Pilots Flock to Play About Air Disasters

When the first plane crash comes, it’s a relief.

The crash is the only deep breath the audience is able to take in between the chaos and emotion that leaves you nearly stricken in your seat. For a few darkened seconds the tiny theater feels serene. Then the black-and-white slides are projected above the stage to introduce the facts of the next dramatized flight: name, date, number of souls on board, the aviation problem. Chaos erupts again.

The play is Charlie Victor Romeo, the phonetic spelling of CVR, or cockpit voice recorder, and it is a theatrical experience that plays on pilots’ (and passengers’) worst nightmares.

Painstakingly researched and nurtured by directors Bob Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory, Charlie Victor Romeo is more modern Greek tragedy than cheesy docudrama. It uses actual transcripts from cockpit voice recordings obtained from the National Transportation Safety Board and an elaborate sound design to transport the audience into disasters caused by mechanical failure, pilot errors or by circumstances resignedly ascribed as “acts of God.”

Collective Unconscious, which presented the play, discovered an interesting audience mix making the trek to its small Off-Off-Broadway theater. In addition to arty, Lower East Side avant-garde theater types were suits, a few more than you’d expect.

It turns out that the suits belong to aviation professionals, who have shown up in droves to witness a play that captures the emotions in the cockpit aboard doomed flights.

Both Stage and Emotions Bared

With a bare set design consisting of a makeshift cockpit, and actors on stage lit up from beneath as if by flight instruments, Charlie Victor Romeo thrusts you into the world of pilots operating in the most harrowing moments of planes in trouble.

“There’s all sorts of moments in this play where you are sitting there and you realize you can draw parallels to yourself and your life in how you handle a situation or a relationship,” said one of the play’s three directors, Bob Berger, who has been overwhelmed by the audience response.

“It’s one of the reasons why it resonates with not only aviation specialists, who have said they appreciate the honesty and accuracy of the play, but with people who just come to see it. The cockpit is this tiny space where people react and communicate and mis-communicate and things go wrong or go right.”

“I was really skeptical when I first heard about it,” said Peter Yost, a pilot and an editor and writer for AVWeb, one of the largest Web sites catering to aviation specialists. “I was quite impressed by the production. They didn’t try to have this fancy cockpit set up or anything. They just presented the actual transcripts and recreated them with such a realistic and gripping interpretation.”

Black Boxes and Greek Tragedy

The directors researched the project by reading hundreds of accident transcripts from the National Transportation Safety Board and scouring aviation Web sites.

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