by Lenise Willis

When we were kids, our parents would scold us for acting senseless and simply “monkeying around” too much, but these actors are doing it professionally and publicly for Theatre Alliance’s production of Tarzan.

“I’ve always loved Disney’s spin on stories, and Tarzan is no exception,” said Theatre Alliance director Jamie Lawson. “Plus, I really enjoyed Phil Collins’ and Genesis’ music in the ’80s, so it was a win-win for me (to produce the show). The music is beautiful.” As a kid, Lawson was an avid Tarzan comic book reader and wanted to uphold the childlike wonder of the story.

To help bring the magic of Disney to the stage, Lawson worked with the designers to create a very cartoon-like set with vibrant colors and lots of green, of course. “Naturally, safety is our first concern,” he said, “since the actors bounce about the platforms (which represent trees) quite a bit. It’s definitely a different experience from your typical musical, and that statement applies for those onstage, as well as those in the audience.”

As one would think, assuming the role of a hairy primate poses some challenges.

“Tarzan is a tough show,” Lawson said. “Portraying animals and established characters is always tricky business; people have expectations that they want met.”

“They’re doing a great job of becoming gorillas, which is not an easy task, with all of the squatting and stooping,” he continued. “And ‘Gorilla’ is a whole new language that we are all trying to learn.”

So what’s it like pretending to be a gorilla?

We asked actress Amber Engel for her insights as she performs as Kala, Tarzan’s wild, adoptive mother.

Y!: What’s it like performing as an ape?

Engel: It is a very different experience for me. Every movement has to be thought through, even if I’m relaxing onstage not in the spotlight. Even the behavior of just sitting quietly is different than it would be if I were human.

Y!: What’s the most challenging part? Are there mental challenges? Physical challenges?

Engel: The most challenging part I think is to never let myself get out of character physically. Never standing completely upright, scampering rather than running. It is much harder than it seems!

Mentally, my challenges are more about apes’ vs. humans’ reactions. As a human, if my husband were dying, my natural reaction would be to try to save him medically. Clearly, apes don’t have first aid. The challenge there is one of imagination. What would an ape do while holding a dying mate?

Physically the role is hard mostly because I’m using different muscles than usual. Staying in a squatted position uses much more thigh strength than I normally use. Putting some of my weight onto the ground via my fists creates stress on my hands that they aren’t used to.

Y!: As an actor, what’s it like getting to play such a unique role””a role that isn’t even human?

Engel: It’s funny. Although she’s an ape, I definitely relate to Kala. Apart from the physical differences, we are very much the same. We are both mothers, which is a love that is universal. We both have husbands, families.

Of course this is the main theme of the show, that we are alike in our hearts regardless of our species. I was touched while doing research to find out that this wasn’t just a cute Disney idea. These animals are beautiful, loving, compassionate and courageous creatures that are very much like us.

Y!: What type of research did you have to do for the role?

Engel: Very different from past research! I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time watching videos of apes on the Internet. I’ve been trying to study their behaviors in a variety of settings: at play, at rest, mothers with their babies, interaction with human children and adults, panic, aggression, etc. Of course there has been a bit of normal research, like reading articles, but the bulk has been watching videos. Some of them are hilarious, some are touching, some are terrifying. It’s a lot to live up to!


Theatre Alliance performs Tarzan at 1047 Northwest Blvd., Winston-Salem, May 8-17. The show is rated PG for mild violence and is suitable for the family. Tickets are $18 ($16 for students and seniors). For tickets or more information visit or call Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006.