‘Robin Hood’ director asks much of his high-flying cast
American Repertory Theater’s charming production of “The Heart of Robin Hood,” written by David Farr and directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson, boasts some of the most physical derring-do of any large-scale show in recent memory, and it’s a vigorous, acrobatic, often hilariously comedic physicality that involves every character. They tumble backward into a pond, slide down and skitter up an enormous sloped “mountain.” They balance atop and flip off of elevated platforms and boughs of the enormous English oak that frames the stage. They climb, spin, swing, and dangle (often upside down) from ropes that descend from the rafters. And the fight scenes suggest real combat, with flips and tosses, stabbings and bludgeonings, the bone-jarring clank of metal swords, and flying kicks that come perilously close to faces and other tender parts. Yet the choreography seldom seems like gratuitous stunts but rather is deftly woven into the very fabric of the action. Not surprising — Gardarsson, cofounder of Iceland’s Vesturport Theatre, is a former national gymnast.
Q. As a former gymnast, the physicality of “Robin Hood” must be in your bones.
A. I guess it is. It’s one of the reasons I went into this business. I remember colleagues in gymnastics a few generations above me spending 15 years of their lives, then having to get a job and life takes over and they kind of swell up in an office somewhere. So I became an actor. I stayed loyal to my gymnastic upbringing, but not everything I do has gymnastics in it. “Robin Hood” benefits from a natural organic merge.
Q. Did you specifically look for opportunities to stoke the action with tumbling skills and acrobatics?
A. Absolutely. Whenever I read a script I’m about to direct or act in, creativity tends to flow in terms of here you use a magic slide or have people flying in on ropes. It quite organically comes to mind in thinking how to solve the world of this particular piece. I always collaborate closely with [associate director/aerial consultant] Selma [Björnsdóttir]. When the dancer and the gymnast meet, everything is possible.
Q. I know some of the action takes tremendous skill, like all the flying kicks and midair side spins. But a lot of it looks like pure fun, especially the 40-foot mountain slide.
A. When we built this ramp, I thought it was too high, too steep, no one’ll dare go down. Me and designer [Börkur Jónsson] spent one Sunday on the set without anyone there and cracked all the elements, so when the actors arrived, I could trick them into believing it wasn’t hard at all. It totally energizes the whole cast. You see someone sliding down and think, “Damn, I want to get on that slide, how fun is that!”
Q. Did some of the actors have to do special training, like for all the aerial work?
A. I always work with good actors and teach them what to do, work with the physical abilities they have and trust they’ll be able to learn the stuff we’re after. So far, it’s been a happy marriage. I’m often asked how I teach circus performers to act, but it’s the other way around. They’re actors learning to do the circus work.
Q. Was there an initial fear factor?
A. Yes, but when I cast them, I have a sincere talk about what I’m asking them to do. Everybody says they’re excellent physical performers, but a lot sit on top of that slide for a long time before taking that first slide and wish they’d been honest about their physical ability. But once you leap off the edge, gravity takes care of the rest, and once you’ve done it and get over the fear, you can’t describe how much fun it is.
Q. The fight scenes have a very robust, believable physicality.
A. I’m a real fascist when it comes to fights in theater. When talking to [fight director] Joe Bostick, I couldn’t emphasize enough the actors have to take the impact, and it has to look super real. It will pay off in how you experience your own character and how audiences perceive it, so I push the boundaries, take the fight direction to a different level.
Q. What about injuries? I know you stepped in opening night because Andy Grotelueschen was nursing a sore knee.
A. I’ve done a lot of physical productions and nobody ever had an injury doing the actual physical stuff onstage. (Grotelueschen hurt his knee during warmup.) We’re so cautious. The ropes are at death-defying heights, and everyone is really aware of that. There’s no rushing. It’s really controlled. And if you’re doing three things at a time, not just the characters’ emotional journey but thinking how do I climb and hold onto the rope so I don’t hurt myself, it can bring out new nuances in the performance.
Q. One of my favorite spots is when Katrina Yaukey as Alice skitters sideways across the mountain from one platform to the other. I literally dropped my jaw. Is there special footing in that one spot?
A. No, if she hesitates, it goes wrong. We had to spend some time on that. There’s no foothold, and it can be wet and slippery, so she has bare feet to get more grip.
Q. What’s at the bottom of the hidey-holes that characters periodically plunge down with such delicious abandon? It seems like a real leap of faith.
A. The first time it is. It’s the height of a man [deep] and you’re going down into darkness. But there is a mat, and on impact you fall and roll out of it. It’s great fun, always a thrill.
Q. How was stepping into the performance last minute?
A. It definitely got my adrenaline flowing. What was good was to feel how cool it was to be in the production. It goes by so quickly. There’s never a minute when you’re not moving onstage or climbing up stairs backstage. I could hardly walk the day after. They should sell tickets to what’s going on backstage!