Soaring High

Tri-City Voice – January 7, 2009

Some of the young actors in Star Struck Theatre’s production of Frank L. Baum’s magical play, “The Wizard of Oz” experience something most people can only dream about – they will learn how to fly! These brave actors will place their trust in the careful hands of several dads and a few other stagehands each time they soar above Ohlone College’s Smith Center stage.

For the Wicked Witch, Glinda, and Dorothy, flying requires a lot more than a wand and big dose of clicking heels. Magical stuff, to be sure, but reality gets a bit more complicated. That’s where ZFX Flying, the global flying effects company, comes in. Two years ago, director Lori Stokes engaged ZFX to manage the flying effects for StarStruck’s production of “Peter Pan,” so she knew just who to call when “The Wizard of Oz” called for flying witches and monkeys. Before the actors are licensed to fly, ZFX Flying Director Stu Cox carefully instructs everyone on proper harnessing and handling. With over 12 years working off-stage and traveling to different sites nearly every week, Cox is well-versed in his craft. Earlier this year, ZFX provided flying effects for live tours of hit Nickelodeon shows “Dora the Explorer” and “Wicked.”

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. Stage flight is a tricky and potentially dangerous business that requires the riggers to have as much finesse and care as the airborne counterparts.

After hours of practice, the flying actors aged from 12 – 16 are ready to soar. It all works as Kimberly Chatterjee, the energetic 16-year old who plays “Wicked Witch of the West” attests. With a big smile and simple eloquence, she says, “it was difficult at first to get comfortable but after a few flying rehearsals, this is a memorable moment!” Chatterjee and others also admitted to some sore muscles and chaffing from the harnesses, but they’re troupers, one and all.

Hey kids, don’t try this at home! These young 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: “The Wizard of Oz.” You’ll surely enjoy their efforts.

Wizard of Oz
Friday, Saturday & Sunday, January 10 – 24
7 p.m. (Sundays 2 p.m.)
Ohlone College Smith Center
43600 Mission Blvd., Fremont
(510) 659-1319

(Sherri Plaza, Alicia Jones, Steve Warga and Mona Shah contributed to this article)