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How Khadija Tariyan Helps Bring ‘King Kong’ to Life

Category Broadway

|by Matthew Wexler |

As a member of The King’s Company, this actor pulls double duty eight nights a week

Broadway has never seen anything like it: a 20-foot-tall, 2,000-pound puppet that can steal your heart in one instant and terrify you the next. Now imagine trying to operate it. That’s the task set upon 10 athletic and nimble performers who comprise The King’s Company in the new Broadway musical King Kong. Costumed in black hoodies, they jump, rappel, pull and lift creature designer Sonny Tilders’ towering gorilla to breathtaking effect. Khadija Tariyan is one of two women entrusted to help bring Kong to life – no easy feat, but one that has been one of the most rewarding professional experiences of her life.

Khadija Tariyan is one of 10 actors who maneuver the ‘King Kong’ puppet onstage (Photo: Will O'Hare; Matthew Murphy)

Khadija Tariyan is one of 10 actors who maneuver the ‘King Kong’ puppet onstage (Photo: Will O'Hare; Matthew Murphy)

Ms. Tariyan’s journey is one of female empowerment, not unlike King Kong’s leading lady Ann Darrow (played by Christiani Pitts). Raised in Berlin by Black American artist parents, she draws inspiration from her mother Gayle McKinney Griffith, an original dance member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Resilience and strength (of the mental as well as physical variety) were integral to landing the gig.

“Gavin tested us in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated,” says Ms. Tariyan of her audition for Kong and its aerial movement director, Gavin Robins. “He brought out sticks in the beginning and had us trying to balance them on our heads, and I thought, ‘Oh, God, this might not be for me!’ But he watched and observed how we handled things outside of our comfort zone.” This would become imperative for Mr. Robins to assemble company members that could work as a unit, communicate with the Voodoo operators in a rear-mezzanine soundproof booth who operate Kong’s facial features, and navigate all of the onstage action.

Building off the foundation from the audition, Mr. Robins – along with director/choreographer Drew McOnie – began by rehearsing the entire company, and then divided and conquered to master Kong. Rehearsals always started with a yoga class, followed by exercises to open up peripheral senses to work and breathe as one. They also watched videos of silverback gorillas to understand their gait.

While some of the King’s Company are assigned to a specific position, Ms. Tariyan’s track traverses all over Kong, not to mention her additional role as an ensemble member. The hardest scene (a complicated running sequence through Skull Island) was tackled first. “[Kong] was really out of step, and looked like a puppet moving through space, but they’d film us and have us watch so we could understand that a creature that’s this big, when he moves his fist, there has to be some weight with it. You have to hit the ground in a certain way to make it believable. Or if you lift both of his feet at the same time, then the magic is gone. We’re all dancers as well, so it expedites the process of learning how to move. We felt pretty accomplished, tackling the hardest thing first, but there were many more challenging scenes to come!”

                              The ensemble of ‘King Kong’ on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy) 

Kong’s allure is not all big and bold. There are several instances where the King’s Company separates itself from Kong. Referred to as “meerkat moments,” they connect Kong and the company through breath and thought, allowing the audience to more deeply experience the magnitude of Kong’s impact. Hidden earpieces worn by the onstage actors enable seamless communication between the stage managers, Voodoo Operators, and cast.

A strong sense of focus is required for Ms. Tariyan’s safety as she contributes to Kong’s most powerful movements, such as raising his 200-pound arm, which demands that she climb up Kong’s back and launch off his shoulder for a 20-foot leap of faith. Balance that with quick costume changes, dancing in heels, and a completely different vocabulary of movement, and one can further appreciate the stamina and athleticism needed to perform eight shows per week.

“I have to be very grounded and connected to whom I’m with. I have to use all of myself and all of my skills,” says Ms. Tariyan. “I return to how my mom brought me up as an artist, and how I take care of my spirit and my love for what I do – understanding that the spirit of an artist is most important, and needs to be protected.”

King Kong is playing at The Broadway Theatre. Click here to read more about the show’s history.

Matthew Wexler is a New York City-based culture and lifestyle writer.

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