Fight or Flight Theater Company, the group of New York City actors devoted to melding text with trapeze, is taking a swing this summer at a stage version of “Jaws” — yes, that “Jaws” — now called This Is Not J.A.W.S., an antic, hourlong parody of the shark-hunting movie classic playing Monday nights in August at Dixon Place. Co-artistic director John Behlmann and freelance director Wes Grantom shared some company history with me and talked about the goals of the new movement-and-music-filled production.
Maybe you saw my piece about This Is Not J.A.W.S. in TDF Stages magazine. The loose-knit, feel-good experience includes the opportunity to buy a drink special called “Blood in the Water” (vodka and cranberry juice) and hear some ’70s pop tunes around a bonfire before the gore is introduced. Take note: This is not a Harold Pinter play. Get tickets and information here.
Behlmann says it was “mostly happenstance” that This Is Not J.A.W.S. surfaced this summer, on the 40th anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking 1975 film (the movie was re-released in theatres briefly in recent weeks). “There was a point last summer when we were doing the workshop version that someone in the cast misread a date and thought it was the 40th anniversary and we all got really excited that we stumbled into the cultural zeitgeist,” Behlmann said. “But then we realized we were wrong, and that no one cares about the 39th anniversary of anything.”
When Behlmann and his collaborators decided to mount the show this summer, the milestone anniversary was sort of on their minds. “If we didn’t do it now, we’d never do it again,” Behlmann joked. “We’ll be too old and decrepit for the 50th anniversary.”
Wes Grantom (Slant Theatre Project) directs a cast that features Nick Abeel, Behlmann (in the role created by Roy Scheider), Rachel Duvall, Khris Lewin, Daniel Loeser (in the role created by Richard Dreyfuss), Richard Thieriot (in the role created by Robert Shaw) and Emily Walton. (Betsy Hogg steps into Walton’s role for the Aug. 17 performance.) Emily Goforth is the stage manager.
All but one of the cast members lift up off the ground and into low-flying trapezes, onto shifting platforms or inside the sleek fabric of aerial slings. The company does not work with high-flying apparatus like you see at the circus; the action happens four or five feet off the ground, strung up using cables and chains attached to trusses on the ceiling of Dixon Place.
Directing an aerial show requires an entirely different theatrical vocabulary, director Grantom (The Steadfast, The Cloud, Eager to Lose) told me. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to work wearing someone else’s tool belt — the job is the same but the resources at my disposal are wildly different,” he said. “In a regular process, if the stage directions call for simple items like a chair and a desk, it means you have to get a chair and a desk. In our rehearsals, relying on furniture to set the scene is not an option because the scene takes place several feet in the air. You have to find a totally new way to interpret the scene while still making the environment and circumstances clear. I feel really lucky Fight or Flight has invited me to play in their sandbox because it forces me to push my imagination with every scene we stage.”
The script is by John Behlmann and Daniel Loeser. The composer/sound designer is Phil Pickens. The lighting designer is Driscoll Otto. Aerial choreography is by Behlmann, whose work as an actor includes Roundabout Theatre Company’s Significant Other as well as Off-Broadway’s 39 Steps and Broadway’s Journey’s End.
Here’s my broad-ranging chat with Grantom and Behlmann on the history of both Fight or Flight and This Is Not J.A.W.S.
Can you take me to the roots and founding of Fight or Flight Theater Company? You, Eileen Little and Steven Cole Hughes are the founding members?
John Behlmann: Eileen, Steve, and I are the founders, yeah. And Eileen and I are the artistic directors. Fight or Flight has its initial roots in our training at the National Theatre Conservatory, the [now-defunct] MFA program at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts that the three of us attended. As part of our movement curriculum there, we studied low-flying trapeze under Robert Davidson, our head of movement and a pioneer of the form. We all fell in love with it there, as the delightful and unique form of expression that it is, and when we got to New York we wanted to keep doing it. But we were suddenly without the beautiful studio we had in Denver with glorious tall ceilings and plentiful equipment. So we had to start from scratch. We built our own trapezes and slowly acquired gear and started making some small-scale short pieces.
There was already a fairly vibrant aerial community in New York City that has since exploded (we started around 2008 or so), but we didn’t quite fit neatly into the current scene. We were actors, so our initial approach to the whole thing was as actors, not aerialists or dancers. We weren’t so interested in doing difficult tricks as much as we were looking for images that told a compelling story. Plus, we spoke. We used text. Which is still a fairly rare quality. We’d participate in these “aerial dance concerts” where the performers typically execute practiced tricks or routines and the crowd applauds. Then we’d show up doing an eight-minute comedic “Matrix”-style combat deathmatch of two guys on a desert island fighting over the last banana. We weren’t the best aerialists by a long shot, but we were damn sure the biggest crowd pleasers.
After putting together a string of shorter pieces, [Steven Cole Hughes] had the notion to start workshopping ideas he had for a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Then Sonnet Repertory Theatre approached us about co-producing the show, and we were on our way.
Since then, our full-length shows include a trapeze version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, which won several theatre awards in the Raleigh, NC, area; Trapeze Hero!, an original 1980s-era comedy about a town where trapeze has been outlawed; and now this show.
How do you describe the company’s aesthetic?
John Behlmann: Our style is respectful but irreverent; eloquent but accessible; visceral but simple. Theatre with a capital T. We’re storytellers first and foremost. We honor and adore great language, heartfelt poetry and grand artists; but we won’t pass up a good laugh, and we won’t hesitate to cut that weird Shakespeare joke that no one thinks is funny anymore.
Trapeze theatre is many things. The trapezes and other aerial apparatus function like highly adaptable set pieces, and infinitely expressive props. It actively engages audience imagination. By climbing to a new height or attaching equipment a certain way, we are instantly transported to a church, or a boat, or outer space. A trapeze can become a motorcycle, your lover, an instrument of war. The abstract expressiveness of the trapeze is a means of heightening the drama and lyricizing the action or even interior life. Trapezes in our shows often function similarly to songs in a musical. When you can no longer talk, you must sing! Or in our case, you must fly!
Do members meet regularly, or is it a looser “collective” feeling?
John Behlmann: I lead a regular skills/workout/rehearsal/improv session for the company called Ensembullshit.
Whose idea was it to use the film “Jaws” as the jumping off point for the new show?
John Behlmann: The initial show was my idea. In the spring of 2012, I was working at the McCarter Theatre Center on this new John Guare play, which was set on Nantucket in the summer of 1975, and referenced “Jaws” strongly. So our director Sam Buntrock arranged for the company to have a big screen viewing of the movie (complete with concessions) on an enormous screen in their big theatre down there. I was watching this movie for the first time in ages, and it struck me that it would make a brilliant Fight or Flight show. Then it lay in wait in my mind for a couple years, but it would strike out every once to remind me it was there. Finally in 2014, I decided to pull the trigger.
Wes Grantom: John and I hatched the idea for this show last spring  on opening night of a show I had directed for Slant. Apparently, he had already had the idea and when I brought it up we decided to move it forward. John and I are frequently calling each other and pitching new ideas for shows either based on old stories we love or something crazy we just read. We tend to be drawn to things that sound impossible to stage.
John Behlmann: We were offered a residency at a terrific aerial venue in Brooklyn called The Muse, and I leapt at the chance to do a kind of workshop production there. We had been workshopping this adaptation of “Moby-Dick” that Steve had written for a couple years on-and-off, so this aerial/nautical discussion was in full effect. But I knew at the time, that “Moby-Dick” was too big a task to tackle with the time and resources and personnel we had at hand. But “Jaws”… “Jaws” could work.” I’m sure on some level I thought it might be like a more fun way to test a proof of concept for “Moby-Dick.” Sea equals Air, so to speak. But it quickly became clear the show was going to be its own glorious thing.
What were the first steps in building This Is Not J.A.W.S.? That is, did you all watch the movie together and identify potential stage moments?
John Behlmann: The first image that the movie inspired for me back in 2012 was a floating platform. The Orca as a floating platform. The most iconic parts of the film are from the back half of the story, once the three guys set out on the Orca to chase the Shark. That’s all the stuff everyone really, really loves and remembers, and that’s what my mind seized on. I made a bunch of drawings of airborne platforms and had no idea how they would come to be, but I knew they would work. And really I just let it sit there for a while, until we had decided to do the show.
I had a drunken conversation with Wes at a point that really sealed the deal. That was what got him involved. We sat at the bar and spouted what felt like (and surely were) increasingly amazing ideas about how things would go down. Together our two wee minds made one great one.
I watched and rewatched the movie — at first, just by myself, and wrote down a list that I still have in my FoF notebook, of potential aerial moments. We all knew the movie already, so I realize now that everyone essentially watched the movie on their own. We never had a mass viewing.
Wes Grantom: We all watched it independently (many, many times) and came back together to compare notes. And what was kind of great about that is we all brought different ideas to the table when we started rehearsal. Our favorite parts of the movie are all different.
Share a little bit about how you built the hourlong show — did you edit out a lot? Was it once longer than an hour?
John Behlmann: Eventually Dan and I spent a couple afternoons in my apartment stopping and starting our way through the movie and seeing what we needed, what parts of the story we could mash together, do away with, or inflate. We argued over what was essential, we improvised sophomoric jokey scenes, and eventually landed on something. Being the obsessive secretarial member of the group, I typed up our notes and we had a skeleton of a script.
We didn’t really have to cut a ton out of it after that first pass. The movie is a good two hours, but like a lot of movies, there’s a hefty hunk of dialogue-free screen time that we couldn’t sustain in a live show. And I was pretty ruthless in our first pass about what was truly vital for our purposes. That way, when we wanted to take time aerializing a moment, or adding material, we wouldn’t have to worry about cutting somewhere else to make room. We knew we wanted a brisk show, and the length just kind of happened naturally.
Dan and I have known each other for a long while. He was a couple years ahead of me at the NTC in Denver, and he’s someone who was an early FoFer. I believe he has the distinction of being the only guy who has been in all of our major productions (and some of the minor ones). So we’ve worked together closely a lot and found ourselves convulsed with laughing fits in rehearsal many-a-time before. Dan wrote our show Trapeze Hero! that we performed at Ars Nova a couple years ago, which I directed and we were both in. So we worked pretty closely together then to develop that show and shape it into the play it became. The shared history of having made a lot of trapeze theatre together gives us a nice shorthand of aerial vocabulary. We name a lot of our own moves, and we’ll often reference things from an old show, so when we’re throwing around ideas it might sound to an outsider like we’re speaking gibberish.
For This Is Not J.A.W.S., we made the initial pass through the movie together and really set the bone structure. Then we each had moments that kind of naturally become “ours,” where one or the other of us really took the lead. Richard Dreyfuss climbing inside the shark and performing the autopsy was a Dan idea, for example.
How did you arrive at you, Dan Loeser and Richard Thieriot playing the three shark hunters?
John Behlmann: Richard and Dan and I were friends and had worked together on a few things for FoF and it was always clear that the three of us would play the three central characters. Once Wes and the three of us were on board, then we had our core. We knew we could make a show.
You three are sort of uncanny in your “Jaws” character impersonations. Was that all deeply studied — like, over beer?
John Behlmann: We studied a lot of beers. Studied them all the way down into our bellies. But the impersonations are natural. Those characters are so iconic, it’d be hard not to get good at them. Richard is so genius as Quint that his rising tide really lifts all our boats.
Did you all say “spoof” from the beginning?
John Behlmann: We didn’t really start with the idea of “spoof” as a launching point. It’s a terrifying movie, and to remove the eeriness or the shock would be a disservice to the spirit of the story. We knew we always wanted to maintain some of the horror and terror of the original. Without that, there’s nothing to balance the lightness of the comedy. Because we also definitely knew it was a comedy. There’s an inherent element of the absurd in us doing this movie onstage and in the air. Even if we didn’t want it to be funny, an audience wouldn’t be able to help but laugh. So we embraced that. A chunk of our comedy arises from reflecting ourselves against this supremely well-known and masterfully-made piece of pop culture lore. Even if we tried to do the movie exactly as it was made, we’re still completely different actors wearing shoestring-budget costumes while on trapezes… it’s gonna be a little funny. It’s like a five-year-old putting on a business suit and pretending to be your boss.
Will you share a little bit about how you calibrated “tone”?
John Behlmann: Our goal with the tone was mostly about balance. I enjoy the artful tiptoeing along the spectrum of the silly and the scary. Because really, those two poles are so close. Think about those terrible monster movies we’ve all seen, where we spend the first half of the movie scared out of our minds from the dynamic tension, but then when the “monster” appears it’s actually an atrocious rubber mask or bad CGI and we suddenly lose all the sense of horror that’s been building. But the horror might resurface in the next scene, too. And horror movies can be notoriously campy, but still disturbing. One of the things that’s so successful about the film “Jaws” is that you see so little of the actual shark. Mostly, that was borne out of the failures of their mechanical shark, but it ended up working tremendously to their advantage.
Wes Grantom: Though “Jaws” is a one of the most famous monster movies ever made, Spielberg borrows from Hitchcock quite a bit in the shooting of it. It’s more psychological than most monster movies. This makes it a perfect movie to adapt for the stage because it’s not so much about the action sequences and explosions as it is about people and their fear. It’s a parody but it also needs to be scary. To some degree, the audience has to invest in the characters or else when don’t care if they get eaten. But that can’t happen if all we’re making is a send up.
John Behlmann: People really responded to both extremes last year [in the workshop] and we’ve tried to double down on that where we can. We’ve made some changes to push it more into the realm of comedy and tried to up our terror/beauty quotient in other spots. Preserving that balance and walking that line has been important to us throughout. The heft of the terror gives a grounding to the show. If it’s just a nutty re-enactment, then it verges purely into sketch comedy, which we’re less interested in.
Wes Grantom: Balancing the tone is a tricky thing. We want to create a world where the Richard Dreyfuss jokes and moments of terror can live in harmony. That is something we are definitely focusing on this summer.
How did you guys meet?
Wes Grantom: John and I met at a six-week summer theatre camp at the University of Texas between junior and senior year of high school. John played Danny Zuko in Grease and I was Lord Augustus in Lady Windermere’s Fan. We also went to rival high schools and we grew up five minutes from each other. That was in 1998 and we have been friends ever since. We started collaborating shortly after John moved to New York after grad school. I was aware of Fight or Flight but hadn’t seen any of their work until Trapeze Hero!, which they performed at Ars Nova in 2013. I got excited by the challenge of telling stories on the trapeze and John and I began talking about possible projects.
John Behlmann: Wes has a great theatre mind, with a terrific eye for structure and storytelling. He knows how to make cool images, when to push the jokes, when to take it down. All of those creative things directors do. It’s been really crucial having someone outside of the show that we can trust to guide it right.
John, knowing your brilliant work in 39 Steps, I would guess comedy comes easy to you. Yet you’re so natural and sincere in Significant Other. What do you consider your sweet spot as a theatre artist?
John Behlmann: Comedy does come fairly naturally to me, but I think the variety is my sweet spot. I recently invited a director I’ve worked with a lot to This Is Not J.A.W.S. and she knew nothing about my trapeze work. I received an email from her in response saying, “I think you have the most eccentric career of any New York actor I know.” That sounds perfect to me.
What was the major challenge or hurdle for you to conquer with the J.A.W.S. project, either as an actor or as co-conceiver?
John Behlmann: Making the show is the easy part. Or rather, the fun part. The biggest challenge has been producing the thing at the same time. We don’t have a big budget, and I’m responsible for doling it out, and pretty much anything that’s not someone else’s job becomes mine. So coordinating all of that while still being in the show, creating it (and performing another show eight times a week) has been the biggest challenge. But it’s worth all the craziness.
As this is a parody, it would seem to fall into the copyright realm of “fair use” and “commentary,” meaning you can liberally lift some of the iconic script, and perhaps even some of the iconic soundtrack, without getting studios on your back.
John Behlmann: In this second incarnation we’ve really tried to move even farther from the movie. Like any screen-to-stage adaptation, some of the most successful elements last year were those that hewed most closely to the film, but we also stumbled the most when trying to be too faithful. We’re making a stage show, so we really embraced that more this year. There’s not a scene left in our version that hasn’t been fundamentally altered or commented on in a way that separates it from the movie.
Wes Grantom: We couldn’t afford to secure the rights to “Jaws” even if we wanted. Our goal is to create a theatrical homage to the film that stands on its own as a fun evening of theatre that scares you a little and makes you want to re-watch a really terrific movie.
What was your discussion about the use(s) of music in the show?
John Behlmann: Aerial elements and music are longtime lovers. So we knew music would be just as important to us at it is to the film, and our composer and sound designer Phil Pickens has been terrific. As an aerial choreographer, I’ve previously only choreographed to pre-fixed pre-existing tracks. Having a composer was new for me. But for this show, it was more of a collaboration, which I loved. He was really crucial in setting the tone for the more aerialized dance sequences of the show. We’d put together different bits of choreography, show them to Phil, with a discussion of tone, and he’d send us something back. We’ve gone back and forth like that even more this year and settled nicely on what we have now.
Wes Grantom: Phil composed all new music that references the score but doesn’t copy it or lift from the original soundtrack. The fact that John Williams’ score is so famous and brilliant really helps us out. Today if you sing “duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh” people are going to know immediately what movie is being referenced.
The show opens with a beach scene, a bonfire, and kids singing pop tunes and popping beers, setting up the freewheeling world to come. How did that idea come about?
Wes Grantom: We are having a special musical guest each night join the pre-show bonfire jam. The movie starts off by showing a really brief scene of a beach bonfire before the first victim gets eaten. Several members of the cast are musical and love the tunes of 1974 — turns out it was a really great year for music — so we decided a bonfire jam would be a really fun way to kick things off. [Composer/singer-songwriter Phil Pickens appears Aug. 17.]
I laughed a lot, but was also mesmerized by some of the images/moments — particularly the balletic swimming trio, including a kid with an inflatable ring. How did you arrive at that expressionistic moment, and what did you want it to add to an experience that some might call a loose amusement park ride?
John Behlmann: I’m so glad to hear you say that. That kind of thing is exactly what Fight or Flight goes for in our work. Surprising moments of beauty and flashes of powerful imagery against a sea of entertainment. For that moment, we needed to create the feeling of a crowded day at the beach, with everyone having a grand time in the ocean. But we don’t have an ocean, or a beach, or a very large stage, or very many people. So we had to be a little more expressionistic about it. And we’ve gone further with that this year. To give ourselves a more “water-like” feel, we’ve switched up a lot of the aerial apparatus we used last year and tried to go even further with some of those images.
Does that “swimming” trapeze sequence represent a signature moment that Fight of Flight seeks to offer in every show?
John Behlmann: That is a signature moment of sorts. I mean, we’re ultimately an aerial theatre company so we damn well better have some aerial moments. We use a lot of the same vocabulary in our shows, which is informed by the strengths and limitations of our performers. In the process of making a show though, we often stumble into a great idea that might be wrong for what we’re working on at the moment, but will resurface sometimes years later in another show. So the history we have with a lot of our company members helps there.
Wes Grantom: I love that people might be surprised by a moment of true beauty when they thought they were just coming to laugh for an hour.
Did you instantly see from the beginning that “the hunt” sequence on the deck of the Orca — on what looks like a precarious platform the size of a kitchen table — would be a major aerial “set piece” for you guys?
John Behlmann: The hunt set piece started it all. It’s not as precarious as it may seem. We’re pretty comfortable up there, so we have to sell some of the danger. But the way it moves is its own magic, which is partly why it works so well for creating a sense of the ocean.
Is there a rigging specialist in the company who sets or creates the equipment?
John Behlmann: That’s mostly me, but with a lot of consultation. My partner Eileen is terrific about that, and knows a lot of great riggers. So when we were designing the Orca there was a lot of measurements and math sent back and forth to make sure what we wanted to do was safe. Beyond the Orca, and the metal frame we had welded for the shark cage, we’ve built almost all of our equipment ourselves. I spend a lot of time tying and untying knots.
How many trapezes are used in the show, and what’s the best way to characterize each one, for people who may not know aerialist terms?
John Behlmann: Our trapezes are usually single-point trapezes, meaning they hang from a single point in the ceiling. We usually call them “traps” when working. We’ve actually taken away a lot of the trapezes this year and replaced them with other aerial apparatuses. So now there’s really only one trapeze hanging in the show. We still use trapezes as props throughout. To make more water magic, I thought using slings (also called aerial hammocks) would be a good idea. They function similarly to the single-point trapezes we typically use, so the learning curve wasn’t as steep, and they have a great look.
What’s new to the show since last summer’s workshop?
John Behlmann: We have added an audience cast member this year. We’re “electing” a Mayor each night from the house and they’ll play a crucial role in the show.
Share the genesis of the title?
John Behlmann: At one point we toyed with calling it Don’t Go in the Water, but we nixed that because we wanted to more heavily evoke the film. We decided fairly quickly that we wanted to call it This Is Not J.A.W.S., so then we just toyed around with different meanings for the acronym [landing on Just Another White Shark]. I don’t remember the other ones now, but I promise you it was an entertaining and juvenile text chain.
Does Fight or Flight generally work in intimate venues? What’s the largest house you’ve been in?
John Behlmann: We’d love to scale up. We’ve mostly worked at around the 100 to 200-seat mark, but could easily get a bit larger. I think, ideally, we work best in venues with 16-20 feet of ceiling and a lot of room around them to swing. As you might imagine, in New York those are expensive, and rare. Something about the size of BAM’s Fisher space or St. Ann’s Warehouse or the Duke on 42nd Street — with that kind of versatility — is ideal, I think.
What’s the great challenge of directing a FoF show?
Wes Grantom: Space. You can only rehearse or perform in venues with the proper ceiling heights and rigging points. There aren’t that many places that can accommodate the shows we create.
Do you foresee having a regular season with several productions a year, or do you all work one project at a time?
John Behlmann: A regular season sounds great, but I think we’re best off working organically show-to-show. We can plan more steps ahead than we do now, but I think “producing a season” can be a trap for small theatre companies. It’s good to have regular output, but I don’t love the pressure of having to make a show just to have something for your season. I think theatre companies should function like bands. Some bands stay together for a career and play only with each other. Others, you play together, and when it’s time to go into the studio and cut an album you do it. Meanwhile, the artists may go off and play in other bands before coming back to record another album with the original group.
What’s the next show for Fight or Flight after This Is Not J.A.W.S.?
John Behlmann: We’re still developing our production of Moby-Dick. And that’s what we’re most excited about and ready for right now. We’ve got some other things marinating, though.