BWW Interview: Tyler Lea's Curious Journey to Broadway
Lea, who recently joined the Tony-award winning production, plays the autistic 15-year-old Christopher. An ingenious set, creative lighting and sound and complex choreography lay bare the sensory overload that Christopher experiences when sights and sounds overwhelm him.
Lea's dance and movement background has come in handy in the role, in which he's called on to walk across walls and do somersaults in slow motion, spun by the coordinated hands of the ensemble.
"The physical part is so challenging and I want to give the play 100 percent six times a week," said Lea, 28. "I try to keep it fresh and find new things to explore. There are still moments of discovery now that may not have clicked in the beginning."
The play, by Simon Stephens, is based on the novel by Mark Haddon and directed by Marianne Elliott. "I related to his story facing obstacles and having to struggle," Lea said. "He's so confident and believes in himself so much, he's taught me to think that way," he said.
"It was overwhelming having to learn this huge part on Broadway," Lea said. "I get to see what it's like to be in Chris' head." At one point Christopher hides in a luggage compartment on a train. He balances precariously on his side as pieces of luggage are carted away. Lea did a lot of side-planks to prepare.
Christopher's take on the world is complex, reflecting his internal struggle to make sense of his reality. "He sees the world simply, as a matter of fact," Lea said. "He demands the truth and sees things scientifically and factual. If there's a puzzle that has a piece missing he has to find that piece to click in the picture so it all makes sense to him."
Curious Incident, which recently celebrated its 500th performance, has two significant puzzles. One involves a dog's death; the other concerns his mother. "There's something about his intelligence," Lea said. "He almost comes across as arrogant through the way he speaks and acts. He wants things to make sense so he's in control of his environment."
Along with his intolerance for conjecture, Christopher has difficulty being touched or making eye contact. He soothes himself by reciting prime numbers.
The play within a play bombards the audience with overstimulation that reflects Christopher's reality. Christopher panics during a frantic scene in the London Underground: Technicolor lights flash, decibel-laden trains overpower and crowds of swaying passengers intrude. "I learned the train sequence in pieces without the sounds or lights at first," Lea said. Christopher is supported on the backs of the ensemble as they move him around the walls.
"It was, foot here, walk up the wall," he said. Before long he learned the part with lights and sound. His adrenalin level spikes every time. "The cues are so tight I still get nervous I'm going to mess up."
Lea uses the adrenalin rush to keep Christopher's antics frenzied. "I try not to calm myself down during that scene because it would be counter-productive," Lea said. "I get into a groove, focus, concentrate and stay in the moment." The choreography is by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, scenic and costume design by Bunny Christie and lighting design by Paule Constable. Finn Ross is video designer, music is by Adrian Sutton, sound design is by Ian Dickinson and hair and wig design by David Brian Brown.
Learning how to navigate public transportation is a big step for Christopher, whose pet rat Toby journeys with him and plays an integral role. It's Christopher's first time away from home.
"It proves how confident he can be no matter how scared he is," Lea said. Lea likens his Broadway debut to the nerve-wracking exhilaration Christopher experiences. "I know what it's like to be looking on the outside so long. It didn't feel real at first," he said of his landing the part.
Audiences have included those on the autism spectrum. "There's been some people of the high end of the spectrum and it's pretty neat to talk to them after a show," Lea said of his stage door encounters. "One time, a 6- or 7-year-old said, 'I'm autistic, too, but I'm able to be touched.' And he touched my arm." Lea said. "That was such a special moment."
Curious Incident has some comedic moments. "Christopher is funny," Lea said. "The humor works; it has to be there. It makes it more human, definitely a comic relief."
Lea's interaction with the trained rat (and puppy) provides aww-inspiring moments. "The rats have their own dressing room," Lea said. The handler has this whole set-up with tubes and they run around the room. They're free-range rats," Lea quipped.
Lea shares some traits with Christopher. "I'm also very particular about things. I don't like it when my schedule is broken up. I can get overwhelmed in loud situations like the subway," he said. "I like to be in my dressing room and have no distraction. I shut out the outside world and take time to focus. When the play is over it feels like a relief," he said. "I made it through the storm!
"For Chris it's like a rock concert. I'm not as exhausted as I used to be mentally and physically in the beginning," Lea said. "By the end of the week I'm pretty sore and a little stiff."
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street.