Let there be flight

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For their 2014 production of Peter Pan, Thespian Troupe 1408 of Edsel Ford High School (Dearborn, Mich.) worked with the flying effects company Vertigo. Photo courtesy of Edsel Ford H.S.

BY GINGER MEURER

MARY POPPINS GLIDES from the sky with her umbrella unfurled. The spirit of Fruma-Sarah haunts Tevye’s nightmares. Willy Wonka ascends in a floating glass elevator. These miracles and more serve to amplify the impact of live theatre.

Some theatre educators may worry that taking on a show requiring theatrical flight will be dangerous, expensive, or too technically advanced for student or volunteer crews to master. Bishop Gorman High School Performing Arts Chair Elena Ferrante-Martin encourages educators to take the leap. “Don’t be afraid, take that risk,” she said.

Last October, Ferrante-Martin, director of Thespian Troupe 4347, introduced flight into an Alice in Wonderland original dance-drama she wrote. She says the results, with Alice tumbling down the iconic rabbit hole, were well worth the risk even though the show didn’t technically demand flight. “It’s not like when you do Peter Pan. You know there’s going to be flying, or don’t do the show,” she said.

It took administration buy-in and budgetary maneuvering to pull off, but audience astonishment made the effort well worth the trouble. “It is an investment,” Ferrante-Martin said. “You just have to give up something else in your budget, because it’s worth it — because it just adds that level of excitement to the piece.”

Bishop Gorman has an advantage some schools might not, considering that theatrical flight expertise was available less than 10 miles away from the Las Vegas Catholic school’s campus at the headquarters for Flying by Foy.

Peter Foy, who founded the company in 1957, had his first foray into flight as a 14-year-old performer in a Christmas pantomime. He helped others fly while working for Kirby’s Flying Ballets in his native London. He came to New York in 1950 to help Jean Arthur fly in the title role of Broadway’s first musical adaptation of Peter Pan, composed by Leonard Bernstein. According to John A. McKinven’s book Stage Flying: 431 B.C. to Modern Times, the then-24-year-old Foy suspended Arthur from a single strand of piano wire and controlled her flight backstage pulling on a rope attached to a lifting drum. He then repeated the feat with Veronica Lake as Peter Pan in 1952, but he wasn’t satisfied with the limits of a single-pulley system.

James S. Hansen, general manager at Flying by Foy, said everything changed when Foy was brought back to Broadway to help Mary Martin fly in Mark Charlap’s 1954 version of Peter Pan. Hansen said that Martin told Foy, “‘I don’t want what we’ve done before. I want to go faster, higher, more spectacular.’ So he essentially created a wholly new system by marrying two systems at a single pendulum point and called it the interrelated pendulum.”

The new system featured two suspension points, each controlled by a separate operator and lifting drum, with the performer suspended between the points. Foy described the interrelated pendulum as a tennis match. Hansen said it requires two operators with strength, stamina, and master-level technical skill. He added that operators on this system engaged in a backstage ballet, occasionally being swept up off their feet like cathedral bell ringers.

Peter Pan became a live television staple on NBC — with Foy flying along. “When the rights became available, everyone and their mother wanted to do Peter Pan in the late ’50s,” Hansen said. “And of course, Foy couldn’t do every show. And he couldn’t put an interrelated pendulum in their hands, because it was a dangerous device. You really had to know what you were doing to operate it. So, he developed the track-on-track system.”

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Thespian Troupe 5134 of Green Valley High School (Henderson, Nev.) performed Disney's Mary Poppins on the 2014 International Thespian Festival main stage. Photo by John Nollendorfs.

The track-on-track system suspends performers from a line running along an overhead track. One operator controls the performer’s up-and-down motion, while another controls the performer’s path along the track. It’s a little like lowering and raising blinds while simultaneously opening and closing curtains.

While the interrelated pendulum could only be used in theatres with high clearance, the new track system could be safely operated in settings with lower ceilings and by operators with limited training, which meant it could bring the possibility of flight to venues everywhere. “That made it possible to do Mary Poppins not only on Broadway but also in Florida, in Indiana, in Arizona — almost anywhere that you have a structure overhead that can support the equipment you can fly,” Hansen said. “That was not possible before 1950, and now it’s everywhere. There’s quite a demand for it. It seems to have no end.”

Flying by Foy is now but one of many companies meeting that demand in contemporary theatrical flight. ZFX, which started in Las Vegas and is now based in Louisville, Ky., is in its 25th year flying performers. Vertigo, headquartered in Cortland, Ill., was launched in 1991.

ZFX General Manager Jason Schumacher says contracting with professional flight companies is about more than just safety — which is paramount — it’s also about experience. “I think we’ve flown more than 6,000 separate shows,” he said. “You figure each of those is running multiple performances and rehearsals. You’re talking tens of thousands of individual flights’ worth of experience. And that experience is irreplaceable in maintaining safety but also in creating the desired effect.”

Schumacher says people who’ve never picked up anyone off the ground before don’t realize how hard it is to communicate to a performer about the proper body positioning to create the illusion of flight as they move in the air. “Ultimately, what we’re doing is a magic trick,” he said. “And that takes skill and experience to pull off without it looking like an experiment in rigging.”

Tracy Nunnally, president and owner of Vertigo and the technical director and head of design and technology at Northern Illinois University, says directors who bring in a professional company are getting more than just the right equipment and the rigging skills to install that equipment. “You’re also getting the benefit of a person who knows how to tell the story in the third dimension,” he said. “You’re getting somebody who knows how to put on a harness, who knows how a ghost floats, who knows how Mary Poppins is supposed to look in the air.”

Does a high school theatre director have to be an expert to take on a show with theatrical flight? “Good golly, no,” Ferrante-Martin said. She admits the idea of Peter, Wendy, Michael, and little 6-year-old John zooming up from their beds into the air was scary at first, but any fears she had were swiftly put to rest. “It is a little daunting when they’re all up in the sky flying back and forth, but they lay out everything,” she said. “Everyone has a specific track line … there’s never a collision, because they help you choreograph it. They help you with that whole process.”

The process begins with a conversation. The biggest secret to incorporating theatrical flight into a program is to start that conversation early. While Ferrante-Martin secured her date with the Flying by Foy team only about a month in advance, she admits she was lucky that a flying director and equipment were available.

Nunnally recommends that schools lock in performance dates at least three months in advance. “If you know you’re going to be doing a show that has flying in it, the sooner the better,” he said. “We’ve had schools call us a year out.”

Schumacher says if directors can do it a year early, that’s ideal. “I would absolutely recommend at least six months,” he said, “not just for the purposes of booking but also to start having conversations with the flying department here and discussing the needs of the show: the technical needs, the creative needs, the desired effects. It’s the biggest advantage I feel you can take, and it costs nothing to start early. We don’t charge people for phone calls.”

That early conversation helps flight directors get information about the location, the story, the budget, and the technical limitations of the venue. Preparing for potential problems in advance can save time on location, too. “We always solve the problem, but a lot of times, solving the problem is at the cost of rehearsal time,” Schumacher said.

Included in the initial conversation is a cost estimate, which typically includes equipment rental and the services of a flight director, who sets up the rigging, fits the performers for harnesses, trains them in flight, and assists with flight choreography. Assuming a director isn’t as fortunate as Ferrante-Martin, who tapped resources nearby, there will be additional expenses to ship the flight rigging system and the travel expenses for the flight director. ZFX, Vertigo, and Flying by Foy do not charge for cost estimates.

Schumacher says flight expenses can vary widely based on show, length of run, type of systems, time of year, and other factors. “That said, a classic flying show like Peter Pan or Mary Poppins with a couple of weeks run and no automation could expect $6,000 to $7,000, including travel and logistics expenses.”

Flying by Foy publishes entry-level prices on its website, citing costs beginning at $3,130 for a one-week run of Peter Pan (with the flying director remaining to help run the show) and $2,915 for a two-week run (if the flying director departs after three days of training). Add to that the expenses for travel and rigging shipping.

Nunnally says educational theatres frequently assume theatrical flight is out of reach. His response is, “Why not get an estimate? It’s free. It doesn’t cost you anything. Get an estimate. Take a look at what we can do. … When they get the figure, they say, ‘That’s it?’ And they’re shocked at how easy it can be.”

That said, Nunnally realizes that flight isn’t for every school. “Some schools, even those close by where I live, won’t broach the topic of flying with their administration, because they know the answer will be no — and an emphatic no. So, they don’t even bring it up.”

Schumacher says his high school alma mater would have been a no. “I don’t think we ever spent more than $500 on any show,” he said. “So, we were never going to fly. There’s no way you can fly a show for $500. But I think a great many programs out there can get the necessary funds together once every few years.”

Hannah Drake is from a school that said yes. She directed Mary Poppins and Peter Pan as head of the theatre program at Harrisburg High School in Illinois. She also directed a flight-filled summer stock production of Tarzan. Vertigo facilitated the flying effects for all three shows. “Yes, it’s a cost, but I think the reward outweighs the cost,” Drake said. “I would tell directors who’ve considered flying but are afraid to make that leap, ‘Call and make contact.’ Yes, it’s a sticker shock, but for most kids, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And it takes your shows to the next level.”

Hansen says keeping theatrical flight affordable has always been part of the mission at Flying by Foy. While the company has flown numerous celebrities, Broadway stars, and rock legends, the staff still makes room in their schedule for high schools, middle schools, and the occasional elementary school. Hansen says they have many popular shows almost down to a paint-by-numbers system and “can do it for a relatively modest sum of money to get the production they want.” Hansen said this accessibility was Foy’s most valuable contribution to theatrical rigging. “Like many other aspects of the American dream, Foy took something that wasn’t available to the masses and made it a reality for them.”

Students practice theatrical flying techniques at a 2014 International Thespian Festival workshop by On the Fly Productions, a Missouri aerial entertainment and flying-effects company. Photo by Cori Johnson.

After the school accepts a quote, a deposit is typically required to secure the date. Then the flight director usually arrives during technical rehearsals. The first day is spent setting the system up and beginning initial flight training.

Nunnally recommends that casts have their lines down before the flying director arrives. “They’re only there for a limited amount of time,” he said. “Use them as much as you can while they’re there. Make sure they know their lines or know their lyrics. It’s really aggravating to deal with a performer who is still on book while we’re trying to teach them how to fly.”

Lines and songs should be learned, but blocking for flight scenes can wait. Schumacher says that, while some directors turn the choreography reins over to their flight director, he prefers to build the choreography as a creative team. “We’re renting flying equipment and sending choreographers,” he said. At SFX, “We don’t have cookie cutter choreography. It’s not something we do. It’s not something as a company philosophy that we embrace at all. Theatre is enjoyable because every performance, every show is a new creation. Our goal is to be part of that creative team, not to be a turnkey solution for the flying.”

Thespian Troupe 6756 of Faith Lutheran High School (Las Vegas, Nev.) performed Peter Pan: The Steampunk Adaptation on the 2013 International Thespian Festival main stage. Photo by R. Bruhn.

 After a few days of choreography and rehearsal, the flight director typically hands the reins over to the cast and crew. “Given the time that we’re able to be on location, it is rare that the flying is performance-ready when we leave,” Schumacher said, “which is fine, because the show isn’t performance ready. But what we want to do is leave everyone at a place where they can continue to safely improve.”

Flying directors may leave the location, but they don’t vanish like vintage magicians. They’re always available for phone consultations. Before flying directors leave, they make sure that safety is ensured. Ferrante-Martin says she’s grateful that flying directors provide “impeccable training — and if you ever have a question, they’re always there to answer.”

“They’re so serious about safety, which I love,” Ferrante-Martin continued. “They ensure the safety of the student in flight and the integrity of the flight team. To be a high school student selected for the flight team is a huge honor. And the kids step up. They do. They super step up.”

Schumacher says the backstage talent is just as impressive as the onstage talent. “Watching a well-choreographed team of manual system operators is almost as much fun as watching the people onstage, sometimes more fun, in my opinion,” he said.

Workshops

Both ZFX and Vertigo host workshops to teach theatrical flight to theatre professionals.

ZFX offers summer workshops that provide an introduction to performer flying specifically geared toward directors and technical directors who plan to produce a performer flying show. For details, visit zfxflying.com.

Vertigo hosts TOP Flight, an annual, multiday workshop affiliated with the North American Association of Flying Effects Directors that trains technicians, operators, and performers on installing flying systems, operating flying equipment, and developing flying choreography. Tracy Nunnally, president and owner of Vertigo, says he’s happy to share industry secrets in the workshop.

“One of the main reasons that I open the door and reveal the secrets of flying is to remove the mysticism and remove the perception of danger,” he said. “You’ll never get completely away from that, because anytime you see a human being levitating, you’ll always think, ‘Oh, my god, they’re in danger.’ It’s just a natural human reaction. A person is statistically safer flying over the stage on a wire than driving to the theatre.” Visit naafed.com/topflight for details.

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