show might have been undercut by the events of 9/11, but listening to you, it sounds like the show may be even more powerful in light of them.
BB: That's the funny thing. The difference between the media and the audience became very starkly drawn after September 11. To be honest, we didn't consider the effects of September 11 for a long time after that day. I mean, I'm talking to you from the theatre office, which is about a quarter-mile from Ground Zero. People who work here or volunteer here were working at the World Trade Center site. None of us thought about the repercussions of this event on our play.
When we finally did go back on the road, we were concerned about what the audience would make of our play in that context; the temptation to draw connections between airplane emergencies and that event is really strong, but the interesting thing is that our audience didn't. We always conduct a discussion after the performance, because we get an incredible amount of information from that -- this is the only show I've ever done where we get hardcore technical notes from the audience -- and they didn't want to talk about it.
The parallel between Charlie Victor Romeo and September 11 is that on that day everybody in the world saw professionals and people like themselves react to this crisis, and Charlie Victor Romeo is also a depiction of professionals and in some cases lay people dealing with an emergency.
Now, when you say human error or pilot error, to a lot of people that's the same thing as locking your keys in the car; they think it's a simple mistake. The reality is it's a complicated chain of events that line up in a very particular way. When you see Charlie Victor Romeo, you see those events lining up in a crisis, and even when people aren't necessarily doing the correct thing, the strength and power and the grace with which they deal with the emerging problem is something people need to see.