“It is so forceful, it really takes your breath away,” says director Brian Clowdus. He’s not lying.
The Serenbe Playhouse production of Miss Saigon is set in the secluded hills of Georgia, in a 1,000-acre residential and commercial community called Serenbe, located in Chattahoochee Hill Country. Audiences must find their way to the setting of Saigon’s Dreamland, deep in the woods where a shipping container lies in front of a dirt hill and a small pool of water. Off in the distance is a landing spot for the Huey helicopter once used in the Vietnam War and now flown by actual war veterans for the show.
As day turns to night before audiences’ eyes, Saigon takes shape. A young, angelic Kim emerges from behind the shipping container to enter the movie in her mind—a cinematic take on the production conceived by Clowdus—and marines ride in on trucks as dusk approaches. By the time the show reaches Act II, the chopper rides in from a hidden location, circles overhead and descends—slightly kicking up water and grass with a powerful gust of wind—to land in the distance.
Kim is replaying her personal nightmare: the American evacuation from the U.S. Embassy on April 30, 1975, during the Vietnam War. She looks towards the helicopter, her back to the audience, and watches as it flies away, leaving her behind. As the story goes, her marine lover (and father of her child) was suddenly taken back to America on a military chopper, and she relives the moment he was torn from her.
“I could feel the helicopter before I hear it,” explains Niki Badua, the show’s Kim. “I feel the ground is shaking underneath me, and I [think], ‘Oh my God, it’s coming.’ I see the helicopter and feel the wind.” The first time the helicopter landed, “I turned around and faced to the front,” she says, “and my face was the most genuine reaction. I was crying. I had chills. I’m getting chills thinking about it. It’s just so real. It’s real, so you feel it in all five senses.”
But it took work to get the real thing, and Clowdus (the founder and artistic director of Serenbe) wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I just said it was going to happen, and I had no idea [how],” he explains on Saigon’s opening weekend. “So what do you do? You get on Google. Google Vietnam Helicopters. It's the Huey. How do I rent one? It turns out there’s an Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, the only one in the country that specializes in restoring Vietnam helicopters and using them, 40 minutes from Serenbe in a town called Hampton, GA. I emailed them, pitched the idea, they thought I was crazy. I called them, [and they still] thought I was crazy. I literally drove over there one day, introduced myself and said, ‘I’m really serious. I want to make this happen.’ They’re used to flying helicopters in air shows and movies, but they have never committed to a month-long musical. They’re landing the helicopter over 20 times [throughout the run].”
The Army Aviation Heritage Foundation seemed to become “romanced” by the idea, Clowdus says, but still asked what he would do if they said no. Clowdus said, “I’ll find somebody else. It has to happen.”
The use of the Veitnam copter costs approximately $30,000 for the run of the show ($1,500 each night) on top of the production’s nearly $100,000 show cost. It’s one of the most expensive shows for Serenbe, with their musicals normally averaging $60,000-$70,000 (which includes production elements and actor and orchestra salaries). Their annual budget is just under $1 million for a six-show season.
The company started seven years ago with a $40,000 yearly budget but finished each year in a financial surplus, which has allowed Serenbe to grow at this quicker-than-anticipated rate. Audiences have taken to the playhouse, due to press and buzz about the outdoor, site-specific productions. (The company previously put up Oklahoma! in front of a farmhouse, The Wizard of Oz on a road of yellow bricks and Carousel with a fully functioning fair, among others.) Saigon received so much buzz that it sold six times more presale tickets than last year’s production of Evita.
The helicopter first landed at the company’s black-tie gala in April as a surprise to the Serenbe’s patrons—most of whom donated to the budget to afford the theatrical feat. Watch the first practice landing below.
In terms of logistics, the helicopter flies to Serenbe Playhouse at about 7 o’clock every night for the 8 PM show and presets on a secret location. During the nightmare scene in Act II, Clowdus explains, “the stage manager is on the walkie talkie and says, ‘Everything’s timed perfectly. Crank up. Lift off. Circle. Land. And take off.’ It’s timed with the music, so literally she knows: ‘Helicopter go.’ We don’t put actors in it. We have this cool effect [where it looks as though the marines are running towards the helicopter]. Honestly, when that helicopter comes in—people have seen it multiple times—it’s like nothing else exists. We do fog and light effects, so it looks like they’re getting off of the back of it, and then it takes off and goes home every night.”
However, as cue-to-cue as theatre can be, the production must leave room for error because it is landing a man-made machine from the Vietnam era.
“It takes 30 seconds to lift off, it takes a minute to go,” says Clowdus, “but, again, it’s still a machine. There’s a margin for it taking 10 more seconds if the wind is going that way. So we have a structure, but that’s why it’s important to using the com system with the pilot because the most important thing is making sure it’s gone after the nightmare. I’d rather it land early and stay there, but the main thing is that when it lifts off, [it is to the music]. … But the main thing I’m stressing is safety.”
Clowdus has cleared the use of the helicopter by Actors’ Equity, and the production is in compliance with the city as well as air traffic control. “We’re doing everything on a legal basis, and we’re treating the actors as safe as we are the audience,” he says, so no actors are actually getting on or off the vehicle. “You don’t want to make your audience nervous, and I think having an audience see actors getting on a helicopter that could tear them to pieces is not worth it. You don’t want to do a spectacle thing with the audience sitting there…freaking out.”
Instead, they freak out in a different way. Applause erupts when the helicopter lands and subsequently takes back off. Heads are turning left and right, as theatregoers try to spot the copter in the pitch-black night as it prepares for landing in the scene.
“It has to land 250 feet away from actors and audience,” says Clowdus. “These are amazingly engineered aircraft machines. The men driving them are highly qualified. The only major safety [issue] is kickback from the propellers—like something getting in your eye or flying into you—because the propellers are so forceful, you’ll feel that. So either way, you ensure that will never be an issue.”
Clowdus says it’s the first time Miss Saigon has been done in Georgia, mostly because of the significant amount of Asian-Americans needed to fill out its cast, theatres’ tendencies to hire local talent and the demographics of the area. But, he was also determined in this aspect and launched a video campaign to find his Kim and Engineer. Serenbe Playhouse also hired an outside company to poster Asian-American communities in Atlanta to get the word out on local auditions, and the cast was round out with Asian-American newcomers to Serenbe.
Badua, originally from Hawaii, was 21 years old and on tour with Mamma Mia! when she submitted herself for Serenbe’s Saigon. Though Clowdus says he received an overwhelming amount of submissions (including some from previous Broadway and national tour Kims), Badua—much like Salonga in the original Saigon—was the perfect fit.
The only worry with Saigon is the weather. The helicopter can’t fly in rain, so the spectacle will be lost in a downpour. But, luckily, the heat is on in Atlanta, and thus far, the production has gone off without a hitch. Plus, the Serenbe production would stand on its own without the special flight.
What’s up next for Serenbe and director Clowdus? Well, that remains a secret, although he can say that he’ll be seen onstage next season and that he won’t be doing Into the Woods because, after all, that’s just too easy.