As audience members make their way to the dance floor at Here Lies Love, they are greeted by people in pink jumpsuits holding light sticks. Though they have been mistaken for ushers or actors in the show, they are audience wranglers, and their job is to keep the spectators hyped up and safe.
“When people see us, I can see them trying to figure out what we are,” says audience wrangler Francesca Manligoy. “There was one time I’m actively spinning the blender [one of the set pieces] and someone was like, ‘Are you an usher? Are you similar to Broadway babysitters?’ This is so far from any of those two things.”
The confusion is understandable because it’s not a common job on Broadway, where shows as immersive as Here Lies Love are rare. There are two ways to experience Here Lies Love — standing on the dance floor or sitting above. The show is structured like a night at a disco, and the audience is encouraged to dance along to the music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim as the story about Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, unfolds all around the Broadway Theatre. Because set pieces (designed by David Korins) shift, the audience wranglers, who were hired specifically for this job, direct the standing room audience to move throughout the show.
At any given performance, there are eight audience wranglers stationed at different spots on the dance floor. Each wrangler knows at least two tracks, or positions, and they alternate between those. Call time is an hour before the house opens, giving them time to get into costume and makeup in the dressing rooms that they share. The makeup team, led by makeup designer Suki Tsujimoto, came up with general glittery looks for the wranglers, and provided them with supplies, but they are responsible for applying their own makeup every night.
Then they run coat check pre-show and head to the floor. “Besides the ushers at the lobby doors, we’re the first presentation of the show that people see,” says head audience wrangler Javan Nelson. People tend to ask questions before the show, especially about where the best place is to stand, or make jokes asking not to be hit with the light sticks. “I’m hearing the same little jokes over and over again,” Manligoy says. “Especially in the previews, people would ask where the best place is to stand to get a good view of Conrad Ricomora [who plays Ninoy Aquino]. I’m like, ‘Honey, he’s going to be everywhere. I promise you.’”
During the show, wranglers keep a close eye on the crowd. They have radios to communicate with security or the house manager if necessary. “Everything that you do is for the safety of others, even if in that moment I have to put my hands on someone’s shoulders and move them. Their safety is first and explaining the situation to them comes after,” says Manligoy. She says it takes confidence to move that many bodies (300 people on the dance floor per performance) and having previous immersive theater experience as a production assistant at Sleep No More helps. “It does take practice because you’re going to get people that don’t move. You’re going to get people that didn’t know what they signed up for, so you really have to step in and feel good at your job,” she says.
The other part of the job is getting the audience excited. “We’re involved in the story a little bit and dancing around, hyping people up, giving them the idea of how they are welcome to respond to what they’re experiencing,” says Nelson. “We’re trying not to pull focus, but also if there’s a moment that they’re trying to amp up the crowd, we’re helping to start that trend.”
Most of the audience wranglers have an acting background, including Manligoy and Nelson. Nelson says in some ways it feels more like a dancing job than an acting one, but Manligoy says they have discussed the dramaturgy of their roles. The theater is called Club Millennium, so they talked about whether it is Imelda’s club and if that makes the wranglers Imelda’s bodyguards or henchmen. “I feel conflicted about that because being Filipino and knowing the history, I don’t want to seem like I’m Team Imelda,” says Manligoy, who feels represented by seeing Filipinos not just onstage, but behind the scenes and in almost every department of Here Lies Love. “What we settled on is we’re embodying the energy that’s going on throughout the show. It’s happy and it’s a party, but at the same time, we’re just going along with the flow.”
The wranglers give the audience members space to have their own reactions, though some want to interact more than others. “I think because you strike up a conversation with someone right at the beginning and because we are there as the hype people and we are supposed to be welcoming, they kind of want to go on the journey with us,” says Nelson. “You sometimes get the feeling of disappointment for that first spin move where we’re encouraging people to really hop on and they’re like, ‘Oh, but I don’t get to hang out here with you? I thought you were going to guide me through this. I was going to get this private tour guide throughout the show.’”
Audience interactions range from the funny — an audience member asking questions about the show while Manligoy was guarding a set piece that opens and closes — to the moving — a priest was in the audience and as Manligoy helped him exit, he told her that he was there when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated. There are also repeat attenders, including one woman approaching 50 shows.
Four months into the show’s run, the wranglers give each audience that comes in the same experience, even after seeing the same show over 100 times. Loving the music helps them maintain that energy night after night. “Getting an excuse to do a little bit of dancing every night is a pretty OK gig for me,” Nelson says.