The superhero next door: Tampa Bay performer joins historic Marvel Universe Live! show

Posted by Kevin Tall on Fri, Jul 11, 2014 at 8:09 AM

EYE ON THE PRIZE: Riverview High grad Ben Aycrigg rehearses for his role as Cyclops. - FELD ENTERTAINMENT
  • Feld Entertainment
  • EYE ON THE PRIZE: Riverview High grad Ben Aycrigg rehearses for his role as Cyclops.

Starting this Thursday, July 10, families, fans and nerds of all ages can explore and experience a new universe at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Well, not a universe. The Universe. The Marvel Universe, that is, painstakingly brought to life in all its glory and splendor for an entertainment spectacle sure to thrill your inner or actual child.

HIGH-FLYING: A Marvel cast member rehearses an aerial stunt. - FELD ENTERTAINMENT
  • HIGH-FLYING: A Marvel cast member rehearses an aerial stunt.
Marvel Universe Live!, a production from Ellenton-based Feld Entertainment, is kicking off an arena tour in Tampa, and those bearing witness to its birth will be treated to an original story in which more than 25 Marvel characters are brought to life and bound together for one epic quest. The story centers around the Cosmic Cube, an object of ultimate power through which whim becomes reality. Naturally, everyone’s favorite horn-headed Asgardian, Loki, is going to be in the mix. It’s up to the Avengers and a few others to shut down Thor’s villainous brother, doing battle with some of their own nemeses along the way.

As Feld Entertainment — the titan of live performance responsible for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Monster Jam, Nuclear Cowboyz and Disney On Ice — forges new paths for nerd culture with Marvel Universe Live!, they’ve entrusted Tampa Bay native Ben Aycrigg to help guide us along the way. A former Riverview High School football standout, Aycrigg’s own journey took him from leading the Sharks’ defense to leading everyone’s favorite team of mutants, the X-Men. After playing for Northwestern on scholarship, he’s taking on the mantle of Cyclops for the Marvel Live shows. While his football bio said he’d have chosen Batman if given the chance to be a superhero, Big Ben describes that as an uninformed decision.

“That was actually before I knew anything about superheroes,” Aycrigg admits. “Kinda being immersed in this world for Marvel Universe Live!, I’d have to say I’ve become more and more of a fan. Definitely Cyclops is my new favorite hero.”
How does one get into the superhero racket? For Ben Aycrigg, shooting optic blasts followed a transition from college football to horses and swords.

“I started working at Medieval Times and that kind of sparked my interest in stunt work altogether and one thing led to another,” Aycrigg reveals.

Of course, once you land the role of an X-Man, you have to maintain the physique of a comic book character. Tampa’s own hero describes a daily routine that involves rehearsing from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., then an intense two hours at the gym to keep in Cyclops shape. He spends his downtime getting more into the gymnastics side of stunt work, with tricking and parkour. Aycrigg says he finds the rewards to be well worth the intense regimen.

“Working with [stunt] coordinators such as Andy Armstrong [Amazing Spider Man, Thor, Planet of the Apes, Charlie’s Angels, Universal Soldier] and Gary Stearns [Pirates of the Caribbean, Kill Bill, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull] has been such an amazing experience,” Aycrigg elaborates. “I mean, I don’t even need money. Just working with those guys has been awesome.”

HIGH STAKES: Earth's mightiest heroes battle to keep the Cosmic Cube out of Loki's hands. - KEVIN TALL
  • HIGH STAKES: Earth's mightiest heroes battle to keep the Cosmic Cube out of Loki's hands.
Ben says he’d like to pursue film stunts after his time with Marvel Universe Live!. In addition to working with Armstrong and Stearns, whom he accurately terms as “two of the biggest names in the industry,” he’s working on a production with 29-time Emmy award-winning production designer Joe Stewart, who’s done his fair share of big live performances.

As production designer, Stewart is part of the team ultimately responsible for bringing an entire universe to life. And while he’s worked on award shows and done sets for TV series shot in front of studio audiences, the nature of Marvel Universe Live! makes it a new kind of challenge; not only is it a big show that’s live, it also has to tour.

“This is different, this is its own thing,” Stewart says. “This is what’s so exciting about it.”

He describes the set as a geometry, a series of projection surfaces, enabling the environment to be transformative and adaptive. The audience’s attention is focused here or there based on what projectors are switched on or off, including elements that descend into the set to capture the projection as well.

So they’re bringing the Danger Room to the Forum. Awesome.

With such a complex undertaking, many people have helped shape the final product. In fact, Jonathan Vaught, Feld’s VP of ice & stage operations and creative development, estimates that, from start to finish, every moment of the show the Tampa audience will see has been crafted by hands numbering in the hundreds.

STEVE ROGERS RIDES AGAIN: Captain America is one of several characters showing off his motorcycle skills. - KEVIN TALL
  • STEVE ROGERS RIDES AGAIN: Captain America is one of several characters showing off his motorcycle skills.

“The scope and the scale of this is just enormous, and I keep hearing that from every direction,” Vaught shares. “It’s a very complicated, very sophisticated touring production, and I think that’s what’s gonna make it just so cool.”

The hive has been humming for a long time at Feld’s “global production facility” in Ellenton. Vaught estimates the set has been occupied 24/7 in preparation, with groups working in shifts — performers, automation, lighting, video, projection, design workers — polishing every aspect of the production.

“It’s amazing, I was just out on the floor and Aldritch Killian was coming out on the set fully engulfed in flames,” Vaught said. “That’s a day at our office here.”

All of this, plus two years of conceptual work, to create a show that is the first of its kind.

“To see all the elements of this spectacular live show come together has been truly incredible,” said Marvel’s chief creative officer and former editor in chief, Joe Quesada. “The technology utilized in the show is not only going to blow your mind, it is going to take you to a whole new Marvel world like nothing fans have ever seen before.”

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Really good profile, Kevin. I had no idea the Marvel roadshow was coming out of Ellenton! I assumed it was developed in NY or LA and was just stopping here. Aycrigg and company are doing the area proud.

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Posted by Joe Bardi on 07/10/2014 at 10:21 PM
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