Flying – in cable ready format

by Steve Warga
Tri-City Voice – January 16, 2007

No doubt the ancient Greeks were not the first humans to dream of flying like birds, but they are credited with creating the story of a flight to freedom on wings of waxed feathers crafted by Deadalus, a renowned inventor and adventurer. The story tells of Daedalus warning his son, Icarus, that flying too close to the sun would cause the wax to melt. However, Icarus grew so enthralled with his ability to fly that he forgot the warning, flew too near the sun, and plunged to his death in the sea. actors in Star Struck Theatre’s ambitious production of J.M. Barrie’s enduring play, “Peter Pan,” don’t have to worry about the sun melting their wings if only because they can “fly” without them. However, the actors do place themselves in the hands of several dads and a few other student stagehands each time they soar above Ohlone College’s Smith Center stage.

As far as Peter Pan, the eternal boy, is concerned, flying requires little more than a sprinkle of pixie dust and a big dose of “I believe!” Enchanting stuff, to be sure, but reality gets a bit more complicated off-stage before those giggling kids are dangling and soaring 15 feet or so overhead.

At a recent rehearsal, one enthusiastic dad, Mike Jones, managed to introduce a number of the actors and stagehands in between trying to catch his breath after another flying scene. (Jones son, James, plays the role of John Darling, brother of Wendy and Michael.) Flushed, sweaty and grinning from ear-to-ear, Jones described some of the effort required to manage the rigging provided by ZFX, an international “flying effects” corporation devoted to launching earthbound humans into the sky … well, into the rafters anyway!

Under Pan’s tutelage-and thanks to some elaborate harnessing-the Darling children fly off to Neverland for fun times and pirate fights. But, before Wendy and the boys head for the “second star to the right and straight on till morning,” quite a few men get down to some serious hauling of ropes and pulleys deep in the shadows of stage-left.

Before the actors are licensed to fly, ZFX Flying Directory, “Cap’n” Stu Cox carefully instructs everyone on proper harnessing and handling. With 10 plus years working off-stage, and traveling to different sites nearly every week, Cox is well-versed in his craft. Among many credits, ZFX provided the rigging for a three-year long national tour of “Peter Pan” starring former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby.

After passing Cox’s flight school, the actors climb into a sturdy and elaborate harness that loops over the shoulders, across the torso and through each leg. A completed harness looks like a big ‘H’ atop a ‘V’. It’s all tied into a lightweight block of aluminum in the back that anchors a thick steel roller pin at the top. A thin, but very strong, braided-steel cable is securely attached to the pin. Each cable runs through a pulley mounted overhead; from that pulley, the cables reach across to one or more additional pulleys directly above the operations area off-stage. Before reaching the floor again at the other end, the cables blossom into thick, cushiony ropes that provide both grip and feel for the hard-working stagehands tasked with launching the actors into the air.

It’s the “feel” part that poses the biggest challenge to the riggers. After jumping into the air and hauling down on that rope-end to get the kids airborne, the riggers modulate the up-and-down movement of the actors by balancing their own weight and grip-strength against the tug of the rope. When it comes time for a landing, riggers gradually relax their grip, allowing the rope to slip through the leather gloves they must wear to protect their hands from rope burns. Too much grip means the actor won’t land; too little grip leads to a hard landing and potential injuries.

Once fully practiced, it all works as Kelly Burns, the willowy and engaging 10-year old who plays “Tinkerbell” attests. With a big smile and simple eloquence, she says, “It’s fun!” Indeed it is, for the kids, for the riggers, for the production crew, and most of all, it’s a whole lot of fun for the audience.

Getting to all that fun, though, requires a journey of countless hours, attention and energy. Kids and adults alike, devote long, long days to rehearsals. Along with Jones, dads LJ Simpson and Dan Arana, use vacation time from their jobs to practice their moves and work themselves into shape for a full production.

They’re not alone in this regard. There are many others, like Musical Director and Kaiser surgeon, Nancy Godfrey, who also sacrifice personal leave time to do their part in this elaborate production. As she pounds out the notes on an electric piano, Godfrey bubbles with enthusiasm. Even though she isn’t hoisting Pan into the air, Mom watches carefully every time he leaps skyward or zooms across the stage. After all, it’s her daughter, Juliane, in the green tights, pointed cap and hidden harness swooping overhead.

Director Lori Stokes, who founded Star Struck Theatre 11 years ago, says it’s all worthwhile. “Rights to Peter Pan haven’t been available for the last three years because of the national tour. This is really a big challenge as we’re the first company to do flying scenes at Ohlone College. We’re proud to bring this great, family-oriented play to the Tri-City area.”

After one, 12-hour day of rehearsals, Juliane told her mom she felt the flying sensations all night long. “It was like being in water all day long, then still feeling it afterward!” She and others also admitted to some sore muscles and chaffing from the harnesses, but they’re troupers, one and all, and the show will go on!

Hey kids, don’t try this at home; unless dad’s along to help, that is! Unlike Icarus and his sad demise, these actors are letting their dads and quite a few others pull their strings, so to speak, in a full-tilt production of a timeless classic: Peter Pan. You’ll surely enjoy their efforts.