Black Box Theater of a Different Kind
'Charlie Victor Romeo' Uses Unscripted Drama Of Cockpit Recordings

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 10, 2006

"Charlie Victor Romeo," which could be called the last word in documentary theater, reenacts airplane emergencies by using verbatim transcripts from cockpit voice recorders. The set is a cramped cockpit, the sound design a bone-crunching simulation of engine noise and turbulence.

The planes are going down. You are there.

Co-creator and actor Robert Berger describes the dramatic experience: "In a theater you have a ticket, you have an assigned seat, you have an emergency exit, you have people seating you -- this whole parallel that's used to great effect."

And it's so loud that the Studio Theatre -- now hosting this production by New York's experimental company Collective: Unconscious -- has given the show a 7 p.m. curtain to keep "Charlie Victor Romeo" from blowing out a later show in the complex.

"The thing that we've got here," says Patrick Daniels, 38, who created and directed the piece in 1999 with fellow Manhattanites Berger and Irving Gregory, "is a forensic record that's used as an analysis tool that . . . becomes some really interesting text to work from. That's a unique item."

Berger and Daniels, who both act in the show, are sitting upstairs in the Studio's sun-filled atrium. (Gregory didn't make the trip and therefore isn't listed as a director here, but credit among the three longtime friends is fluid.) The fair-haired Daniels furrows his brow a lot; he has the serious face. Berger, sporting a soul patch, has the serious voice, a growl in Robert Mitchum's register. They are big, serious guys.

And morbid guys? (After all, "Charlie Victor Romeo" -- the title is the phonetic alphabet representation of CVR, cockpit voice recorder -- is drawn from "The Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents," edited by Malcolm Macpherson. Survivors in the selected incidents are few.) Berger and Daniels don't see it that way. They're confident that their show -- depicting six incidents in all -- isn't lurid or exploitative, and the feedback they've had over the years backs them up.

Very early on, the Pentagon came calling and wanted to videotape the performance for training purposes. Berger, 39, recalls the moment proudly, with Daniels filling in details about the negotiation that took place on the Manhattan street outside the tiny theater while the 10 o'clock burlesque act shimmied in.

They hung the Pentagon contract in a theater window.

And then there is testimony from survivors themselves. Wayne and Donna Buxton were on American Airlines Flight 1572, a 1995 Connecticut crash depicted in "Charlie Victor Romeo," and they saw the show last month in Boston. Speaking from their home in western Massachusetts, the Buxtons tell their harrowing story in an occasionally choked rush -- how it was her first time flying. And how, as the plane lost engine power and hydraulic control in the wee hours of a stormy November night and began slamming into trees, he apologized and kissed her goodbye.

"I said, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' " Wayne Buxton, 54, recalls. "I was giving up because there were too many objects we were hitting, and the plane turned sideways in the air."

Donna Buxton, 53, broke down several times watching the show.

"I wasn't sure it was something I wanted to see," she says. "I felt like I was hit by a Mack truck. Actually, I'm glad I went. I would have felt like I was running away from it."

Her husband says, "I never realized the fear the pilot and co-pilot must have had until I saw the play."

Those "true emotions," as Donna Buxton tremblingly puts it, are what Berger and Gregory were after when they first hit on the concept for the show. It seems they were aggravated -- maybe Berger particularly, as he was working for CNN -- at the ersatz "reality" craze that was beginning to take hold in entertainment.

Says Berger: "We were debating whether the rise in the exploitation of sex and violence in the media in reality-based programming is millennialism. That was the conversation we were having."

"Dorks," Daniels kids.

"Crazy conversation, right?" Berger says. "And we find ourselves in this bookstore, and we end up having this idea that day."

The Studio's artistic director, Joy Zinoman, saw the show two years ago in New York and was "blown away" -- and not just by the unscripted text.

"It's the unscripted quality of life , as it's reflected in this piece," Zinoman says.

It's a different assignment for an actor: no character work, no context or back stories -- just emergency and reaction. The cast boned up on technical jargon and cockpit behavior. Daniels was trained in method acting, but he says that he doesn't need it here.

"The trick as a performer," Daniels says, "is always to believe in the situation of whatever the play is. This is for real, so it's easy to believe. The hardest part is learning the lines."

Berger says, "How long does it take to teach an actor what mach speed trim refers to and how it relates to the rudder ratio of the 757? That's where we're at."

Beyond the situational reality and technical vocabulary is the psychological dimension of the verbatim dialogue, which differs from most other sources of documentary theater. The language in "Charlie Victor Romeo" doesn't come from composed letters or considered interviews or even legal testimony. ("All trials are theatrical," Berger points out.) Pilots know that they are being recorded, of course, but they also know that those tapes aren't generally released to the public. The recordings are for investigative purposes only.

Daniels describes the distinction: "The repetition -- you just can't -- I mean, [David] Mamet tries for dialogue, but he doesn't get there because he's writing it, and he definitely is a sort of studied professional as a writer. He's a genius. But it's not like putting a recorder on somebody that doesn't really pay attention to the fact they're being recorded. You can't write that.

"Therefore it's a joy, once you figure out and remember what you're supposed to say -- it's a joy to play it."

As actors, they've been surprised now and then by audience members who knew a person being portrayed and are stunned at the likeness on stage. "You did this perfectly," they have been told. "You're just like him."

The words alone do that?

"Exactly," Berger says.

"It's like a fingerprint," Daniels explains.

Collective: Unconscious ( ) has done the show roughly 300 times in the past six years, making very little money from it. "Charlie Victor Romeo" is not their "Chorus Line," a hit spinning money back to the little theater that could. Nobody gets paid much, and everyone hangs on to day jobs. Daniels works construction, Berger is in robotics.

Their relationship goes back to the day Daniels, having a beer, stuck his head into the theater and got sucked into an improvised serial that Berger was working on. Since then, the company's projects have varied -- Collective is not a strictly documentary outfit. In fact, the nonfiction content of "Charlie Victor Romeo" is less typical of their work than is the tech-intensive staging.

That attracts a breed of actor-technicians, people who come "not because they're into the theater necessarily, but because they're into the gear," Daniels says. "They're a bunch of gear heads. Which is cool."

The sort of actors they're looking for, Berger says, "can re-create the radio chatter on the way to the Death Star in the car."

As they explain the ethos, they flash their matching shoulder tatts, the I Ching's Hexagram 64 tucked inside a gear. Philosophy wrapped in science.

If the obsession with what Berger calls "forensic accuracy" is a special draw for actors in this show, Daniels thinks it's equaled by an inescapable moral responsibility. In Boston, someone likened the show to a memorial.

"We don't like to try to say that, because that's a little forward," Daniels says. "But to have someone else say that, it means a lot to everybody."

And the echoes of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? Collective's answer is that 9/11 was a political act and that these incidents were not. Still, the ethical and emotional components seem to cry out for post-show discussions, so that's what Collective does.

"Always have," Berger declares. "Every performance. Because as we've experienced, you never know when it's going to be somebody's family member who deserves an answer immediately, or whether it's somebody who's actually depicted who we need to be able to stand there and face. And also for our benefit."

"Selfishly," Daniels clarifies, "it's a cool-out. It's intense to do it, and good to talk about it a little bit."

"For the half an hour after 'Charlie Victor Romeo,' " Berger say, "you've got aviation professionals, military, lay people, doctors, people who are airplane geeks and pilots . . . "

Daniels: "And theater people."

Berger: "And theater people, all having this conversation about what they've just experienced. And it's really -- it's awesome. It's a beautiful thing. We're really into it."

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