Theatre versus roller coasters: The art and science of controlled falling

A few weeks ago, an actor friend of mine started tweeting lines from a book she was reading.  The tweets were aphorisms, the first reading that ‘technique is a tool; not the whole of art, but a very essential part’. I replied with a line from the book in my hands that morning. ‘The closer you are to the vehicle in front,’ it read, ‘the less you will be able to see beyond it’. My friend’s book was about oil painting, mine was about driving – yet to my Sunday-morning mind, my quote spoke as clearly to the dangers of following fashion as my friend’s did to the importance of learning one’s craft.

We all have mottos and mantras we return to, things we read somewhere that just ‘clicked’ and help us frame our own ideas. Recently, I’ve been I’ve been thinking about how disciplines that seem completely different might relate to each other, and what we can learn about making theatre from fields that seem far removed. For two reasons, I want to talk about roller coasters. Firstly, I’m fascinated by people who create in metal and ink; by engineers, architects and industrial designers. Secondly, I’ve just read a book, Coasters 101: An Engineering Guide to Roller Coaster Design, by Nick Weisenberger, and it’s percolating in my head.

A roller coaster, Weisenberger writes, is a ‘complex three-dimensional puzzle’, ‘a perfect blend of engineering and art’, created in response to a ‘unique set of circumstances’. Much the same could be said of theatre, which too unravels stories in space and in response to the unique alchemy of a text and a group of individuals.

Playing with kinetic energy, roller coasters manipulate gravity, telling stories in motion, oscillating patterns of heightened g-forces that drag the rider into the earth and then gift him the sensation of weightlessness. For the theatremaker, words like gravity and weightlessness are metaphors to understand structure and emotion, suspense ratcheted with words. The engineer, meanwhile, ratchets suspense with actual ratchets.

Roller coasters, like theatre productions, need the audience to pretend that, for the minutes that matter, they are in real danger. As they are strapped into carts that run a thousand times a day, the riders must choose to believe that their lives are at risk; that this time, no-one knows what will happen. Weisenberger calls this ‘controlled falling’, which is as perfect a description of a theatre production as I have ever heard.

Making theatre and roller coasters share similar challenges. There is the question of intent (who is the target audience? Is this to be family-friendly or a high g-force thrill ride?), choosing materials, and pacing. The early stage of a roller coaster involves winching the cart high up to the start line, storing potential energy to be unleashed with the first drop.

Of speed, Weisenberger writes that:

‘Many coaster enthusiasts will tell you that they enjoy the sensation of speed. Actually, humans can’t feel speed; we can only feel or sense acceleration (this is why you can’t feel the rotation of the Earth, or why flying in an aeroplane feels the same as driving at 30mph). Without a reference point, you can’t tell how fast you’re going…thus a roller coaster designer’s main goal is is to produce as many safe accelerations on the body as possible.’

This thought has much to say about pace and revelation in theatre. As the coaster aims to thrill, it takes care to manage the stress it places both on the rider and on the machinery. Too much will break both, just as too much stress on the theatre audience – too many strobe lights, too much unearned bleakness or the sucker-punches of the deus ex machina – will weary rather than excite. As theatremakers, we would be wise to think carefully about when the audience might be ready for the next barrel roll or loop-de-loop of plot.

However, there is a key difference between rides and theatre, a difference that stops me packing up my tools and heading to California to pursue a career at theme parks. The ride operator presses a button and the story unfolds as it must. The physical forces involved dictate that a roller coaster must crush any unexpected variations in temperature or wind or load, rather than embrace them. ‘The circuit,’ Weisenberger writes, must be ‘completed’. The ride must always be the same to always be safe. The same could be said, I suppose, of many West End productions ten years into their cast changes, but theatre generally wants to respond to each new audience. In live performance, safe is deadly.

Theatre, it is so often said, began with stories told around campfires. Roller coasters started in the snow, with ice slides in Russia and the human urge to hurl ourselves down steep banks to feel the motion of being alive. The tools may evolve, from campfires to limelight to LEDs, and from ice slides to wooden coasters to vast, computer-controlled thrill rides, but only to find more exciting ways of turning us through 180 degrees and righting us again: the art and science of controlled falling.

Image via houddiggity.

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